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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 6, 2013 at 3:36pm

Bob, for me its easy as I have always worn my radio on a strap under the jacket. However during May Day operations training I have seen countless times good firefighters not be able to get at, or make a May Day call when a radio is in the pocket. Now add the results of this report and the decibel decrease! Well I am sold! I am happy that I don't have to change what I have been doing. It's hard to break old habits.

Comment by Bob Hoscheid on March 6, 2013 at 3:07pm

P.J. & Jonah,

Thanks for your responses.  I understand Jonah's explanation and it makes sense.  How I was reading the article made me assume that the radio was under the coat to provide the thermal and moisture protection they mentioned.  I am just concerned that the radio in a leather holder outside the coat or radio pocket is experiencing more of the hostile environment. I am the only one that wears a radio strap on my department as everyone else uses the radio pockets on the left chest, so I was looking for the best option.  I have worn mine both ways and admit for me it was easier to use the radio in the left chest pocket.  Any other explanations or suggestions would be appreciated. Thanks and Stay Safe.

Comment by P.J. Norwood on March 6, 2013 at 1:52pm

Jonah, thank you for reading and adding to the conversation by your opinion and by providing the San Francisco report! What is your FDIC class? What day and time slot? I would love to sit in on it as I am sure many of those reading that will be attending would enjoy learning from you.

Comment by P.J. Norwood on March 6, 2013 at 1:50pm

Bob, did Jonah answer your question? If not please let me know and we can discuss further. I will say that changing frequencies in any environment with a traditional portable radio while wearing gloves is a challenge. There is new technology/design that makes it easier but it’s still out of reach for many of our budget strapped departments.

 

Comment by P.J. Norwood on March 6, 2013 at 1:47pm

Michael, thank you for reading and adding to the discussion. Without having good open discussion with varying viewpoints we can’t accomplish anything! I know all too well that one report or five reports or studies will not end any controversy in the fire service.

However, I do believe we need to start somewhere and we can’t wait until multiple studies are conducted, reviewed, produced and digested to try to make adjustments to how we do business to keep firefighter's safe. I am anxiously waiting more studies from supporters, the nay sayers, the radio manufactures and everyone in between. That is truly the only way we will ever find out what the best practices are. Until then we have this concise report from Fairfax and the report just posted by Jonah Smith to help keep us safe!

Comment by Jonah Smith on March 6, 2013 at 1:06pm

Bob, the method they are recommended places the radio outside of the coat just below the bottom of it.  If you read carefully, they state the angle is very important with regards to operation of the unit and the signal loss.  Depending on the design of your PPE ensemble this radio placement would not place you under any undo thermal stress by operating the radio.  If you have any further questions on it please email me: cffasecretary@cffa660.org.

Micheal, This is what appears to be an internal report that makes those statements for their personnel.  Of course all of us reading it feel like they are addressing us.  This report is not much different than FDNY putting out flow tests and stating no fog nozzle belongs on an engine company.  I do agree that further research needs to be done, and I agree the methodology of the project should be examined to ensure both reliability and validity.  Also, I invite for you to read the San Francisco Berkley way LODD report here:

http://statter911.com/files/2012/02/Safety-Investigation-133-Berkel...

There are a few mentions of what PJ speaks of in this blog post and it is slowly beginning to start conversations like these all across the country.  In fact, this report was part of the basis of my class to be presented at FDIC this year.  I am so glad to see some places and departments taking this issue head on, because the only way we can call for help when we need it is to call for it over the radio.  If we don't have that, we can't get the help we need. 

Well Done Fairfax!!

Comment by Bob Hoscheid on March 6, 2013 at 8:52am

I believe the studies performed have validity and are another example on how we can make the fire service a safer occupation.  A question that I have raised is: How are you able to change radio channels (if needed) when the radio is under your coat?  Would we have to expose ourselves to the IDLH environment by opening/lifting our coat if we need to switch channels, adjust volume, push an emergency button, etc.?  Any input would be apperciated. Thanks and stay safe.

Comment by Michael Corns on March 5, 2013 at 10:39pm

One more thing I forgot to put in my original comment. I'm in no way attempting to discredit the hard work of The Fairfax County Fire & Rescue Department Communications Section. It takes a first study to spur the other two that validate studies and I applaud them for taking on this important task. I also expect following studies to validate their findings but they are needed before making broad sweeping statements and especially standards on carrying radios. Thank you again brothers of Fairfax County Fire & Rescue.

Comment by Michael Corns on March 5, 2013 at 10:31pm

The study should be repeated by other agencies at least 2 times before issuing statements that the controversy should be put permanently to rest. It's quite easy to even inadvertently manipulate results when a person has already determined in their mind what is the best way to do something. If we're going to use data let's do it the right way and ensure it's empirical in nature. 

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