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Cover Story

Communications: Sound Tactics

Communications are more critical to police operations than guns and ammo and often lacking.

August 07, 2009  |  by - Also by this author

Please Repeat

Another communication issue faced by tactical units is a weak signal. SWAT operations are usually far away from repeating stations, and that can be a big problem in the field.

"Occasionally, our team has gone out of state to work with the ATF and marshals," observes Palmer. "Even though we're not around large structures in these rural areas, we still encounter numerous dead zone problems."

Based upon conversations with other SWAT teams from across the country, dead zones and the need for multiple repeater systems would appear to be an ongoing problem.

"In my day, we kept trying to get a mobile repeater," O'Brien recalls. "You'd find yourself down two or three sub-levels or in a hospital or university building-anything that was of heavy duty construction and had a lot of steel-and there was so much interference that it effectively thwarted your ability to communicate with one another."

Indeed, the vast majority of tactical officers interviewed seemed to be very pleased with their equipment, overall. But there was a recurrent complaint that budgetary constraints did not meet the need for mobile repeaters.

Dallas SWAT Lt. Robert Owens notes that his department has it pretty good when it comes to the local terrain, but even then the agency needs enhanced repeater systems.

When asked to name the biggest problem facing law enforcement when it comes to communications systems, Lt. Owens is quick to answer: "Money."

Owens continues, "We need repeaters. We've been working for 10 years to improve our communications infrastructure and now we're going to get some of what we've been asking for. We have a new command post that should be here in September this year and we'll have a portable repeater, so we should be looking pretty good then. But it can be hell when we get in these dead spots behind buildings. Our radio equipment-our individual gear-is very good, but getting rid of all the dead spots can be cost prohibitive."

Government agencies are now willing to fund grants for field communications equipment, but Bill Reitz from CeoTronics says the money flow may soon dry up. "The government is getting to the point where it is tired of wasting money on different communications systems to do different jobs. It's looking for something that can tie them all together."

CeoTronics manufactures mobile short-range communications systems that allow SWAT teams to take range extenders right where they need them. The base unit of the CT-DECT mobile digital radio system is capable of communicating with up to eight users at a range of 150 to 300 yards, depending on terrain.

Two base units can be linked to extend the perimeter even further and connect up to 14 people. The unit utilizes 64-bit encryption and low wattage to prevent local hacking during a callout. And to stretch your budget further, the system can be integrated with existing radio systems.

In addition to his concerns about portable repeaters, O'Brien says he wonders how many agencies might still be plagued by problems that affected his team in Cleveland.

"SWAT found that every one of their officers needed to have portable radios at home because coordinating calls otherwise was impossible," O'Brien explains. "We'd have an officer who by virtue of his position was the only one to see something, but he couldn't communicate what he was seeing. There weren't enough radios even for patrol cars, let alone for officers to take home. It was a catch-22."

More Comfortable Com Gear

The real conundrum for SWAT budgets is that even as the media and congress lobby for greater funding for tactical responders, there is still not sufficient funding to support all of the needs of every SWAT team-needs that are diverse and expensive. The technological advancements required in the latest communications equipment do not come cheap.

However, where they are obtained, such grants have proven to be of immense profit. Palmer notes that his agency's SWAT unit improved substantially with its acquisition of new headsets under a federal grant pursued by his captain.

"I was a sniper," recalls Palmer. "So I had the luxury to dump my helmet. That was the first piece of equipment I'd dump because the headset didn't fit very well with it."

Mike Lessman, a sergeant with the Reno SWAT team, can relate. "The headsets I was wearing on call-outs gave me an excruciating headache after I put the helmet atop the comset," he says. "My problem wasn't unique; it was a universal complaint from others. But MSA makes a high-speed, low-drag helmet that has the ear portions cut away so it doesn't press the com system up against your head. It's made my life easier."

But if such problems continue to be a bane to law enforcement technicians, they provide inspiration for innovation and improvements. With an aggregate 25 years experience working with his department's unit, Lt. Owens has seen a favorable evolution in the reliability and advancement of SWAT radio communication technology. The result is new products that will make it easier for tactical teams to communicate, regardless of the mission or environmental conditions.

Temco Communications has developed a facemask headset that can be worn with most gas masks, scuba gear, or chem-bio suits. Other companies such as EF Johnson are developing new technologies including self-contained breathing apparatus with built-in headset.

And many new products feature ancillary benefits such as ear protection during firefights. Otto Engineering has introduced a line of tactical headsets that is designed to be worn under protective clothing and helmets, and holds up to the harshest weather conditions. To provide greater comfort while wearing listening headgear, PCL Communications has developed behind-the-ear and custom ear pieces that provide secure hands-free communication. Pryme Radio Products' GPSMIC speaker microphone includes GPS locators for officers working in the field.

Such recent innovations and the continuing evolution of SWAT tactics are sure to make tactical communications easier and more efficient in the near future.

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