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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.

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Comment by P.J. Norwood on March 28, 2013 at 8:55am

Dave, you make some great points and I am happy to know you have taken a close look at this and analyzed the way you carry your radio. Without individuals and departments that do exactly what you have done we will not find out what is right , what is not and ultimately what works the best. Again, I appreciate your feedback and urge you to continue to share and truly look at the “why” we do what we do and what we can do better to keep each other safer.

Comment by Dave Kearney on March 28, 2013 at 8:31am

Motorola (the maker of the radios in the photos) makes holsters and belt loops, but does not make sling style straps.

I also noted reference to being able to disconnect the RSM from the radio if the cord melts. If the users are following the manufacturers directions, the RSM connection should be secured with a set screw that requires tools to disengage and so it should be nearly impossible to do with gloves on. This would also leave that connection exposed which can lead to malfunctions caused by debris and/or water intrusion. When the RSM is not in use this connection is supposed to be closed with a cover supplied with the radio.

I have attempted to carry the radio as described (and shown in the photos) while crawling and found that that it slid around to the front of my body almost dragging on the ground. This was not discussed, let alone recognized, in the report.

And that brings me to another issue that was not addressed: the possibility of entanglement. Entanglement is a much more common cause of injury and death for FF's when compared to the issues that are trying to be overcome by this "study".

Overall I have noticed that with the implementation of these new radio systems, and the influx of money from the big tech companies for lobbying and "educational" efforts, has had the effect of changing the way we in the fire service develop, adopt and implement new technologies. Historically we, in the fire service, have recognized obstacles that need to be overcome and invented ways to overcome them. This is shown in the names of the some of the tools we use today (Halligan, etc).

Now the industry is slowly being taken over by companies that are telling us what we need, and politicians (beholden to their corporate supporters) that enact laws that force us to adopt solutions to issues that were created by the last bill they passed (ie: rebanding, trunking). These companies have infiltrated the very institutions that are meant to protect us (NFPA, IAFC, NFFF, the halls of Congress to name a few) and have quietly forced a new system of change on us while we slept. That is an issue that we need to really address.

Comment by P.J. Norwood on March 27, 2013 at 8:04pm

Dave, thank you for reading, commenting and bringing questions to the table. This is exactly the types on conversations we all need to have nationally and locally to make improvements within our systems.

I shared many of your same concerns, however, I did some back checking on this report to include speaking to the Fire Chief and author of the report. The important thing about this report is that it was an internal section report, which was not intended to be distributed beyond the department and employee group. Because it was neither intended to influence other departments or go beyond those who know the bulk of your questions, the information you are seeking was not included in the report. Their report was specific to their department, radio system, radios, and PPE. Departments with other radios, different systems, or longer coats may not benefit from the suggestion.


My discussion with the author revealed that he did not wear the radio under the coat before the research. He preferred the strap over the coat. The science you seek is in the form of the signal loss associated with the antenna against the body as the consultant indicates. Discussions with other RF experts all support the issue of body mass and RF. The melting of the cord is long known as an issue in fires. See the San Francisco Line of Duty report. The third issue the author identifies is the loss of the radio from the pocket. For those who wear the radio in the pocket, it is not usual to drop the radio while crawling or conducting other fire ground tasks. Their report was able to trend it during a survival program.


At the end of the day, you have to do what you think is right. Take in the results seldom considered when deciding where and how to wear your radio. Know why you are doing what you’re doing. If you have the resources and experts available, challenge the findings for yourself. You may come up with similar results or different results based on how your department operates.


Lastly, most manufacturers do provide straps and pouches. The one issue with radio manufacturers is that they do not control, nor certify your coat pocket, radio system, or strap. They cannot control the other factors beyond the manufacture of their product. They don’t make radio pockets either.

 

1) Doesn't contain the names or qualifications of the authors.

  • · See above to why it was not included. The author is a 20 year captain.

2) Contains report from NIST that contradicts the science behind the conclusions of the report.

  • · The report supports the NIST technical note for what it was intended to study. The author includes two points from the report that illustrate the vulnerability of the cord.

3) Doesn't discuss the equipment used to measure or how calculations were done.

  • · I obtained a procedure report from the radio system consultant that explains in detail the procedure used to determine signal loss for both the fire department study and police study conducted in 2001. The police loss study only tested belt mounted holsters. Ironically, the police loss study was used in an IAFF/IAFC report on radios.

4) Makes generalizations without describing specifics.

  • · I found the report fairly specific, especially after finding the supporting data.

5) Does not describe the system that was being tested.

  • · I believe it is an 800 mhz trunked system.

6) Looking at the photos, it seems that the department is NOT using public safety microphones that may address some of the issues described.

  • · At this moment, there is not a cord available on the market that withstands the heat or melting associated with fires. I believe most are only rated to 140-160F.

“All in all, it strikes me as a document written by someone that wanted to support a specific view that they already held. A true study would have used science to decide the best place to carry a radio and discuss ways to facilitate that.”

 

I can honestly understand your feeling. However, after completing my own research that included speaking to industry experts, the author and the Farifax County Fire Chief. Additionally reading the third party test report I have come to the educated conclusion that this was a great evaluation of the system and a well put together report outlining the results that the entire fire service can use as a learning tool. Additionally remember that actually went the opposite way the author carried his radio so I do not believe the end result was to “support a specific view”.

 

I do agree that additional testing should be completed and I have been in contact with some of those organizations. I have urged all that I have spoken with to do the following; 1. Read the report as you have 2. Share the report within your department and professional network. 3. Speak with your department administration and radio manufactures(s) and/or suppliers and conduct testing of your own. Test the equipment you use that way you use it and all the associated variables. 4. Share the results with the fire service as a whole. Without these four factors you and your department members will not know the "why" behind that way you do what you do.

 

Again, I truly appreciate you taking the time to read and share your thoughts. As this blog exceeds 9,500 views I truly believe many firefighters have now considered the "why" and may have made adjustments to their practices and or are now armed with the “why” they carry their radio the way they do.

 

I hope I answered your questions thoroughly. If there is more information I can provide please let me know. I can contact the author and other experts to obtain any answers I am not familiar with.

 

Sincerely,

 

P.J.

Comment by Dave Kearney on March 27, 2013 at 4:41pm
Another thing just struck me. If the straps are so great, why doesn't the manufacturer of the radio make them? They make every other kind of accessory for those radios.
Comment by Dave Kearney on March 27, 2013 at 4:18pm

Interesting... Few issues with it tough:

 

1) Doesn't contain the names or qualifications of the authors.

2) Contains report from NIST that contracdicts the science behind the conclusions of the report.

3) Doesn't discuss the equipment used to measure or how calcualtions were done.

4) Makes generalizations without describing specifics.

5) Does not describe the system that was being tested.

6) Looking at the photos, it seems that the department is NOT using public safety microphones that may address some of the issues described. 

All in all, it strikes me as a document written by somone that wanted to support a specific view that they allready held. A true study would have used science to decide the best place to carry a radio and discuss ways to facilitate that.

Comment by Jonah Smith on March 11, 2013 at 1:16pm

JD they are recommending it come out of your coat and be secured near the front in the center of your chest.  Currently there is no "silver bullet" based on the failure of radio manufacturers to meet the thermal demand that we have for our cords.

Comment by Dave Werner on March 8, 2013 at 10:03am

Great stuff! I initially wore my radio in a strap just as mentioned in the original post. I found that I wasn't a fan of that method and have since used my radio pocket and a remote microphone with the cord passing from the pocket on the left side of my coat, behind my head, and clipped to my jacket on the right side of my coat. After reading this post, however, I think I have enough reason to go back to using the radio strap. It will take some time to get comfortable with donning the strap and getting it situated in the most effective location, but that's all part of the game. Combat ready doesn't come easy. Thanks for the great post PJ!

Comment by Bob Hoscheid on March 7, 2013 at 8:54am

Thanks for the very valuable input and sharing your experiences guys!  See you at FDIC!

Comment by Lee Jones on March 6, 2013 at 10:17pm

I started wearing my radio under neath my coat after seeing pictures from a NIOSH report where the microphone cable had melted. I know the radio itself will with stand more heat then the cord because of stronger plastic. I also started wearing it under neath due to entanglement reasons, When our department started doing RIT training around 8 years ago we all wore our radio straps on the outside. Every time we tried to do low profile drills and had to remove our pack the Radio strap would get entangled. The radio strap should be long enough for the top of radio to sit below the bottom of your jacket to reach the channel controls. I then feed the mic through the top of jacket or through the snaps depending if you have a zipper or velco and snap. Then I attach it to a Mic keeper. This allows me to grab the mic bring it to my mask then let go and it recoils back to the original spot. 

Comment by Jonah Smith on March 6, 2013 at 8:42pm

Emergency Communications. It is Thursday at 3:30, Room 238-239.  I focus on some of the issues you brought up as well as some little thought about elements of this same puzzle that can be game changers.  I hope to see you there PJ and others.  Thanks for bringing this up, we all need to start some conversation about this topic in our departments.

Bob, the radio is actually the strongest piece of the puzzle.  Yes it isn't good to have it unprotected completely but in a case a sufficient amount of protection is offered.  Also, The temperature difference in the approx 24" from chest (radio pocket) to waist could be enormous.  Also, the radio is normally not the issue when they fail in high heat, it is always the Remote Speaker Microphone (RSM).  I have a picture of a radio that was dropped on the floor at a live fire exercise and was lost until overhaul (Burndown).  The radio still keyed up and worked, the only issue is the battery was melted to the Radio itself, although it didn't look pretty.

As PJ stated in his original post, wear it how you want and how you are comfortable, but have a reason and understand the risks.

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