Non-traditional patrol vehicles are an application especially suited to radio headsets.
Mobile radios have been used in patrol cruisers for about 60 years, but what about patrol applications that use non-traditional vehicles? Communication headsets, invaluable aids to tactical officers on foot (“Advances in Police Tactical Communications,” MRT, May 1998), have applications for specialized vehicles as well. Here’s how three California police agencies, patrolling different geographies in Santa Rosa and San Diego, use headsets for downtown and harbor patrols.
American flyers Four officers are on the Santa Rosa downtown enforcement team, which is designed to increase the visibility of law enforcement. The deployment of this unit varies, but it includes logging time on bicycles, and the bike riders always go in teams.
“In a patrol car, you can call in for backup, but on a bike patrol, you want the other officer right there,” said Ken Kimari, a police officer for the Santa Rosa Police Department.
The bike officers usually ride 10 to 20 miles a day during a 10-hour shift. A lot of pedaling is involved, but a turbo boost on the bikes provides an electrical assist for quick acceleration when climbing hills or parking ramps, for riding against the wind or, at a time of pursuit, to allow the officer to get to the scene less winded.
The bikes allow the officers to patrol areas inaccessible to patrol cars. These include various downtown pedestrian parkways and overpasses, city parks, parking structures and the backs of businesses. The bike officers get through downtown traffic faster than police cars and much faster than foot officers. The bikes not only get into out-of-the-way places, with no motor noise, they get there quietly.
Headsets dovetail with this stealth approach by allowing an officer to communicate with the dispatcher while speaking quietly and receiving messages that no one else can hear. Kimari said the headsets had allowed officers to covertly surprise many people committing crimes. “We’ve utilized these headsets on our bike patrol for our downtown enforcement team for about a year now and have found them to be very effective,” said Kimari.
The headsets, made by RadioMate, Concord, CA, consist of a boom microphone and earpiece connected to the side of a lightweight biker’s helmet. The boom mic’s advantage, Kimari said, is added safety for the officer because he doesn’t have to take his eyes off traffic. Otherwise, he would have to drop his head to the side to speak into a shoulder radio.
The earpieces come in different sizes, molded for different ear shapes. “You get one that’s comfortable for you, so you can wear it without strain all day long,” Kimari said. “The department issues the headsets, and it’s the responsibility of the individual officer to make sure they are maintained, but he keeps his own unit, which has been chosen for his comfort.”
The officer is the only one who can hear the radio. “You can move stealthily and don’t have to give yourself away,” Kimari explained. “This is especially helpful in parking structures where radio echoes tend to give you away. And you can receive confidential information about the suspect without his even being aware.”
The molded earpiece receives sound from a clear, low-visibility waveguide tube. Kimari prefers the molded piece because it allows ambient sounds, like traffic noises, to come through, which is another safety consideration.
The headset cord connects to an interface, about the size of a domino, that can clip wherever the officer wants, onto a belt, shirt or shoulder. This interface plugs into an adapter on a Motorola portable radio. The interface has a PTT button to allow the officer to key the radio. The manufacturer offers an optional PTT handlebar button, but Kimari said that whereas that might be helpful for officers on motorcycles, those on bikes tend to dismount frequently and need to keep all radio controls on their person.
Breaking for lunch can be an inconvenience because if an officer is called back to duty he has to reconnect his radio, put a jacket back on (if it’s cool weather) then go out and unlock the bike.
Despite minor inconveniences, the bike, with the communication headset, is still the quickest and most efficient way to get to many emergency situations, Kimari said.
Baywatch If radio communications can be problematic on bikes, they can be even more challenging on personal watercraft (PWC), also called jet water-skis. The San Diego Police Department uses Kawasaki 1100 STX PWCs to patrol the Mission Bay area.
A PWC rides like a motorcycle over the water, which is great for mobile transportation; but it also sounds like a motorcycle, at least when roaring through the waves. This makes normal radio communications impossible. Even with headsets, there are difficulties. The turbulence experienced when riding one of these watercycles can easily jar a microphone or receiver out of alignment. The radios also tend to get wet, rendering them useless.
Roger Barrett, an officer with the Mission Bay Harbor Patrol Division, solved these problems with ingenuity. When he couldn’t find a headset designed specifically for his needs, he modified a department-issued Setcom headset. For starters, he removed the foam earpad and attached the earpiece permanently to the helmet.
Previously, the Motorola Saber portable radio, connected by wire to the headset, was carried in a jacket or hung on the handlebars of the watercraft, resulting in saltwater damage to the radio. To prevent this, Barrett put the radio in a commercially available waterproof bag, which is kept under the seat or in the dash storage compartment.
“It’s really increased the usefulness of these watercraft,” Barrett said of the headset use. “Before, we could be out enjoying ourselves, and be close to an emergency situation, but not hear a thing or have a clue as to what was going on.”
Now the communication is not only excellent and protected, it is also hands-free. But what happens when the officer has to leave his craft, to either go ashore or aboard another boat?
“When you’re in the elements, you’re always getting sprayed, and we had no place to carry a gun on a wet suit,” Barrett said. So he designed a wet suit with a shoulder holster and Velcro fasteners to keep the gun secure and dry, doing the same for his badge, and a pocket for the radio. So, if the officer has to leave his craft to board another boat, go ashore, or even jump into the water, he can still take the radio and can communicate.
The SDPD boat patrol started in 1985. The PWCs arrived in 1996. (The headsets were put into service in 1998.) PWCs have a dry weight of almost 600 pounds, and they take a bit of skill to navigate. With 120hp, they can move through the water as fast as 60mph. These watercraft are extremely fast and powerful, but they can also maneuver quietly and unnoticed in places where a larger boat could not. Once they make a stealth approach to a location and discover an illegal activity, they can call in larger boats for backup.
“We’ve been involved in boating accidents resulting in death, drunk boating accidents, smuggling-just about everything,” Barrett said. “We also see things happening on land, such as car accidents, which we can call in.”
The field of operations for the SDPD PWCs is not limited to the harbor. Barrett recalled a recent flooding in San Ysidro, south of San Diego, near the border.
“My partner and I used these personal watercraft to patrol the streets that were six feet under, where the larger boats could not go,” he said. “We were able to stop looting and rescue people who were sitting on their rooftops. We enjoyed that.”
Down the coast Just south of Mission Bay, San Diego Harbor Police (SDHP) provides vehicle patrol services, like a municipal police department, in and around the parks and tidelands areas of San Diego Bay. SDHP also has to manage what happens on the water. To further that mission, a PWC team was created in the summer of 1997. Dave Fouser, senior police officer in charge of the Harbor Police Personal Water Craft Team, said that environmental concerns were one reason for creating the team.
“The South San Diego Bay has shallow-water areas, and our big boats, which are basically fire boats, top out at about 30mph and put out a hellacious wake,” Fouser said. The area is environmentally sensitive for species of terns and green turtles. “For environmental purposes, that area, being as shallow as it is and not used [commercially], gets a lot of jet skiers and a lot of water skiers. People try to use that as a recreational park. The speed limit down there is 5mph, and prior to having the Jet Skis we were unable to enforce it.
“Now, having these [PWCs], they’re fast enough that we can chase people down, stop them and advise them” both for education and enforcement, Fouser said. The six-member team consists of four regular duty officers, including Fouser, and two alternates. “We have two Kawasaki 1100 Jet Skis that we’re using. We go out in pairs, and we’re just basically working Fridays through Mondays on the Jet Skis. That’s when the traffic is increasing,” Fouser said.
The PWCs are used more as enforcement tools than as rescue tools. Fouser said a PWC may be suitable for activities like drug interdiction as far as stealth, but it is less than ideal for boarding a boat. “The platform is very unique and very difficult. It’s a hands-on type of machine, and you run into specific problems when you’re trying to pull alongside another boat,” Fouser said. PWCs sit closer to the waterline, which can make it more difficult for an officer to get the drop on someone with his weapon. “I kind of liken it to being a motorcycle officer on the water,” Fouser said.
Like motorcycle officers, the PWC team found safe and efficient communications to be a challenge. The PWC unit first used hand-held portables, which got soaked in the water environment. Not only was this expensive, but the portables were hard to hear and had a limited range. >From the southernmost reaches of the bay, the dispatch centers are nearly 10 miles away.
SDHP’s Shelter Island Harbor Police Communications Center is located at the extreme seaward end of Shelter Island, near the harbor entrance. A secondary dispatch location is situated at San Diego International Airport (Lindbergh Field).
After several experimental tries, the PWC unit, working with RadioMate, devised a system it could use. Rather than a portable, the unit’s radios are the same Motorola radios used in the Harbor Police patrol cruisers, but mounted in a foam-padded, watertight storage compartment under the PWC seat. The radio compartment is also the center of gravity for the craft, which minimizes vibration of the mobile radio when the craft is moving through rough breakers. A radio cable runs to the steering column, where a jack for the RadioMate headsets is located. A thumb-activated PTT switch, located next to the throttle handgrip, allowing an officer to key the radio and control the craft.
“The headsets had to be designed specific to our needs because they had to be water-resistant at least, if not waterproof,” Fouser said. Although an officer may not have to become completely immersed in the water, there is plenty of spray breaking over the bow of the ski. “We come back soaked,” Fouser said. An in-ear earpiece and boom mic attach to a headband. The SDHP officers generally wear police caps, rather than helmets, and a cap fits easily over the band, Fouser said. “Having the earpiece works really well because we can hear all the radio calls. Prior to this, we were missing a lot of calls,” he said, because the radio speaker was being drowned out by ambient noise. Like Barrett, Fouser noted that the privacy afforded by the earpiece gives an officer covert dispatch information in the middle of a water “traffic stop,” such as background information on prior convictions.
“In any application in law enforcement, the most important tool you have is your radio-even more than your weapon,” Fouser said.
The PWCs are clearly marked “harbor police” in large lettering, and the officers all wear uniform-style wetsuits with departmental patches. The signage and radio antenna are the only things distinguishing the police vehicles from pleasure craft, but this can be an advantage.
“A lot of times, when we’re going after someone who’s in violation, that we see skiing back and forth, they don’t realize who we are until we’re right on them,” Fouser said.
The program has been “a learning experience,” Fouser said, requiring the hammering out of proper uniform and procedures details. The headset piece of the PWC team equipment puzzle was put into place in the summer of 1998.
“Our biggest hurdle was the radio communications,’ he said. “We had everything resolved up to that point, until we got hold of RadioMate. They resolved this problem for us, and now we’re fully functional.”
In addition to enforcement, the SDHP PWC team has undergone some limited rescue training, which has been particularly beneficial when combating the effects of El Nino in Southern California, Fouser said. The Tijuana River along the U.S.-Mexico border is subject to flooding, which can cut people off from supplies, which previously had to be airlifted to those stranded by the rising water. PWCs can effectively fill this role in white water rescue, Fouser said, and headsets make that job easier as well. “There again, when you’re in a situation where you have rough water, you can’t just take your hands off the handlebars to key the mic,” he said. “We can be running 60mph and still have communication with our dispatcher.”
Summary Public safety officers continue to face different environments. They must go wherever the felons go and wherever the people they’ve sworn to protect go. Small, personal vehicles help them to get there. Personal, portable communications systems ensure that wherever the pursuit takes them, they don’t go there alone but with real-time support.