Firefighters from the 23rd Civil Engineer Squadron signal for a radio check prior to advancing on a fire during nighttime, live-fire training January 10, 2017, at Moody Air Force Base in Georgia. (Photo courtesy of U.S. Air Force Staff Sgt. Ryan Callaghan.)
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.
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.)
Ergonomics are required such that controls can be activated by large, gloved hands, and the configuration of the controls is being standardized. The remote speaker microphone will have some control functions available without having to go to the radio, which improves safety for those firefighters who wear the radio under their turnout coat. Voice annunciation of certain control changes will be required. The radio will self-test on its initial turn-on as well as periodically during use, and it will alarm if certain failures are detected including those related to temperature. Multiple modes of operation are required including when in the hazard zone and when using the radio routinely (for inspections and administration). The radios will allow the remote speaker microphones to use a wired or wireless connection; the wired connection will have a standardized rugged connector to allow users to use other manufacturer’s NFPA 1802-certified remote speaker microphones.
Also important is that an independent testing laboratory must be able to test and certify the standard’s major requirements so fire service agencies can be ensured that products that claim to meet the standard do in fact meet it. Several rigorous test methods are included in the standard so manufacturers and testing laboratories ensure that they meet the requirements. Adding to the complexity is the desire of fire service members to possibly mix and match different NFPA 1802 radios with other manufacturer’s NFPA 1802-rated remote speaker microphones. Therefore, the latter will have to be tested with the former in various combinations to ensure that the NFPA 1802 requirements are met for the various combinations.
The committee’s work has already had an impact on the radio industry. Several manufacturers have begun offering remote speaker microphones that meet elevated temperature specifications, in some cases up to 500°F (260°C).
In April 2018, the NFPA Standards Council approved the NFPA 1802 draft standard to enter into a Fall 2020 cycle. The next step is to allow public comment. Anyone can provide input or edits to the draft; you don’t need to be an NFPA member. Public comment has been opened and will close January 3, 2019. The draft is posted for review and comment from the public at the NFPA 1802 page at https://www.nfpa.org/codes-and-standards/all-codes-and-standards/list-of-codes-and-standards/detail?code=1802. (So that the committee can contact you on your input, those making public comments will have to create a profile by providing an e-mail address and creating a password, but you don’t have to be an NFPA member). Once all the public inputs are received, the committee will reconvene in a first draft meeting in early 2019. The committee is required to review and either adopt or answer all of the public comments.
Because of the importance of this work, the committee asks that interested parties, especially firefighters and hazmat technicians, review the first draft document and provide input. The new standard will be issued in 2020; we expect that sometime thereafter, manufacturers will begin offering portable radios and accessories that meet this new standard.
- https://www.cdc.gov/niosh/fire/reports/face201113.html (see recommendation #9).
John Facella has served more than 30 years as a paid-on-call and volunteer firefighter/emergency medical technician in four states. He has numerous fire service certifications, a BSEE from Georgia Tech, and is a registered professional electrical engineer. Facella has worked in the land mobile radio industry for more than 30 years with Motorola, Harris, and a national consulting company. He serves on the NFPA 1802 and 1221 committees. Facella is also a member of the Raymond (ME) Fire Department.