NIST finds firefighter radios vulnerable to fire

Published 3 October 2006

Institute tested three radios under varied temperature conditions; not one survived Thermal Class 2 heat, and all suffered when exposed to Class 1; hope lies in protecting radios inside firefighter gear and reengineering senstive components such as antennas and speakers

Emergency radio interoperability is among the most critical challenges facing disaster recovery efforts, but comunications manufacturers must not forget more elementary needs in their rush to move new equipment into the field. Take, for instance, a recent report by the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) that found that many first responders are unable to use their intra-agency radios during routine firefighting operations due to high temperatures. As temperatures increase, operability decreases all the more.

The NIST study subjected three represenative radios, all with a maximum operaying temperature of 140 degrees, to varying levels of heat designed to mimic the three different thermal classes to which firefighters are equipped to withstand: Thermal Class 1, with a maximum temperature of 212 degrees for 25 minutes; Thermal Class 2, with a maximum temperature of 320 degrees for 15 minutes; and Thermal Class 3, with a maximum temperature of 500 degrees F for 5 minutes. The results were worrying. At Thermal Class 1, one of the radios shut down entirely while the others suffered significant transmission problems. None survived Class 2, and it appears the scientists involved did not even consider at that point testing at Class 3.

One bright note: Radios that had been tucked into inside pockets or turnout gear performed much better at Classes 1 and 2, though at Class 3 all exposed cords, speakers, and microphones were destroyed. NIST recommends small design changes on these parts that might allow all protected radios to reach a Class 3 rating. Unprotected radios would remain vulnerable. Detailed results and recommendations from the NIST test will be submitted to the National Fire Protection Association and other appropriate standards-setting bodies.

-read more in this Science Daily report