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By John Facella
For the past five years, a group of firefighters, manufacturers, and experts have met across the United States to work on creating a new standard for portable radios. Because National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) 1802, Standard on Two-Way, Portable RF Voice Communications Devices for Use by Emergency Services Personnel in the Hazard Zone, is a new standard, and because a portable radio is a complex device, the effort has required much research into various areas such as easy-to-use ergonomics, voice intelligibility, survival in high-temperature environments, use of various accessories, intrinsic safety ratings, and many other areas. The intent is to define a more physically rugged portable radio designed for the rigors of interior firefighting, hazmat, and wildland operations.
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The impetus for the project came, sadly, when two firefighters died in a residential structural fire in San Francisco, California. Lt. Vincent Perez and Firefighter/Paramedic Anthony Valerio were killed on June 2, 2011, when they became trapped while fighting a fire at a multilevel residence built into a hillside. The subsequent report from the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH)1 indicated that radio communications failures were one of several causes resulting in the firefighters’ deaths. San Francisco (CA) Fire Department (SFFD) Assistant Deputy Chief Jose Velo, who was part of the internal investigation team, stated at the time that it appeared that the cords connecting the portable radios to the remote speaker microphones had burned through2, making it impossible for the trapped firefighters to communicate with incident command.
After this tragedy, and as a result of the internal investigation report, SFFD Chief Joanne Hayes-White became aware that there were no national standards for the radios used by firefighters. She contacted the NFPA and requested it create a new standard for firefighter portable radios used in the hazard zone so that a radio failure would not in the future risk the lives of other firefighters.
NIOSH line-of-duty death reports have often cited radio communications as a factor. In 2014, the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) had done some testing3 of portable radios under elevated temperature conditions of 320°F (160°C). Of the seven radios tested (from different manufacturers), none continued to operate properly after the high-temperature exposure.
In response to Chief Hayes-White’s inquiry, the NFPA created a new committee to address the portable radio survivability, and NFPA 1802 had begun. The project has been led by NFPA staff member David G. Trebisacci and Committee Chairman Robert J. Athanas, a career firefighter with the Fire Department of New York.
The committee consisted of 35 principle members and 24 alternates. The committee members fell into seven major categories: users (firefighters), enforcing authorities, labor, applied research and testing laboratories, manufacturers, special experts, and consumers. Per NFPA rules, no category can be more than 30 percent of the total committee membership, and all decisions on the standard must be made with majority consent of the committee members. Firefighters and enforcers are well represented with participants from departments in Boston, Massachusetts; Carrollton, Texas; the District of Columbia; Fairfax County (VA) Fire and Rescue; Houston, Texas; Jackson County (OR) Fire District; Lebanon (OR) Fire District; Sacramento, California; San Francisco, California; Scottsdale, Arizona; Tulsa, Oklahoma; and the Westmont (IL) Fire Department.
Two smaller fire departments were also represented by committee members. Manufacturers participating included 3M/Scott, Draeger, Grace Industries, Harris, Honeywell, JVCKenwood, MSA, Motorola, and Summit Safety. Other organizations and testing laboratories are represented by APCO, ASTM/Safety Equipment Institute, FirstNet, Intertek, NIOSH, NIST, Underwriters Laboratories (UL), and the U.S. Department of Agriculture Forest Service. Two committee members came from overseas (the United Kingdom and Germany) to participate. It is expected that, once issued, this standard may become a basis for many fire service agencies around the world.
The standard would cover many aspects of portable radios that are unique to the fireground. It also addresses many of the concerns that have been voiced in the reports and from firefighters. The radios and their approved accessories, such as remote-speaker microphones, will have to withstand high-heat conditions of 500°F (260°C) as well as flame impingement. Drop tests will determine ruggedness. Voice intelligibility will be measured, and not just during normal conditions but also directly after high-heat/flame exposure. (It is planned that, in the future, NFPA 1981, Standard on Open-Circuit Self-Contained Breathing Apparatus (SCBA) for Emergency Services, will pick up measuring the intelligibility while wearing an SCBA face mask.)