Firefighters safer with new devices
Intercom lets them keep in close contact

Judi Villa
The Arizona Republic
Jan. 3, 2006 12:00 AM

The next time Phoenix fire Capt. Al Hoffman leads his crew into a burning building, he won't have to shout to talk to them. He won't have to resort to hand signs or repeat instructions no one can hear.

Instead, Hoffman will simply speak into his breathing mask in a normal tone of voice, and the other firefighters on his crew will hear him in their ear as clearly as if they were talking on a telephone, even if they're several feet away in smoky darkness.

"It's a lot safer," Hoffman said. "You can keep track of your crew. You're not yelling. . . . When you say something, they're going to hear it."

Phoenix is believed to be one of the first fire departments in the country to buy intercoms that snap onto a breathing mask and allow firefighters to effortlessly speak to one another inside a blaze.

The technology could revolutionize the way firefighters communicate in difficult environments and end persistent communications problems that have been at least partly blamed for deaths in Phoenix and elsewhere.

But at more than $1,000 per intercom, cost alone makes the technology a luxury that many departments can't afford.

In Phoenix, the intercoms became a priority after Firefighter Bret Tarver died in 2001 when he became disoriented and ran out of air while battling a supermarket blaze. Other firefighters couldn't find Tarver in time to save him.

Phoenix spent about $519,000 to buy 474 intercoms, enough for all firefighters working each day. They should be fully distributed to crews this week.

"The ability to communicate clearly inside a high-hazard environment can be the difference between life and death for a firefighter," Assistant Phoenix Fire Chief Bob Khan said.

"That environment's hostile. It's typically pitch black. . . . They literally could be calling out for their life and you couldn't hear them."

Firefighters traditionally have had great difficulty communicating while wearing their breathing apparatus. Words come out garbled and all the noise inside a fire makes it impossible to hear. As a result, firefighters end up grabbing at one another, yelling and repeating themselves. Some even resort to removing their breathing masks to communicate, exposing themselves to smoke.

The intercoms will change all that.

"It's so nice to be able to speak in a normal voice," Phoenix fire Capt. Joe Angulo said. "There's a lot going on inside a fire. There's a lot of noise. When you don't have to yell trying to find your guys, it makes it a lot easier. You could be 10, 15 feet away, and it will sound like he's right next to you."

The intercoms, which look similar to a telephone headset, click onto the breathing mask. Each crew has a dedicated frequency to warn members of hazards, better coordinate building searches and firefighting efforts and monitor where other firefighters are when they aren't visible.

Other Valley fire officials say they would also like to acquire the technology. Phoenix bought its intercoms with money from the Firefighter Safety Fund approved in the 2001 bond election.

"It's just that sense of security. You have a direct link by voice," Capt. Steve Beuerlein said.

"It is absolutely a safety thing. We've got to be able to communicate better."