The use of headsets is prevalent in all law enforcement operations. And whether the needs are tactical or administrative, cops all want the same things from a headset: clear communications, comfort, and durability.
The top-tier headsets are constructed of premium components, including speakers and microphones that can provide the clearest conversations between emergency responders and with dispatch operators. Such headsets are designed to be as lightweight and as comfortable as possible for all-day use, every day.
That should come as no surprise given how far the technology of headsets has come in recent years. Quality, comfort and convenience are important characteristics among all law enforcement officials and representatives, but ruggedness and sound quality are especially important for personnel responding to a scene.
Look Ma No Wires
The future of the industry is in wireless, says Ruben Scheimberg, president of The Earphone Connection, a provider of tactical ear gadgets for various industries including law enforcement.
"Right now there are still too many units you need to charge to get everything wireless so it's not quite a fool-proof system," Scheimberg says. "There are still battery life and other issues but we're getting there."
Wireless systems are improving, and they offer the ultimate in lightweight communications mobility. Some products even allow volume to be adjusted in multiple ways. The volume can be set on a PC, at a connection point, or on the headphone.
Freelinc's FreeMotion 200 is a state-of-the-art wireless headset for tactical and first response operations. The FreeMotion 200 uses near-field magnetic induction and works with two-way radio systems. It fits behind the ear, offers 20 hours of talk time, and has volume adjustment. (Note: SWAT units should be aware that the headset's technology can cause unwanted noise when officers' heads are close together such as in a stack. Contact Freelinc for more information.)
Bone vibration transducer technology is another trend in tactical headset technology. With these systems, the radio communications are received through the facial bones rather than the ear canal. Such technology can afford the tactical operator the operational advantage of having no speaker hardware in, on, or over the ear, allowing 360 degrees of unobstructed natural hearing of ambient sounds.
Some tactical headsets such as the MH3 Tactical Headset System from BTI Tactical in Frankfort, Ill., can be ordered with single or dual transducers for receiving. Generally, SWAT teams choose a single transducer system for reception while military clientele choose a dual transducer system due to their probability of needing to communicate in higher ambient noise environments.
The bone conduction microphone can pick up a voice clearly in both whisper speech and high noise environments. There generally is no need for adapters to go along with these bone conductor headsets because they can be used with a respirator or many types of masks.
Some bone conduction headset technologies in the recent past may not have offered efficient noise reduction capabilities. But manufacturers have now developed systems that offer hearing protection and clear, strong communications.
Television Equipment Associates (TEA) has come out with its DM3H series of tactical headsets to address improvements in noise reduction capabilities. Using a foam tip, these headsets offer 29 dBA of protection, compared to 6 dBA with past products.
"Many of the bone conduction headsets weren't considered protective in nature until recently," says Steve Tocidlowski, director of business development for TEA, a supplier of tactical headsets.
Temple transducer systems can work well in loud environments as the audio is received inside the head, allowing the user to wear earplugs to protect against impulse noises that can cause hearing damage, while still receiving audio.
Peripheral hearing is another important trend that law enforcement agencies want in headsets, and it also affords hearing protection benefits, Tocidlowski says. Some tactical headsets now come equipped with external microphones that muffle loud sounds and offer protection while still giving officers situational awareness. "These new technologies improve clarity, receive signals, and enhance peripheral hearing," Tocidlowski says.
The company Xacor has developed bone conduction systems that feature push-to-talk and can be used in loud and busy tactical environments.
Limiting the Volume
Many of the best headsets now offer law enforcement personnel, both dispatchers and in-field, a decibel limiting function. This can allow individuals to set the decibel level on their headsets to be no higher than 85 decibels unless they put it on manual.
"Many of the headsets that are available in the market come from overseas providers and don't offer this decibel limiting option," says Patrick Armstrong, director of marketing with Xacore. "The key is being able to control the audio so that you can protect a person's ear, which is what customers want."
Over the Ears
The hearing protection of earmuff headsets has also improved, TEA's Tocidlowski says. Despite such improvements, in-ear headsets have become more popular while traditional boom-microphone headsets are thought of as uncomfortable and old-fashioned by many operators.
"Most of the lightweight [earmuff] headsets don't offer the same levels of hearing protection as some of the newer designs," Tocidlowski said.
One of the most important considerations that law enforcement officers need to keep in mind is the importance of wearing an earpiece and being as discreet as possible when doing so, Scheimberg says. Lapel microphones make it much easier to conceal conversations and tactical gear that may be used.
Going wireless when possible can help police officers be more discreet.
"You want to be in a situation where if an officer stops someone on a routine traffic stop and finds some other issues when pulling up that driver's information, he or she can discreetly chat into the microphone (so that the driver isn't alarmed)," Scheimberg says. "What officers need are custom-tailored solutions that offer flexibility and hands-free features."
Wearing a Helmet
Overall, the latest tactical headsets are designed to offer more compatibility with both helmets and respirators than ever before. But it's not just that the headsets are being redesigned to functionally fit helmets; the helmets are being designed for headsets as well.
"There have been changes in helmet design so that they better fit the types of headsets that are coming out and are popular," TEA's Tocidlowski says. "So there have been design changes on both sides [of the equation] that have been rather notable."
In these difficult economic times-and even before the current recession-law enforcement agencies have been forced to cope with a budgetary squeeze. That means that they need equipment like headsets to last as long as possible. Purchasing a higher quality headset can help reduce long-term costs and improve officer safety and efficiency in the field.
Generally these tactical headsets can't be easily repaired. When they are worn out, they need to be replaced. However, more and more headsets can now be upgraded.
At the end of the day, the use of tactical headsets comes down to personal preferences for features, benefits, comfort, and more. While such features as safety and quality are always paramount, personal opinions will always matter the most.
"It's always going to come down to what officers and departments are comfortable with," Tocidlowski says. "The features that are a part of these headsets are always a product of what the current personal preferences are."
One way to increase the level of comfort for an officer is to make earpieces and accompanying headsets as compact as possible. Using hardware that is lighter can be very beneficial to a SWAT officer who may be lugging around 100 pounds of tactical gear.
"Earpieces and headsets today need to be designed so that officers don't have their attention diverted from a suspect or from his or her weapon," says Ruben Scheimberg, president of The Earphone Connection.
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Mike Scott is a Michigan-based freelance journalist. This is his third article for POLICE Magazine. He wrote about gas prices in our July 2008 issue.