9-1-1; What Is Your Emergency?

Saturday, May 4, 2013

Heads-Up on Dispatcher Headgear

Taken from 9-1-1 Magazine.com (Originally published in July, 2006)

Written by Barry Furey, involved in public safety for more than 40 years, having managed 9-1-1 centers in four states.  A life member of APCO International, at the time the article was written he was Director of the Raleigh-Wake County, NC Emergency Communications Center

Perhaps no piece of communications equipment is less costly but more important than the headset.  Where telephone or radio transmissions must be clearly made and received, particularly in busy environments like communications centers, headsets offer obvious options over conventional speakers and desk microphones.  By placing both the microphone and speaker closer to the telecommunicator's mouth and ears respectively, headsets help to cut down background noise and improve the quality of both the transmit and receive audio.

Over the years, headsets have evolved to keep pace with other technologies.  There are now specialized devices that are designed for specialized applications.  While headsets used in the PSAP tend to be lighter weight and designed for comfortable wearing over long periods of time, bulkier models that more resemble ear protectors seen on the firing range are now appearing on the fireground.  Many departments, rightfully concerned about the background noise of sirens and diesel engines, are mandating their use on apparatus.

Both are a far cry from the first headset, developed almost a century ago.  As far as users go, public safety personnel are relative newcomers to the field, with aviators, and predictably, telephone operators, being among the first.  Since their inception, improvements in electronics have allowed for the miniaturization of many components, with the combination of science and user preference helping to drive the movement toward lighter weight models.  However, change has also come about as a result of health related concerns.  During the 1970s and 1980s, in the ear models were extremely popular.  Considerable discussion arose as to whether these devices increased the chances of ear infections and/or provided additional risk of hearing damage from loud noises when compared to other styles.  This style is still available, but there are now many more choices.

Today, headsets can be categorized into several different types.  Monaural, or single speaker styles, are commonly used in facilities where the telephone and radio must both be answered, or where the ability to monitor internal communications is required.  Binaural devices use two speakers.  The type of microphone used creates an additional division.  Noise canceling mics are designed for use in high ambient noise situations.  The little plastic disk on the end of the speaking tube with which we are all familiar is not indicative of a noise canceling microphone.

Since we are living in a wireless world, it should come as no surprise that wireless headsets have made inroads into PSAPs.  Offering similar conveniences to cordless telephones, wireless headsets allow greater freedom of motion, since the user is not tethered by a cord.  And, since cord replacement tends to be a recurring process for conventional headsets, this maintenance issue is eliminated.

Still, this choice does not come without its drawbacks.  Wireless devices tend to cost two to three times more than standard headsets and battery life and replacement can be issues.  You should be prepared to buy a new battery annually.  Cost is about $25.  Although this isn't exorbitant, and should be weighed against the replacement cost of cords, it can add up for larger agencies and multiple users.

Another concern is that of crosstalk and interference, which can happen anytime you add another radio to the mix, because essentially wireless headsets are two-way radios.  One reader, commenting on these devices stated that, "We purchased 5 of them and they worked fine for about a year but then we had to start sending the bases back to be serviced because the dispatchers were getting interference on the headsets and some of them were hearing each other's phone calls and radio traffic."  While it is not known how widespread this problem is, and the headset vendor was able to fix the problem through factory service, buyers should be aware that this issue could potentially exist.  However, with Bluetooth wireless technology headsets now available look for more innovation in these products in the future.

While we may be living in a wireless world, we are certainly not living in a homogeneous one, and the PSAP is most certainly a melting pot of diverse technologies.  To this end, the headset chosen will have to operate effectively in a potential mix of analog, digital, and increasingly VOIP worlds.  The latter will become of increasing concern as CPE (Customer Premise Equipment) uses IP from end-to-end.

The headset must also interface properly, where required, with the radio system in order to provide complete console audio.  This interface is normally a component of the integrated console electronics, but an amplifier box may be required in order to properly control headset volume.  These amplifiers come in several shapes and sizes ranging from "black boxes" to in-line models and offer multiple features.  Some serve as adapters to interface with computers through USB (Universal Serial Buss) ports, while others are designed to support functions of ACD (Automatic Call Distribution) systems.  Knowing what you want your headsets to do is important.

Getting your basic design down right also matters.  For corded devices, having a long enough cord to allow for free movement of the user is critical.  Most of us have seen cords that were literally pulled out of the plug from stretching.  A supply of extra cord segments, speaking tubes, and spare ear cushions will also go a long way to keeping those headsets you have in service.

Regardless of the type of headset used, however, there are some health, safety and maintenance concerns.  Surprisingly, while little information seems to be posted in the United States, warnings come from the website of the Australian Council of Trade Unions, an organization representing workers in some call centers.  One topic of concern raised by this group is the phenomenon of "acoustic shock" which occurs as the result of an extremely loud noise.  This can be prevented by the installation of volume limiting devices in-line.  And while many agencies have taken to using common plugs, sharing of the headset itself is not recommended.  The ACTU lists several suggestions for headset cleaning and maintenance, but the mail recommendation is not the share headsets.

Regardless of your need, there are now sufficient designs and sufficient manufacturers to provide you with severale viable choices.  Because, after all, your headsets should be a good fit.

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