Gordon adds that EAR Inc. focuses a lot of its efforts on ear-mic technology, where everything necessary for communication rests in the ear, eliminating the need for speaker hardware in, on, or over the ear. Currently in-ear technologies include bone conduction technology that works off of vibrations coming off of a jawbone or temple and pressure mic technology where the mic reads actual pressure changes within the ear and interprets them as auditory signals.
These systems allow tactical team members to communicate in hushed whispers that can be clearly heard and understood by other members of the team but not overheard by suspects.
A mic carried within the earpiece will work in most situations. However, it's not for everyone, Gordon admits. "With these systems some people sound like the 'teacher on Charlie Brown,' but you can get that even with throat mics," he adds. "It's just the structure of their throat, whether it be heavily muscled or just screwed up vocal cords, but whatever it is, you can't get around it. Ear mic technology can be a little more sensitive than throat mic technology and pick up vocal tone and vibrations a little bit better but some guys may not be able to use it."
Such individuals may be forced to use boom mic technology even when the rest of their team switches to earpieces. This setup, while considered old school to some, puts the mic directly in front of the wearer's mouth. This type of mic is more sensitive to the wearer's voice, says Gordon, but may also be more likely to pick up surrounding noise.
Tactical teams also need to consider the applications in which the mics will be used. "If they are planning to go in with gas masks, for example, only certain systems will work. Ear mic technology covers most tactical aspects because it's not in front of the mouth. Even when you don a gas mask, it works because the vibration/pressure is still coming off the ear," Gordon explains.
When choosing a mic, one thing Gordon cautions against is selecting one with voice activation, where the system sends out voice communications when it senses the wearer speaking. These systems often aren’t precise enough for tactical situations, he says.
"A lot of teams don't like voice activation because it would be a huge liability to say 'Don't shoot' and have it come across as 'Shoot' because the mic didn’t pick up 'Don't,'" Gordon says.
The Comfort Factor
While all of these features are important, Gordon cautions users to also consider comfort and weight. All the technology in the world won't make a difference, he says, if the headset is uncomfortable to wear.
"The big focus has been in making these systems smaller and more lightweight," he says. "When you're carrying a long gun, a pack, a radio, and other things, weight and size become an important issue. Departments are moving from earmuffs to something that fits in the ear because it's a lot less bulky and a lot more lightweight."
Comfort is extremely important, Acevedo agrees. "In Tucson where it’s extremely hot, wearing a headset gets old really quickly," he says. "That's why we like our SureFire's. They are light and you almost don't even feel it when it's in your ear."
Headsets also need to fit into the tactical team's helmets, adds Acevedo, whose team uses Kevlar, military-style helmets. Recently the Tucson team trained with a U.S. Customs & Border Protection tactical unit and found the other organization's low-drag helmets with high cutout ears extremely comfortable. He laments, "They are very expensive but we would definitely add them if we could."
"Helmets should integrate with your headset and your earpiece and fit over whatever you are wearing," Gnagey adds.
Tactical teams can avoid fit problems by taking advantage of the testing and evaluation programs many manufacturers offer, says Gordon. "This allows them to make sure the headset fits underneath their helmet or works with their existing equipment before they make a full team purchase," he says.
The good news is that as law enforcement agencies move from analog to digital communication systems, the size of tactical communications units has come down and they more easily and comfortably fit underneath helmets. "Digital uses less power, the devices are smaller, they have more secure transmissions and they give you greater variety in that they may also transmit voice, data and video," says Gnagey.
"The push is on to have communications systems that are very, very robust," Gnagey adds. "Future systems will give users the ability to talk, send data, capture video, and receive photographs and annotated maps."
Ronnie Garrett is a freelance writer based in Fort Atkinson, Wis.
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