New NFPA Standard Offers Firefighters Improved Radio, RSM Communications
By John Facella, P.E.
Monday, March 29, 2021 | Comments
The National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) just unveiled its new standard for portable radios used by emergency services in the hazard zone. For the first time, NFPA 1802 (2021 edition), defines a very rugged radio and speaker microphone that are designed for the inherently hostile environment that firefighters, hazardous material (HAZMAT) teams, or other agencies that operate in a hazard zone work in.

The fire service world has changed dramatically since the days of Roy and Johnny in the popular TV series Emergency. Self-contained breathing apparatus (SCBA) tanks have gotten lighter and now can last more than 30 minutes. Turnout coats, hoods, helmets and gloves can withstand much higher temperatures, and the now standard 1.75-inch hose lines carry more water than the old 1.5-inch lines.

In the days of Roy and Johnny, there were few portable radios on an emergency scene, they were large clunky devices that usually only the incident commander had, and maybe one for the interior attack team and one for the truck team. Plus, you had to hold the radio in your hand because remote speaker microphone devices were nonexistent. Fast forward to today where both suburban and rural fire departments equip every member with a portable radio to ensure personnel safety.

At the same time, the hazards have changed dramatically. Residential furnishings that were previously made of natural fabrics such as cotton and wool have been replaced with synthetic fabrics made of hydrocarbons, which burn hotter and faster. Buildings that were once constructed out of wood timber now use engineered beams which can fail early and suddenly. As a result of these and other changes, the portable radios previously used by fire and emergency services units that operate regularly in the hazard zone are no longer adequate.

The NFPA 1802 standard defines the required parameters for communications devices that operate in the hazard zone. The committee was established in March of 2013, as a direct result of the tragic line-of-duty deaths (LODD) of San Francisco Fire Department (SFFD) Lieutenant Vincent Perez and Firefighter/ Paramedic Anthony Valerio in June 2011. The SFDD’s subsequent internal investigation revealed that the high heat had rendered both men’s remote speaker microphones (RSMs) inoperative, and they could not transmit a mayday alerting others that they were trapped. But this incident was not isolated; there have been numerous other National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) LODD and internal fire department LODD reports citing communications issues. Communications are one of the five most frequent contributing factors that are cited in NIOSH reports.

When the NFPA Electronic Safety Equipment Committee (ESE) was formed to begin the development of the 1802 radio standard in March 2013, there was much interest and participation. Thirty-five Technical Committee (TC) members worked on this effort, along with another 21 committee alternates, and several other non-committee observers from industry and the fire service. NFPA rules require a balanced level of participation. No more than one third of the TC members can come from any one interest classification, such as users, enforcing authorities, manufacturers, special experts and other classifications.

Major city departments participating in the work included Boston; the District of Columbia; Fairfax County, Virginia; Houston; New York City; Scottsdale; and Tulsa. Smaller departments included those from Canada, Illinois, Kentucky, Oregon, and Maine. The committee was led by Chairman Robert Athanas and assisted by NFPA Staff Liaison David Trebisacci.

Standard Overview
The technical committee identified three major areas to define this new communications device — ergonomics, feature set and environment — and these areas are outlined below.

It was decided from the beginning that the standard would encompass both the radio and the remote speaker microphone (RSM) that is used by most departments. This is because the RSM is often the item most exposed to the fire environment. The standard would only be concerned with two-way voice devices, hence pagers and data-only devices would not be considered. Finally, the standard would be agnostic to the specific radio frequency and communications techniques used (analog vs. digital modulation, trunking vs. non-trunking). As a result, not only will this new standard be useful for the immediate future no matter the voice technology used, but it may be also useful to other emergency services entities worldwide.

Because the standard is very wide ranging, the summaries here are not all-inclusive. For specific details on the standard, refer to The standard can be viewed on line at no cost, but it cannot be copied or downloaded without purchase.

Emergency incident scenes are very stressful and full of distractions, many of which are life threatening. Multiple researchers have discovered that first responders can get ‘tunnel vision’ when the situation gets bad. As a result, the ease of use of the radio under this new standard was carefully thought through.

Some of the key issues addressed include:
• Radio control knobs and cable connectors must be able to be manipulated by responders with large hands and wearing structural firefighting gloves
• Controls must be designed to reduce inadvertent changes or radio deactivation
• The selector knob for changing channels/talkgroups has 16 positions and hard stops at the beginning and end so that the first and last positions can be programmed for the main dispatch or tactical channel/talkgroup, reducing the inability to be on the correct channel if the user becomes confused.
• The emergency alert button (mayday button) has specific requirements as to location so that it is easy to find
• 1802 Radios and RSMs will include voice announcements of changes to zone, channel/talkpath, MAYDAY button activation, etc.
• If there is radio traffic, the voice announcement is delayed and then played when the radio traffic ceases
• Announcements while the radio is operated in the hazard zone mode are louder

The RSM has a number of important features that increase accessibility and ease of use. Manipulation of the radio’s controls is difficult or impossible if the member is trapped, injured or the radio is worn under the turnout coat or in the coat radio pocket, so some important controls are now available from the RSM. Some key features of the RSM include:
• It is required to have an emergency alert button located at the top
• It can have at least one programmable button. This button could be used for reverting operation back to a home channel/talkgroup or other purposes.
• The connection between the radio and the RSM is monitored, and if an electrical problem is detected with the connecting cable, then various audible and visual alerts are presented to the user.

Feature Set
At minimum, every radio must allow for analog conventional (non-trunked) transmission. This provides a ‘lowest common denominator’ method of transmission among all emergency scene radios. Also, interoperability among all NFPA-1802-certified radios and all NFPA-1802-certified remote speaker microphones is provided by a universal connector. Thus, you can use a brand X radio with a brand Y speaker microphone.

Other features include:
• Visual indicators of battery status are displayed, and an audible alert is emitted when 25% of battery capacity is reached
• Hazard zone operation is different from the non-hazard zone, and the radio defaults to the hazard zone mode when initially powered on
• When in the hazard zone, radio volume is automatically increased. A radio in the hazard zone can be programmed to require two specific actions to power off the radio, to reduce the chances of inadvertent powering down.
• A number of specific things happen when the emergency alert button is depressed, including the initiating radio reverting to the highest transmitter power level.
• Bluetooth technology connections allow for wireless accessories to connect to the radio, such as SCBA microphones/speakers, RSMs, etc.
• The standard requires that the radio goes go through a self-check every time it is turned on and every 5 minutes while being used. A failed self-check is announced by visual and audible alerts.
• Over-temperature events, (both short term and longer term) can now be detected, recorded, and also alerted visually and audibly.

Additionally, the radio will have a data-logging memory that stores up to 2.000 recent user events, up to 3,000 received user IDs, and date/time stamped operating events such as mayday activation. The purpose of this data logging is to provide information for both the fire service and their vendors as to the proper performance of this equipment under stress. It should be pointed out that although new for portable radios, data logging is already a requirement that exists in both SCBAs and PASS devices. Its intent is to not only validate that the device was checked at the beginning of a shift or as part of regular equipment checks, but also to record any changes in the equipment or its functionality, whether intentional or accidental. These events include turning the device on and off and internal electronic temperatures exceeding the device’s limitation.

Environmental and Testing
Speech Quality: The committee’s focus was on a radio that had to provide clear voice transmission and reception. To measure speech intelligibility objectively, the committee chose to use an internationally recognized test method that cellular carriers use called POLQA. As a result, the standard mandates that voice intelligibility for both the radio and the RSM is measured repeatedly before and after every major test, including: heat and flame, vibration, and other tests. The ‘before’ test establishes a benchmark for acceptable operation, and the ‘after’ test checks to ensure minimum voice intelligibility is still available to the firefighter when they need it the most, during or right after a major environmental stress event. The radio and RSM must be rated nonincendive (Class I Division 2). The radio and RSM can optionally be certified as intrinsically safe (IS) rated (Class I Division 1).

The environmental testing for the radios and RSMs is very extensive, in keeping with the difficult physical environment of emergency services work. Here are a few highlights:
• Heat and Immersion Leakage Resistance
• Vibration Test
• Impact Acceleration Resistance Test
• Corrosion Test
• Display Surface Abrasion Test
• High Temperature Functionality Test
• Heat and Flame Test
• Case Integrity Test
• Temperature Stress Test

Clearly, radios and RSMs meeting this standard will have a new level of ease of use, voice quality, and most importantly reliability, providing for improved safety for firefighters.

The committee did not address the provision of audio devices (microphones and earpieces) into SCBA masks. This is the responsibility of the NFPA 1981 committee. When such devices, both wired and wireless, become a feature of 1981, that will materially improve voice intelligibility of interior fire crews.

While the standard was issued only a few months ago, the radio industry has already reacted positively. Several manufacturers were contacted and indicated that they now have plans for introducing NFPA 1802 radios and RSMs in the future.

We all look forward to those announcements.

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John Facella has been a member of the NFPA Electronic Safety Equipment Committee responsible for the development of NFPA 1802 since the committee began its development in 2013. He has also been a long-term member of NFPA 1221, the committee focused on emergency services communications systems. He has a BSEE from Georgia Tech, is a registered professional engineer, served in the U.S. Army Signal Corps, and is a life member and current officer of the Radio Club of America (RCA). He has more than 30 years of public-safety radio industry experience working for the two largest manufacturers, as well as a national consulting firm. Facella has also served 38 years as a part-time firefighter/EMT in suburban and rural fire departments in four states. Today, he has a consulting practice and serves on a rural fire department in Maine.

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On 4/5/21, Jay Schmierer said:
Alternate Connectivity
How about using the WiFi that is already built into most radios and make a mesh network. An example of this is software called Serval http . The software creates a mesh network unit to unit without a hotspot using the Wi-Fi that is built in most radios.
Usage scenarios
1. User portable radio to mobile radio direct this would give the portable radio the same range as the mobile .
2. Portable radio to portable radio on scene car to car .
3. Portable radio to portable to mobile radio a swat or firefighting team in a building that has no communications . This would link the team members inside the building with each other and a mobile outside.
This is just the start of what can be done with this feature.

On 4/3/21, Will Mullen said:
Each radio will now out price a mobile radio. How can you manufacture a RSM with the same connection to be used on any radio that will work with the programming of different radios This just doesn t seem rational. It has to have a preprogrammed button on the RSM how can they guarantee that it works with any radio that has the universal connector How does the radio know its in the hazard zone Who defines it There is software and firmware that all need to be able to work together...this all seems like a pipe dream that took 8 years almost 10 years since inception to come out


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