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New NFPA radio standard to fix fireground failures

The standard committee is focused on beefing up portable devices, including lapel mics, used in interior fire-attack situations

NFPA committee members are writing a new standard for hand-held radios, remote speaker mics and future voice communication devices expected to operate on the public-safety broadband network to address failures of such devices in high-heat, fireground environments.

Changes currently being debated by committee members will be laid out in NFPA 1802, the Standard on Two-Way, Portable (Hand-Held) Land Mobile Radios for Use by Emergency Services Personnel. The committee is reviewing portable radios reliability after recent structural firefighter fatalities were blamed partly on failings of radios and accessories, said Bob Athanas, chair of the NFPA 1802 committee and an FDNY firefighter.

NFPA 1802 is not intended to cover interoperability and is limited to the LMR’s performance in the firefighting environment. Software and network compatibility will not be in the standard, Athanas said.

“The standard is focused on the interior, structural firefighter facing hazardous environments,” Athanas said.

The committee formed task groups to gather environmental testing data, standard feature sets of radios available on the market and the physical properties of hand-held radios and their accessories. A physical properties subgroup is responsible for the radios ergonomics, such as button and knob size, placement and feel for users with gloved hands.

Improving speaker mics
Remote speaker microphones have been identified as part of the communication system and will be included in the standard. Indeed, RSMs have been mentioned in some NIOSH line of duty deaths’ reports identifying speaker mics as contributing to the user’s inability to communicate. Indeed, task groups found the radio, the cord on the RSMs and the speaker itself all fail at different temperatures.

“While the speaker mic is not necessarily part of the radio, we are finding more and more fire departments are using them and relying on them,” Athanas said. “If those speaker mics fail because of heat and exposure of some kind, it causes the radio to ground out and renders the radio totally useless.”

Manufacturers were asked to provide a list of common features on radios to the committee’s programmable features task group working on defining which programmable features must be included as part of the LMR standard.

“There were few commonalities,” Athanas said. “They all bring a lot but there is not a lot of standardization.”

Anticipating LTE network
The committee is working with industry manufacturers and organizations that serve the fire service to develop improved housing models and streamline radio as well as accessories for structural firefighters.

“The goal is to focus on how to improve the radio to ensure it meets the needs of a firefighting environment,” Athanas said. “Some of the manufacturers have made great strides addressing the needs. But some physical components and the accessories — such as speaker mics — don’t quite meet the needs or expectations of firefighters on the fireground working in extreme environments.”

Because of how quickly technology changes, the committee has been working with FirstNet about including technologies expected to be used on the LTE network, such as smartphones. FirstNet is the governing board for the $7 billion public-safety network. Devices on the network will have to meet NFPA 1802 standards to be used on the fireground and in the hazard zone.

As a result, the final NFPA 1802 standard will include language for any devices developed for the public-safety market designed to be used in the hazard zone, said Bruce Varner, a committee member. If standard changes are approved, public-safety radios, accessories and devices expected to eventually operate on the FirstNet public-safety network will have to meet ruggedized, intrinsically safe standards.

“The standard changes will cause the industry to take a look at their commercial products and adapt them for the public-safety market,” Varner said.

Varner said while many firefighters working the field protect personal smartphones inside pockets of turnout gear, they often work in fire environments with peaks of 1,500 degrees Fahrenheit. So he expects the ruggedized standards to mirror the requirements for PASS devices.

Fire-rated smartphones
Smartphones designed to operate in the fireground environment will have to operate in temperatures of 500 degrees for 5 minutes and survive heat- and flame-exposure, tumble, water-submersion, dust and particulates tests.

In addition, a device must be operable with a gloved hand and be scratch-resistance.

“It will change how products are assembled, and the technology will change,” Varner said. “We will end up with improved products for the public-safety market.”

NFPA committee members also are educating manufacturers about the timeline of the standard process. Athanas said it will take some time to finish writing the standards, which includes a five-year revision cycle. Manufacturers then will have to develop the new technologies and bring them to market.

“We are conscious of manufacturers working on FirstNet and the amount of time it takes to formulate a workable NFPA standard,” Athanas said. “We are afraid if we write standards for hand-held, portable radios used in a structural firefighting environment today, that by the time that standard is put together and the manufacturers build a radio to comply, it will be history with advancements in technology.”

Athanas said the committee is trying to be all encompassing and keep everyone involved by looking at future technologies and applications.

“We are leaving the door open so that as [FirstNet] progresses and they determine the products to be used, we don’t end up where we are today because they are not ruggedized,” he said.