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How firefighters should carry their radios

The fire officer's lifeline on the fireground is the portable radio, here's how not to break or lose it


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There's been debate about the best place for fire officers to carry their portable radios in the hazard area for as long as there have been portable radios.

Chalk it up as another of the "I think, feel or believe" decisions frequently made in the fire service that then become etched in stone for future generations of firefighters.

So stand by for something a bit refreshing: a data-driven decision on the best location for a fire officer to safely, effectively and efficiently carry the portable radio.

In 2013 the Fairfax County (Va.) Fire and Rescue Department published the results of its study of the issue in its report, "Portable Radio Placement in the IDLH."

The report addressed three critical issues associated with the portable radio location: signal loss, radio ejection (from the typical turnout coat radio pocket) and remote speaker mic melting.

Research methodology
The department's communications section started with contacting radio engineers to determine the signal loss issues. Staff members from that section also reviewed regional and national close-call and "line of duty death" reports as well as other relevant studies and reports.

They also conducted interviews and correspondence with firefighters and officers who encountered problems with their radios on emergency incidents and during training, and they observed users wearing portable radios in different manners.

The group evaluated these reports and studies.

  • GO 2012-061, Portable Radio Use in the IDLH Environment (Study).
  • GO 2009-029, Portable Radio Use in the IDLH Environment (Study).
  • City of Fairfax, Portable Radio Position Testing (Report).
  • NIST, Testing of Portable Radios in the Fire Fighting Environment (Study).
  • Prince William County Department of Fire Rescue, Radio Test Final Report.
  • Close Call of Southern Motel (Report).
  • District of Columbia Fire and EMS, 811 48th Place, Operations Review Committee (Post-incident report).

The results
Carrying the portable radio in the turnout coat pockets has a severe negative impact on radio signal strength. Testing done with Motorola radio engineers found that a firefighter crawling with the radio stored in their turnout pocket produced the most radio signal strength loss.

Firefighters and officers can expect up to a 30-decible signal loss when the radio is carried in the pocket. This effectively reduces the power of a 3-watt radio to 0.01 watts. That's a critical blow to the capability of your lifeline.

Carrying the portable radio in the turnout coat pocket frequently results in the radio being ejected during typical fire scene operations. The researchers looked at Fairfax County's 2010 firefighter survival program and found that the radio pocket had a significant flaw in its ability to retain the almost two-pound radio during emergency procedures or even crawling during zero-visibility searches.

Program participants experienced a 40 percent radio ejection rate during four evolutions. Neighboring Montgomery County (Md.) Fire Rescue Service also trains its personnel in a floor drop evolution and noted a similar 40 percent radio ejection rate among users who carried the radio in their pockets.

Carrying the radio in the turnout coat pocket or a leather shoulder strap configuration outside of the turnout coat can lead to the exposed remote speaker microphone melting. The study team found that the mic is the weakest part of the portable radio.

Best location
Regardless of whether the radio is carried in the pocket or on a strap outside of the coat, when mic melts, the braided wires often get exposed and create an electrical short that places the radio in the open transmission position.

This is a critical safety issue, as an open-mic situation means that no other personnel on the emergency scene are able to transmit or receive during a mayday event. The mic is best protected from thermal insult when worn under the coat.

The best location for the portable radio is on a leather strap, under the user's turnout coat. However, the radio must extended below the bottom of the coat with the antenna canted away from the body. By doing so, the firefighter or officer will do three important things that protect their lifeline.

  • Get the most radio signal strength by eliminating the potential 50 percent signal loss that can occur when the radio is carried in the turnout gear pocket.
  • Prevent loss during emergency scene operations.
  • Protect the mic from thermal insult and subsequent melting.

Some pretty simple recommendations that are based on data, not the old "I think, feel, or believe" decision-making model. So where do you carry your portable radio? And more importantly, where will you carry your radio?

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