Tactical communications systems include over-the-ear headsets with boom mics.
The Columbine High School massacre underscored what can happen when tactical teams cannot communicate. Jammed radio links and cellular phones and the chronic incompatibility of communication systems used by the 35 different law enforcement agencies and 11 fire and EMS departments at the scene severely impaired communication.
Fast-forward 13 years, and such incompatibility still exists for many tactical teams, particularly those in mid-size to small departments.
John Gnagey, executive advisor for the National Tactical Officers Association (NTOA), says he was recently asked the following questions in an interview:
1. Do tactical teams have secure communications?
2. Do they have voice, data and video capabilities?
The answer, he says, is both yes and no. "Large departments have all of that, but smaller and mid-size departments don't. But as technology goes increasingly digital, there is a good probability in the future that they will have those capabilities too."
Tucson SWAT operator and sniper Rico Acevedo says his team prides itself on being very cutting edge in its operations and in equipping its explosive breachers, snipers, and other specialists with the latest and greatest technology. But he admits their communications capabilities are less than desired. In fact the department as a whole still relies on Motorola ASTRO XTS 3000 digital radios purchased in 1997.
Most of the time their dated communications technology performs the job as intended with only an occasional patch necessary with Nextel Push to Talk (PTT) phones and officer's own cell phones. But in a tactical operation these units can run afoul, Acevedo says.
"It comes to a point where we are doing an operation and suddenly our radios aren't working anymore," Acevedo says. "If we are following a home invasion crew that moves out of the city or into a different jurisdiction, for example, our radios won't work."
But that's about to change—at least on the radio side of the team's communications equation.
By 2013 the department's outdated radio systems will be old news as Pima County's new public safety wireless integrated network begins operation.
The Pima County Wireless Integrated Network (PCWIN) system will enable 31 fire and law enforcement agencies in the county to talk to each other by radio in real-time on a single system, regardless of jurisdictional boundaries. New communications towers throughout the county will eliminate the dead zones officers currently experience.
All officers, including Tucson's tactical team, will be equipped with Motorola XTR 6000 digital radios. "We'll all be using the same radios on the same frequencies so that we can cover more area and be able to talk to each other," Acevedo says.
But radios are just one piece of the tactical communications puzzle.
Besides their radios, tactical officers need headsets that pump sound into their ears and hands-free microphones. It simply isn't possible for these officers to move with stealth carrying long guns and other tools while also keeping their hands free to operate their communications systems.
Can You Hear Me Now?
At minimum tactical officers, especially in smaller departments, can get by with lightweight headsets with an ear tube design, according to Andrew Gordon, director of marketing at EAR Inc. of Boulder, Colo.
Tucson's team relies on this type of communications device. Its SureFire EP320-6HR devices cost around $400. Acevedo says they deliver incoming communications directly and clearly to officers and minimize the danger of garbled or intercepted messages.
"We got the SureFire's because they were Push to Talk," Acevedo says. "There are three wires but they are braided into a single wire that goes up under your vest and into your earpiece."