Reducing the number of devices that firefighters must carry is an important goal, but it may prove challenging to get radio, breathing apparatus and sensor vendors onto the same page; as a result, the answer may need to come from the military.
Integrating communications into the gear that firefighters wear would be helpful to reduce weight carried by firefighters and to possibly alleviate interference concerns, but it is doubtful that such advances will be realized in the near future, according to officials from an Illinois fire department.
“It’s going to be integrated; maybe not in my career, but it’s going to be integrated—your radio, your mask, your sensors,” said John Fahy, fire chief for the city of Elgin, Ill., during an interview with Urgent Communications. “Firefighters carry too much gear with them now.
“So it’s going to be integrated eventually. Today, I’ve got a guy going into a building, and he’s got a 4-gas analyzer, he’s got his radio, he’s got his air mask, and his air mask has a sensor telling him what level his air is. That’s all going to become one someday.”
Input from the Elgin fire department was used byto help the company design its APX Extreme series of portable radios and accessories—a portfolio that is “designed by firefighters for firefighters,” according to Motorola Solutions CTO Paul Steinberg. A similar approach should be used with the development of public-safety communications products in the future, according to Dave Hudik, a lieutenant for the Elgin fire department.
Key inputs from the Elgin fire department were the need for large buttons and knobs for firefighters, who struggle with smaller input interfaces because firefighter gloves “essentially triple the size of our fingers,” Hudik said. In addition, the product-development cycle should include use in real-world environments, such as the testing done on a red-light alert display originally proposed by Motorola Solutions engineers, he said.
“What they thought in the lab would be great, when they did it in real environment testing, turned out to be not so great,” Hudik said during an interview with Urgent Communications. “Yellow was no better. Then they tried white, and that was OK.”
Ideally, such an approach would be taken for each sector of public safety, Hudik said.
“What works for fire may not work for police, and it may not work for EMS,” he said. “That was probably one of the biggest problems before [APX Extreme] came out—everything was police, police, police, cop, cop, cop. It worked sort of well with EMS, because they didn’t have the big gloves and the detriments we have in fire.”
Even within the firefighting community, the needs vary greatly, Hudik said. While features such as big knobs and buttons are critical for “task-level” personnel—those who are trying to extinguish a fire—the command-level personnel typically do not wear gloves and are not moving constantly, so they can benefit more from devices that require greater dexterity and have more functionality, he said.
Some in the firefighting community favor analog equipment instead of digital communications, but Hudik said the type of technology is not an issue for him.
“The technology doesn’t matter to me, if it works, it’s easy to use and doesn’t cause me problems in the end,” Hudik said.
In terms of integrating communications with fire gear, Hudik noted that work is being done to have location-tracking technology included in self-contained-breathing-apparatus (SCBA) packs. But there are challenges to implementing additional integration of communications into such gear, Fahy said.
“I don’t know what the glue is to put them all together,” Fahy said. “How do bring your SCBA manufacturer, your radio manufacturer, your thermal-imaging manufacturer all into the same room to make one device? They may say, ‘But I want to own it.’”
With this in mind, full integration of all communications into gear may come from outside the firefighting community, Fahy said.
“Where’s it going to come from?” he said. “Probably the military. The military is going to start it, because they have all the components.”