The Fire Service as we all know it has many debates that we all take part in. Smooth Bore versus combination/fog, PPV or not to PPV, leather helmet or “plastic” you know those timeless debates that seem like they will never go away.
One of those debates that I know occurs in many firehouses is in regards to portable radios. Do you carry them on a strap with a lapel mic over or under your jacket? Do you use the radio pouch on your jacket with or without a lapel mic?
Each and every one of us has our own opinion. Many of those opinions are based on trial and error and on past experience. Some firefighters wear their portable radio a specific way because someone once told them they should. There is one opinion that stands out to me. It stands out to me because it doesn’t make any sense. It stands out to me because these firefighters are compromising their safety and other firefighters around them. When some firefighters are asked why they wear the radio the way they do they simply answer “it’s what I always do” or “it’s comfortable to me this way”. We should never do something just because it’s comfortable. We should never do something based on some one else’s opinion. Especially, when your safety and the safety of those around you may be compromised based on your actions!
During a recent seminar a great Fire Service Leader Battalion Chief Nick Martin was discussing this exact issue as it related to portable radios, gloves, personal “pocket” tools etc. He said “I don’t care why you do something or carry something in a certain place or a specific way. Just know why you do it!” Battalion Chief Martin could not have been more accurate. Each of us has many different ways we store our personal PPE. From gloves, webbing, tools, hoods etc. We all use them in the same manner but we store them it a little different.
I have been one who has always worn my portable radios with a lapel mic on a leather strap under my jacket. I did this to protect it, to keep it dry, to preserve it because I knew I wouldn’t be issued another radio if it became damaged.
This week a good friend sent me a document titled Portable Radio Placement in the IDLH Environment. This well written, concise, factual report is based on research, education and trail and error on both the training ground and fire scenes. This report has been produced by The Fairfax County Fire & Rescue Department Communications Section. They set out to thoroughly research the issue and determine the safest location and best practice for carrying the portable radio during firefighting operations. This report will, or I should say I hope, will end this fire service debate. This document should convince you there is only one way you should wear your portable radio. There should no longer be firefighters wearing their radio the way they think is right or what is comfortable to them. They should begin to wear their radio the safest manner for themselves and every other firefighter’s safety on the fire ground. After reading this report the policy makers of our departments should identify and put in place mechanisms to protect their members while carrying portable radios.
In the report you will find three key reasons why you should wear your radio on a strap, under your jacket with the radio just below the jacket, with the antenna naturally canted away from your body, with the lapel mic wiring completely protected under your jacket until just the mike itself appears out of your jacket at the top in a position to utilize.
The following is taken directly from the report;
Three Critical Reasons why the Radio Pocket is Unsafe
1. Radio Signal Loss
Validated data as a result of testing done with Motorola Radio Engineers concluded that of all the options available to firefighters, the radio pocket produced the most signal loss. Users should expect a 30dB signal loss while crawling, when stored in the pocket, which diminishes the power of a 3-watt radio to 0.01-watts. This is critical, not in the front yard, but when even in lightweight single family dwelling.
2. Portable Radio Ejection
The Firefighter Survival Program conducted in 2010 revealed that the Radio Pocket has a significant flaw in its ability to retain the almost 2-pound radio during emergency procedures or even crawling during zero-visibility searches.
In all four evolutions during the FSP, users experienced a 40% ejection rate. It was only through the validation of repeated Operations personnel going through the evolutions, were we able to trend the significance of the problem.
Montgomery County FRS also trains department personnel in a Floor Drop evolution and noted a similar 40% radio loss rate when wearing the radio in the pocket.
3. Melting of the Remote Speaker Microphone (RSM)
Observed in several close call fires here and across the region, the RSM is the weakest or least protected part of the portable radio, also noted in the NIST report. Whether exposed when wearing it in the pocket or on a strap outside of the coat, when RSM melts, the braided wires often get exposed and short the radio in the open position. "This may result in a loss of functionality for the individual user, or, cause the RSM to short in such a way that the affected radio transmits continuously, creating an open mic situation, therefore jamming all communications on the fire-ground."
This is a Critical Safety issue, as an open mic situation means that no one is able to transmit or receive during a MAYDAY event.
The Radio Speaker Microphone is best protected from Thermal Insult when worn under the coat.
Please don’t take my word for it. Read the associated report here - Portable Radio Placement in the IDLH Public Release
Make an educated decision based on facts. Base your decision not on comfort, or what someone else told you should do. Make your decision based on your own personal education that includes facts, experiences, research, trial and error and science.
You life may depend on your ability to call for help in hostile conditions. Your family depends on you getting help if you need it when you need it. Don’t let the way you wear your portable radio come in between being able to call for help and not being able to make the call for help.