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3 effective ways to boost firefighter safety

Communication on the fireground is made easier and safer with a personal public address system integrated into an incident command center

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The XL Extreme 400P is NFPA compliant and has Wi-Fi and LTE cell-signal connectivity so firefighters and their SCBA can communicate information to incident commanders.


Give firefighters a faster, simpler way to talk to each other. Use technology to better manage incident scenes. Deliver real-time health data to commanders.

All three of these tactics can help fire departments grapple with the risks of fighting fires, protecting property and rescuing endangered citizens.


Jason Burt shares a story about a simple change to the radio that takes a little friction out of the working lives of firefighters. Burt was never a firefighter, but he appreciates the importance of their jobs. He’s senior manager for sales engineering with L3Harris, which builds rugged handheld radios for firefighters. “We spent about three years visiting various fire departments, listening to their needs, trying to understand what they’re trying to do,” Burt recalled.

One thing he noticed during his research was that firefighters wearing SCBA masks had a hard time communicating with each other on a loud fire scene. “When you’re wearing an SCBA mask, your ears are exposed but the mask is really muffling a lot of your voice,” he noted. He observed firefighters tapping each other on the shoulder and leaning in closely to try to make each other heard. People in the middle of fighting a fire need a much easier way to talk while wearing a mask.

The product team at L3Harris came up with a simple to use solution: adding a toggling capability to the XL Extreme 400P radio that turns each device into a public address system called XLPA, or XL Public Address, which has three core components:

  • A Bluetooth-enabled microphone inside an SCBA mask.
  • An Extreme Speaker Microphone (ESM) connected to an XL Extreme 400P.
  • A programmable toggle added to the XL Extreme that turns on the XLPA function.

“We can already tether those SCBA masks to our XL Extreme 400P via Bluetooth so that when they communicate using the push-to-talk (PTT) on the radio, it pulls in mask audio and pushes that out over the system.”

What happens on the fireground scene when firefighters need to communicate with each other in close proximity but not using the radio?

“The same Bluetooth function can be used even when the user isn’t pressing the PTT button. That in-mask audio can be routed to my own ESM so that my teammates can hear me without having to yell at them,” Burt said.



SCBA masks are tethered to the XL Extreme 400P via Bluetooth so when firefighters communicate using the push-to-talk (PTT) on the radio it broadcasts audio from the mask.


The XL Extreme 400P firefighter radios include extreme-temperature sensors and alerts for low batteries. They can also tether to SCBA equipment that may alert when tanks are running out of oxygen. These alerts can help firefighters in action, but they’re even better when that data can be communicated back to incident commanders.

A commander with a dozen firefighters on scene needs a way to make sense of all the data signals. That’s where a modern incident command center like L3Harris’s Two47 Incident Command comes in.

“There’s usually a check-in process,” Burt said. Each firefighter uses their radio to tell their incident commander they’re ready for action and waiting for instructions. The command center software automatically identifies each firefighter checking in.

“Once they’ve done that, those automated alerts don’t require any firefighter intervention,” Burt said. All the sensors are programmable to automatically send alerts once certain thresholds get crossed.

“Firefighters are focused on what they need to do to resolve an incident,” he added. If they’re handling a hose or wielding an ax, they have no hands free to report problems via their radios. The incident command center software monitors all the radio data in real time, helping managers ensure they know the primary risks the firefighters face.

Advanced radios like the XL Extreme 400P are NFPA compliant and have Wi-Fi and LTE cell-signal connectivity. They can link up with thermal cameras to send even more data to the incident command center.

“You can think of the radio as a hotspot on your hip,” Burt said. These “converged” radios can work much like the mobile hotspots built into today’s smartphones. If they have a strong cell signal, they can transmit data to any internet-connected device.


It’s quite a workout: Firefighters load up with a hundred pounds of gear, climb stairs, lift heavy debris and endure suffocating heat. “Firefighters may walk out of that condition feeling fine,” Burt said, only to start feeling the effects a day or two later. And a few may pay the price of overexertion with sudden cardiac events, which claimed 36 firefighter lives in 2022.

Athletes and other active people use smartwatches and other wearable devices every day, tracking data on heart rate and dozens more measures of wellbeing. Though it’s difficult to assess whether biometrics could prevent sudden cardiac events, the promise of this technology is worth exploring.

“We’ve got the path between the firefighter and the commander solved,” Burt said. The challenge now is finding ways to communicate more health data back to managers monitoring an incident scene.

“What’s the right form factor for a device on the firefighter to monitor that health and safety?” Burt asked. “We’re looking for partners to figure that out.”

One of the reasons L3Harris established the Mission Critical Alliance was to provide avenues for cross-industry collaboration in solving these types of questions and deliver real solutions to our first responders. The Alliance provides a comprehensive array of end-to-end, open standards-based technologies, expanding the options for users in terms of vendors and products.

Burt notes that L3Harris would be happy to share its protocols with wearable-device manufacturers and develop workable biometrics for firefighters. Of course, anything they come up with would have to pass muster with some of the toughest customers on the planet.

“I think if you asked any firefighter to pull back from doing their job, they’re probably not going to do it,” Burt said. “But if we give eyes and ears to commanders to see the stress on their personnel, then maybe they can make those decisions more effectively from their vantage point.”

See the XL Extreme 400P XLPA in action at FDIC 2024, Booth 5165.

Visit L3Harris for more information.

Tom Mangan is a technology writer who has worked with top brands across the state and local government sector. He spent more than two decades as a newspaper editor before switching to technology writing.