Friday, January 20, 2012
It’s often been said that a common denominator in the success or failure of critical incidents and tactical missions is the important component of communications. “Failure to communicate,” or failure to properly hear communications that are made, can result in vital information not being adequately passed along. In a worst-case scenario, that information (or lack thereof) may result in an adverse life-changing decision for many people. Fortunately, there are several modern radio communications headsets specifically manufactured to meet this critical need.
Since the purchase of radio communications gear (in this case, a headset or mic/earpiece combo) is a substantial investment, I highly recommend acquiring a demo set for testing and evaluation (T&E). All reputable manufacturers have a T&E program that allows an agency representative to acquire a sample of their gear for a specified amount of time. This trial period allows the officer or agency to confirm the quality and compatibility of the product prior to committing to purchase. Substantial errors can be avoided by availing yourself of the opportunity to test equipment prior to purchase.
So, what are some of the considerations one should make in selecting tactical headsets?
>> Price: Quality communications gear isn’t inexpensive. In fact, one should plan on spending several hundred dollars (as much as $700 per unit isn’t uncommon) depending on the type of equipment selected. The adage “you get what you pay for” definitely holds true when purchasing any type of specialty electronics gear.
The purchaser, whether individual officer or agency, must understand that they’re investing in a variety of things with the single purchase of communications equipment. Most importantly, the equipment selected must ensure 100% reliable communications, regardless of conditions. For example, any system employing a boom-type mic should include a wind guard (usually a foam cover for the mic that provides insulation from wind and extraneous ambient noises). Compatibility with existing radios is another important consideration. Not all radios have the same connectors, even though they may be produced by the same manufacturer. Agencies and officers that have encryption-capable radios must confirm that the earpiece and transmitter are encryption compatible.
>> Comfort: No matter how good the equipment, if it isn’t comfortable it won’t be used. I’ve had personal experience with a few different brands of tactical communications headsets that actually cause headaches after just a short period of use. In a SWAT setting, operators will be wearing ballistic helmets, and, in a chemical environment, gas masks as well. Communications gear must be compatible with helmets and masks. Over-the head wire headsets can become extremely uncomfortable when worn beneath a helmet. During an extended mission, in-ear speakers can also become uncomfortable.
>> Types: There are essentially three different types of tactical communications gear offered for portable radios: sets offering a combination of hearing protection and communications functionality, bone-conduction/throat mic types, and simple mic/earpiece sets.
Dual Duty: Ear Protection & Comms
Understand: Hearing loss is irreversible. Recognizing this, several manufactures of tactical headsets offer products that not only work with radio systems, but also provide hearing protection for the user. With the proliferation of patrol rifles, there’s been a greater recognition of the importance of proper hearing protection.
A tragic example of a retirement due to hearing loss occurred several years ago in Irvine, Calif. Patrol officers responded to an incident involving a suspect armed with a sword inside a major grocery store. The suspect had mortally attacked multiple victims prior to the arrival of responding patrol officers. Officers entered the store and ultimately were forced to neutralize the suspect by shooting him with a .223 rifle. The deployment of the rifle inside the grocery store was, quite literally, deafening. An officer standing next to the officer who deployed the .223 rifle permanently lost a significant amount of his hearing and was forced to medically retire.
This incident was debriefed at an annual CATO (California Association of Tactical Officers) training conference several years ago. As a direct result of attending this debriefing, my department’s SWAT commander at that time directed me to research tactical communications headsets that provide hearing protection. After conducting several months of T&E with a variety of equipment and finding a funding source, we ultimately equipped our entire team with headsets that amplify ambient noise while cancelling out loud noise such as gunshots and flash-bangs.
One of the most important things learned in the T&E process is that not all headsets are created equal. When testing tactical communications headsets, look for equipment that has two dedicated speakers—one for your radio and one for ambient noise. Otherwise, ambient noise or radio traffic will be excluded when the other is being utilized. This could result in missed information (radio traffic or sounds going on around you). That could lead to serious problems in a tactical environment.
During the transition to the new equipment, we learned a couple of things. On the positive side, our ability to move in a covert mode increased dramatically for a few reasons. Due to the ambient sound amplification, we were able to communicate in a quiet whisper. We also became painfully aware of the noise we made because simple noises (for instance, scraping against a wall or merely scuffing our boots) were also amplified. We also realized a benefit in being able to give range commands over the radio. This was especially beneficial during SWAT team weapons qualification in calling the course of fire, “challenge” commands and cease-fire. Finally, during training we found it easier to identify the location of concealed role-playing suspects because of inadvertent noises they made being amplified by our equipment.
On the negative side, we learned that it’s difficult to distinguish gunshots from other loud noises. It also became difficult to pinpoint the source of origin of loud noises. The only other concern with this type of system is that it requires batteries to power the ambient noise amplification. If the ambient noise isn’t amplified (due to discharged batteries or a defect/malfunction), the wearer will be at an extreme disadvantage in maintaining auditory situational awareness and will be unable to hear nearby team members unless they’re speaking over the radio.
Peltor, MSA and TCI all manufacture this type of equipment. Of these, I would recommend a hard look at TCI’s “Liberator” model. In my experience, it’s the most reliable and comfortable out there.
This system comprises two parts—a speaker that’s either in or covers one or both ears, and a microphone which converts vibrations from speech into audible words. Some microphones are positioned around the wearer’s neck, while some are positioned on the jaw or skull bone. TEA’s “LASH” (LAPD SWAT Headset) system is an example of this type. The greatest benefit of this system is that the user can speak in a quiet whisper and their transmission is heard at a normal conversational level.
Although admittedly more limited than with other comm systems types, my own experience with these types of systems has been both positive and negative. I’ve found these systems to generally be quite comfortable and rugged. The downside is that the audio quality is sometimes extremely tinny and sounds like the transmission is being made from a person in a bathroom.
In addition to TEA, Atlantic Signal (formerly “New Eagle”) and SAVOX manufacture bone-conduction systems.
The least expensive communications gear is a simple microphone/earpiece set. These are definitely the most prevalent in patrol, but are also common among SWAT teams. They consist of either a speaker-mic with a wire running into an earpiece or a lapel-mic with an earpiece. In addition to being widely used and manufactured by several companies, this system is also the least expensive.
Due to the low-profile and ease of greater concealablity than other systems, this type of equipment is popular during dignitary protection details. There are numerous manufacturers of these systems. When investigating them for purchase, inquire about warranties and different size earpieces. Better yet, look for a company that allows for custom-fitting the earpiece to the individual wearer.
An important consideration is the push-to-talk (PTT) button options that are available. I strongly recommend a PTT button that has a protective shield or inset button to prevent inadvertent transmissions (which often occur at the most inopportune times). I’m also an advocate for a volume control option located in close proximity (usually on) to the PTT. The location of the portable radio worn on the operator isn’t always conducive to rapid access. Because of this, the ability to turn up/down the volume is greatly enhanced by a remote volume control knob located with the PTT. For snipers, a remote (finger or rifle-mounted) PTT switch is a nice option that allows the sniper to maintain their shot-taking readiness and still provide immediate communications.
Take advantage of the ability to obtain T&E samples from a variety of manufacturers. Regardless of the equipment selected, reliability is the most important requirement. Ensure compatibility with your existing equipment and that the gear is comfortable for extended wear and is able to be worn in conjunction with a ballistic helmet and gas mask. Find out what the warranty covers and how long it lasts. Look at alternative funding sources, such as asset forfeiture or grant options. Finally, once you obtain the equipment, train with it until you have a complete understanding of its capabilities and limitations.