I live my life as a skeptic, in order to avoid falling for sales pitches that are too good to be true. I use this skill at trade shows, where vendors sometimes stalk me in order to get press coverage for their newest gadget. It’s understandable. But for our readers’ sake, I try to read between the lines when I get pitched a new product for coverage. I am especially careful when I’m approached to discuss digital radio technologies for the fire service, as my field sources complain they often fall short because of the unique, challenging environment in which they work. So when Motorola’s PR guy Steve Gorecki found me at Fire-Rescue International and asked me to test out the new APX7000 XE, I readied for a dog-and-pony show.

Don’t get me wrong. I like Gorecki. He’s a straight-forward guy. And I had been looking forward to checking out the firefighter radio firsthand after talking to the fire personnel involved in its development and beta-testing. In fact, Motorola involved the Sunrise (Fla.) Fire and Rescue Department in every aspect of the radio’s development, from testing out the digital noise-cancellation software to approving ergonomics based on gloved hands and field environments.

Gorecki said my first stop was a digital noise-cancellation test. Two dummies were set up in a glass-encased booth. One was armed with a competitor’s radio and headset and the other with the APX7000 XE and its companion microphone. I donned a set of headsets and an assistant ran me through the drill. First, fireground noise filled my headsets. Then, a voice command was transmitted through a competitor’s radio. The voice was muffled, overcome by background noise. I tried to focus on the voice, but still I could barely make out the instructions.

Next was Motorola’s radio. Again, fireground noise filled my headsets. But this time, the voice command was clearer. The noise cancellation software and two-mic design filtered out interfering noise and faded it into the background, while voice was brought to the forefront. I could hear the instructions through the noise, but by no means was it perfect. I had to concentrate on the voice and listen to it twice to the make sure I understood the commands. But it was a measured improvement on voice intelligibility and volume—and in comparison, leaps-and-bounds better than the competitor’s.

Gorecki walked me around to the other side of the booth to test out the radio’s ergonomics. There was a black box with two radios inside: the competitor’s model in black and the Motorola version in a lime-green casing. He instructed me to choose a pair of firefighter gloves placed on top, while discussing the dark, often blinding environment in which firefighters work. My job was to turn on the radios, change their channels and find and press the emergency button placed at the base of the antenna — all in the blind.

I love a challenge, I thought.

I first wrapped my hand around the APX. It felt secure in my hands because a built-in T-bar design on top kept the radio from slipping through my grip. I next followed Gorecki’s instructions: Turn on the radio and next turn the channel. I did both quickly, noticing that the height of the knobs let me easily grip them with gloved hands. He then instructed me to find and press the emergency button. I scanned my finger down the antenna and pressed the button.

Done, I said.

Gorecki and his buddies razzed me that I did it faster than anyone. But remember, I’m a skeptic and needed to test out the competitor’s radio next. He repeated the instructions, but one by one I fumbled. The knobs were shorter and tough to turn with gloved hands. I couldn’t get a grip on them. In addition, once I found the emergency button, it was hard to push it in completely. I was tempted to take off my gloves to do it, but just gave up.

Gorecki had proven his point. From the size and shape of knobs to the lime-green casing that is more easily viewed in dark environments, this radio was built for the fire personnel. The knobs, buttons and T-bar design make it easier to operate in the blind with gloved hands. And its two-mic design filters out background noise and brings voice to the forefront.

It’s a good start for Motorola. But I hope it is only the beginning, especially when it comes to the noise cancellation software. There is an improvement — but it’s not as great as it could be. So I look forward to testing out future versions from Motorola and its competitors, with a focus on improving noise-cancellation software that can provide clear communications to personnel on the fireground.

What do you think? Tell us in the comment box below.