Improving Fire Radio Standards

ESO Staff

In such a potentially life-threatening line of work like firefighting, reliable communication is one of the top concerns in keeping all team members safe, in addition to preserving property and lives of the community. Firefighters rely heavily on their radios to keep incident command properly informed, and to reach out for help if any serious trouble is encountered.  

Surprisingly, there has been, up until now, little real regulation and standardization of firefighting radios; while manufacturers work hard to provide high-quality, rugged devices, there have been no across-the-board regulations and requirements for all radios used by fire agencies. Today, however, members of the U.S. firefighting community and the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) are working to change that. 

Sadly, it took the death of two firefighters to spur this focus on the need for increased and widespread standards for firefighting radios. While the failure of communication equipment is often listed as one of the causes of line-of-duty deaths, this particular deadly residential fire in San Francisco was the tipping point to motivate action.  

San Francisco Fire Department Lt. Vincent Perez and Firefighter/Paramedic Anthony Valerio were killed on June 2, 2011, after becoming trapped in a multilevel residence built into a hillside. The subsequent reports and internal investigations revealed that the cords connecting the portable radios to the remote speaker microphones had burned through, making it impossible for the trapped firefighters to communicate with incident command. As a result of these reports – and upon learning of the lack of standardized regulations for firefighting communication devices – SFFD Chief Joanne Hayes-White contacted the NFPA and requested immediate action to be taken to create standards that might help save the future lives of other fire fighters. 

Subsequently, the NFPA formed a committee comprised of fire agency representatives from around the nation, from both large and small cities, as well as two representatives from the UK and Germany, to develop “NFPA 1802, Standard on Two-Way, Portable RF Voice Communications Devices for Use by Emergency Services Personnel in the Hazard Zone.” This new standard is intended to define a more physically rugged portable radio that can better withstand the extreme conditions of interior firefighting, hazmat, and wildland operations. As pointed out in a recent issue of Fire Engineering, this is no small order, as the new standard will have to take into account numerous on-the-fire field necessities, such as: 

  • Radios and all connectors/wires must be able to withstand high-heat conditions of 500°F (260°C) as well as be flame impingement 
  • Radios must be extremely rugged, and withstand drop tests during manufacturing 
  • Voice intelligibility is key, and must be tested in hazardous environments, as well as with SCBA devices 
  • Ergonomics should be considered, such as the ability to operate while wearing large gloves or a turnout coat 
  • Radios must be able to run self-tests to ensure functionality, at both start up and occasionally during operation 
  • Options for different modes of use, like routine use versus hazard use 
  • Ability to use with other vendors’ radios that are also compliant with the new standard 

Additionally, the committee is realizing the need for an independent testing laboratory to help ensure manufacturers are indeed meeting the new standards for use and R&D. In response to the move in this direction, several manufacturers have already begun working to improving their radios, including several that now offer remote speaker microphones that meet elevated temperature ranges, in some cases up to 500°F (260°C). 

The NFPA committee is currently working towards a release date of 2020 for the new standard, and is asking for interested parties – especially firefighters and hazmat technicians – to review the current draft and provide feedback. Public comment is open to anyone until January 3, 2019. You do not need to be an NFPA member to provide feedback. 

By ensuring that clear and reliable communication is always present in the most dangerous situations, the community of firefighters is helping protect countless lives and thousands of dollars worth of property in the years to come. By putting the work in today to consider all options and requirements, the end result will be more standardized and safer work environments for all firefighters. 

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