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July 04, 2011
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Tim Dees Police Tech & Gear
with Tim Dees

SWAT headsets: Workable solutions without breaking the bank

Once you’ve resolved the issue of what you’re going to use to listen and talk, you have to connect with your radio and/or your teammates

It’s difficult enough for uniformed patrol officers to communicate over the radio, given road noise, moving around, having your hands tied up holding flashlights, ticket books, etc. For SWAT operators, it’s all that and more — very loud noises, more athletic movement, and both hands are usually gripping a long gun. What is the best option or combination of options for tactical communications?

Let’s break this down into two parts: the microphone/speaker itself, and the communications link to the radio or your fellow team members. A regular shoulder mic/speaker isn’t going to cut it. In a high noise environment, you may not be able to hear the radio; in a low noise environment, the bad guys can hear you. You need a headset that pumps the sound directly into your ears, and a hands-free microphone.

Headsets
A sound tube earpiece is the most popular method for listening discreetly. A sound tube, as the name implies, is a pigtail-curly thin tube that connects between the speaker and your earpiece. There are used by cops as well as TV talking heads who are listening to direction from the control room while they’re on the air, although the latter usually conceal the sound tube behind their ears or in their hair so it’s not visible onscreen.

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Most vendors ship their headset products with multiple ear gels so you can choose the one that fits you best. No matter which you choose, it won’t be as comfortable or as secure as a custom-molded earpiece. These require going to an audiologist to have some goo squirted inside your ear for five minutes to create the mold, then sending it off to have the earpiece made. The finished product “screws” into your ear with a 180° turn and won’t come out until you remove it. People who get them never want to go back to a one-size-fits-all model. If you’re short on cash and have a sense of adventure, you can also try making your own.

You have more options with the microphone. A mic carried on the earpiece itself will work in most situations — people use Bluetooth cell phone headsets with mics several inches from their mouths, and can be heard without difficulty. That might not be the best choice when you have to whisper while you creep up to a location for a surprise entry. A boom mic that places the mic directly in front of your lips is the best option here. There are semi-rigid headsets like this one that incorporate bands going both over the head and behind it to keep it in place while moving around.

An in-the-ear earpiece can make you deaf to external sounds. Earpieces can be fabricated with an open-air channel, so you don’t lose contact with your surroundings, but those aren’t always an option. An alternative that preserves your ability to hear what’s around you is a bone-conduction headset. With these, sound is transmitted directly into your skull, usually through contact with the temporal bone. There are bone-conduction mics, too, but a drawback is that much of the voice characteristic is lost, and people all sound the same.

Another microphone option is a throat mic, usually a pair of mics work on either side of the trachea and secured with an elastic band. Using these keeps stuff away from your face, where it can be snagged on an obstruction.

Communications Protocols
Once you’ve resolved the issue of what you’re going to use to listen and talk, you have to connect with your radio and/or your teammates. A hardwired connection is the default, and the most foolproof method. Just running a cable between the radio on your belt or vest and the headset is old school. Reduce snags by having the uniform shop sew a large buttonhole in your shirt at the point where the radio rides. You thread the cable from the radio inside the shirt and then up to your headset. This is a much cleaner and more secure method than having an exposed cable around.

There are wireless solutions that eliminate the cable altogether. FreeLinc uses a system called near field magnetic induction to communicate between your radio pack and a headset or wireless shoulder mic. This method is interference-free and highly reliable.

Another solution relies on the same Bluetooth technology that allows you to talk on your cell phone with a headset or through your car’s audio system. Bluetooth technology is widely used and proven, and thus not expensive. This is a solution you’ll want to test extensively before you “go tactical” with it, however. Anyone who has used a Bluetooth cell phone headset has also had it lose the connection with its paired cell phone because of some RF-resistant obstacle, such as your body. Some gadgets work better than others — caveat emptor here.

If you can find a Bluetooth adapter for the radio you’re using, it may work with another company’s Bluetooth headset. There are quite a few Bluetooth headsets with microphones designed for athletic use, meaning they stay in place on your head pretty well.

Finally, an outside-the-box suggestion for adapting technology intended for another use. Touring motorcyclists often use headsets built into or attached to their helmets to communicate with their passenger or other riders. Bluetooth technology has freed these riders from the cord that connected them to the intercom box, and also allows them to talk on their cell phones and listen to music from an iPod-type player.

There are now wide-area Bluetooth intercom systems that permit wireless voice communications over a distance of 100-200 meters without using a cell network. Communications are full-duplex, meaning you can talk and listen at the same time, like on a telephone. These systems aren’t expensive, and could work well for a tactical team that was deployed over a relatively small area (meaning within the 100-200 meter range of the system).

Bad guys would have difficulty monitoring your communications, which is probably not the case if you use your agency’s regular radio channels. Search on Google for “Bluetooth interphone” for potential vendors.

About the author

Tim Dees is a writer, editor, trainer, and former law enforcement officer. After 15 years as a police officer with the Reno Police Department and elsewhere in Northern Nevada, Tim taught criminal justice as a full-time professor and instructor at colleges in Wisconsin, West Virginia, Georgia, and Oregon.

He was also a regional training coordinator for the Oregon Dept. of Public Safety Standards & Training, providing in-service training to 65 criminal justice agencies in central and eastern Oregon.

Tim has written more than 300 articles for nearly every national law enforcement publication in the United States, and is the author of The Truth About Cops, published by Hyperink Press. In 2005, Tim became the first editor-in-chief for Officer.com, moving to the same position for LawOfficer.com at the beginning of 2008. He now writes on applications of technology in law enforcement from his home in SE Washington state.

Tim holds a bachelor’s degree in biological science from San José State University, a master’s degree in criminal justice from The University of Alabama, and the Certified Protection Professional credential from ASIS International. He serves on the executive board of the Public Safety Writers Association.

Dees can be reached at tim.dees@policeone.com.

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