Tucson's tactical team arrived at its current technology through trial and error. First they used earmuff-style communications. "We had issues with them," Acevedo says. "When you cued the mic, it would cut out your outside sound so that you only heard the radio talk and that was creating some problems. People were having a hard time hearing what was going on outside and hearing the radio at the same time."
The department then moved to custom-molded electronic earpieces, and Tucson's officers didn’t like them either. "You would put them in your ears and they'd click on to let you listen to the radio, but they also liked to magnify outside sounds," Acevedo says. "We had to turn the volume all the way up to hear what was being said. With our new headsets we can turn the radio down because the sound comes through so well."
Cutting the Cord
Bluetooth technology already has a strong foothold in the consumer industry. It is built into everything from phones to medical devices, letting people talk, send vital information, listen to music, and more without wires. And now the technology is entering the tactical space as well. "Bluetooth headsets, even those that will work with cell phones, are available to communicate with your two-way radio," Gordon says.
Many tactical officers prefer wireless headsets, he adds. "There's a lot of interest in Bluetooth technology, not as much on the security aspect but on the more covert side," he says. "Tactical officers hate to be wearing anything that a perpetrator can grab and use as a weapon. This technology cuts the cord so to speak."
And wireless systems have come a long way. Today they are lightweight, secure, and incorporate multiple ways to adjust volume. However, Gordon advises that they remain a solution teams will want to try before they buy. Bluetooth headsets can lose their connections from radio-frequency interference in the environment, and they need to be regularly recharged to make sure they are ready to go when the need for them arises.
"It is strictly the design of the maker, but some last for 12 hours, some for six," Gordon says. "Length of charge and time of use are important, especially in tactical situations where there could be a barricade and that officer is going to be on shift for 12-plus hours before being relieved. There is also the potential for interception and thus the officer’s personal security may be reduced."
Fortunately, wireless systems utilizing newer encryption capabilities have become more secure than their predecessors. "With advances in this technology, wireless voice communications are much more difficult to intercept," says Gnagey. "The system's digital signals when received by a standard radio scanner in someone’s home are indecipherable and sound like the noise made by a modem or a fax machine over a phone line."
Many of today's tactical headsets also offer decibel-limiting capabilities, which set decibel levels for received audio to 85 decibels or less unless officers override the setting manually.
As a rule of thumb in-ear headsets tend to provide better protection than traditional earmuffs and Bluetooth headsets offer a whole host of noise-limiting functions, Gordon says.
Tactical teams need to carefully consider the types of situations they may routinely find themselves in to gauge the level of protection they require. "The protection angle can be very simple, to what we call filtering air pieces. So you can still interact with your proximity sounds but you won't have distance sound or enhanced sound," Gordon says. "Or you can get into enhanced protection where you can understand what is going on around you but if a loud impulse noise, such as gunfire or an explosion takes off, that impulse noise is quieted to a safer limit."
Decibel-limiting headsets work well, particularly if tactical teams consider the sensitivity of the mic used with the headset system. "Teams need to consider the sensitivity of the mic and its ability to pick up whispered communications as well as being clearer when loud impact or impulse noises pick up," Gordon explains.