The RF Factor

Before new devices enter the market, manufacturers and the fire service must collectively evaluate the gear to see if there are operational incompatibility issues.

The Radio Frequency (RF) Factor is a new consideration when it comes to developing or implementing protective clothing and/or new firefighting tools. As most are experiencing, more and more devices are capable of transmitting some type of wireless signal.

In addition to the public safety radios used for emergency communications, fireground tools such as mobile data computers, thermal imaging cameras, hazmat detectors, traffic control technology, rear back-up sensors, remote-controlled robots and other devices utilize wireless transmissions to send information from a remote location to command or other central location. Given the continued and ever evolving wireless technology environment, this trend is predicted to increase exponentially as broadband wireless networks enable many more possibilities. Out of necessity, the fire service is one public safety discipline that has a history of discovering ways to address issues with the technology available in ways that many never thought possible.

Great progress will be made as the Public Safety Spectrum Trust (PSST) moves to develop a public-private strategy and build-out of a national public safety broadband network. Such a network will have a profound affect on all public safety agencies by offering an affordable public safety grade broadband services on which almost ever public safety agency can achieve effective operability and interoperability.

The fire service is already exploring new ways to monitor firefighters and send vital health signs back to command while they are working at an incident. Firefighter tracking is another wireless technology ranked as one of the highest priority needs and will certainly be one of the fastest adopted technologies once proven.

As wireless technologies continue to invade almost every aspect of daily life, including fireground operations, there is an inherent need to understand how each tool interacts with the other. While this is critically important with devices that transmit, this is also true of equipment that does not transmit any RF signal because it may be affected by external RF signals and/or in reverse, its operation may interfere with the operation of a device that is transmitting. An example of this includes high noise devices such as power saws, PASS devices and others that are operating in the vicinity of public safety radios. The noise may make communications difficult and in some cases totally overwhelm the radio operations at an emergency incident.

All of this is relevant to firefighter safety and reinforces a critical need to evaluate all of the equipment used by firefighters as a system. Before new devices enter the fire service market, manufacturers and the fire service must collectively evaluate the new equipment to determine if there are operational incompatibility issues and if so, determine if the new value is sufficient to overrule the incompatibility. And if not, determine if best practices can overcome the incompatibility issue(s). This must be resolved prior to new equipment being placed into an active emergency setting.

Standards committees like NFPA must also be involved regarding fireground equipment in the areas of interoperability and compatibility. Interoperability and compatibility are uniquely different but equally important when it comes to the effectiveness of the equipment/tools being used by firefighters. This creates some unique challenges because many of these issues may involve different standards committees which will require due diligence in crossover between the appropriate committees. When it comes to RF, it may be from the radio to the fire apparatus to the firefighters' clothing and may involve three or more different NFPA committees.

As the equipment/technology being used by firefighters and other public safety agencies continues to advance, it is critical that resources are available that will help the fire chief make decisions to implement new technologies in a safe and effective manner. At the end of the day, all of the firefighter's equipment must work in concert with one another like a well orchestrated symphony.

CHARLES WERNER, a Contributing Editor, is a 30-year veteran of the fire service and is Fire Chief with the City of Charlottesville, VA, Fire Department. Charles was instrumental in the original development and launch of and serves the IAFC as a member of the Communications Committee and Homeland Security Council. Chief Werner is a technology advocate for the fire service and he actively promotes technology and challenges fire departments and vendors to 'raise the bar' when it comes to technology. To read Charles' complete biography and view his archived articles, click here. If you have a technology success and you would like to submit it, please email it to