Hear it with your bones: Tactical headsets for clear communications

From TechBeat

What could an orthopedic surgeon, a manufacturer of hearing equipment, an engineer from Ireland, and a former patrol officer possibly have in common? Three things. They developed technologies they thought would benefit law enforcement and corrections officers, they lacked the experience or knowledge to bring these technologies into the criminal justice market, and they received commercialization assistance from the Office of Law Enforcement Technology Commercialization (OLETC).

More and more, law enforcement and corrections officers are sharing the same equipment needs as firefighters and other emergency response personnel. The ability to communicate over high noise levels is as much a priority with firefighters as it is with police. Also, corrections officers must work daily in cell blocks—open areas of steel and concrete, where the confusing din of shouting andclanging during a disturbance makes officer communication extremely difficult. OLETC and the Fire Fighting Task Force (FFTF) are helping to commercialize a technology originally developed for the U.S. Navy SEALs that allows all branches of public safety to communicate over high noise levels. “You literally hear with your bones,” says Harold Holsopple, president of Sensory Devices, whose company licensed the technology used to develop the Radioear tactical headset.

According to Holsopple, bone conduction technology bypasses the outer ear, sending and receiving audio signals via vibrations in the skull or cheek bones instead. It leaves the ears either uncovered and alert to surrounding sounds or covered and protected against background noise, as the user prefers. The perception of speaking and hearing is the same as in normal conversation. Because the microphone and receiver work by “hearing” with the bone structure of the head, tactical officers who do not want to be heard by suspects can communicate with each other in a hushed whisper that is easily heard by other members of the team. Also, because sound is transmitted through the bones, officers can maintain clear radio communication with each other with minimum interference from ambient noise in situations with very high noise levels.

The origin of the Radioear headset goes back a few years to when FFTF coordinator Robert Saba visited the U.S. Naval Coastal Station in Panama City, Florida, in search of potential technologies for use by firefighters. There, he came across the “head contact microphone,” a technology developed by Naval Surface Warfare Center engineer Frank Downs at the request of the U.S. Navy SEALs. The SEALs were looking for a miniature waterproof microphone to use in full-face masks to overcome wind noise on high-speed boats. Saba immediately recognized its potential for firefighting applications.

In early 1998, Saba and Downs took a prototype of the head contact microphone, which had been incorporated into a firefighter’s helmet, to Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, for feedback from potential users. The technology, which was patented by the U.S. Navy, had been vividly demonstrated at a Metropolitan Fire Chiefs Conference in San Diego, California, when a fire company created 110 decibels of noise by running a chain saw, a pumper, and other equipment outside the hotel where the conference was taking place. A firefighter standing outside spoke into a standard radio and was unintelligible to the listeners in the hotel, but when he spoke while wearing the prototype head contact microphone, he was easily understood.

After reading about the prototype helmet in a Pittsburgh newspaper, the vice president of Sensory Devices contacted Saba. In July 1998, the company began licensing discussions with the Navy, and the company was licensed to develop and manufacture the microphone the following April. Sensory Devices already had developed communication headsets that used electromagnetic bone vibration, but only for reception. The company relied on standard air microphones for transmission. With the new technology, however, Sensory Devices was able to incorporate bone-conduction microphones for transmission. Recognizing how valuable this hands-free communication technology would be to law enforcement and corrections officers, as well as to firefighters, Saba invited Sensory Devices to demonstrate the technology at the 2000 Mock Prison Riot. Although the original mission of the FFTF was to develop technologies to assist and protect firefighters on the job, it has since developed a formal relationship between OLETC, the Federal Laboratory Consortium, and the National Aeronautics and Space Administration’s Center for Technology Commercialization to include the needs of law enforcement and corrections professionals.

“The introduction of the Radioear headsets at the mock riot was positive beyond expectation,” Holsopple says. “We did demonstration after demonstration.” As a result of the mock riot, the Minnesota Department of Corrections ordered a number of the devices for evaluation and has since ordered more. Lt. Carol Krippner, Special Operations Response Team Commander at the State’s St. Cloud facility, has used the headsets in training.

“The ability to communicate quietly, without open mikes, in a stealthy entry like a hostage situation is important,” she says. “The team can be right on the other side of the wall from the inmates,getting directives from a commander. They know when they’re given the green light to go in, and there’s no beeps or feedback that you’d have on the open mike to alert the inmates.”

Conversely, in dynamic entries with a lot of noise, flashbangs, smoke, and lack of visual contact, Krippner says that team leaders can still communicate without problems.

Sensory Devices brought the headsets to the mock prison riots in 2001 and 2002, and will be returning for the 2003 event, during which the devices will be used and evaluated in various riot scenarios.

“Some of the best ideas for new products come from those who know a better way to do the job, but who lack the business acumen or capital,” says Nick Tomlin, deputy director of the National Institute of Justice’s (NIJ’s) Office of Law Enforcement Technology Commercialization (OLETC), part of the National Law Enforcement and Corrections Technology Center system. “We give their ideas a push to get them out to the field more quickly.

Since 1995, our mission has been to put technology into the hands of law enforcement and corrections.” OLETC’s decision to provide commercialization assistance to a particular technology depends on whether that technology will add genuine value to the public safety field and falls within the needs and priorities established by the Law Enforcement and Corrections Technology Advisory Council (LECTAC). LECTAC is a national body of more than 100 criminal justice and public safety professionals representing local, State, and Federal agencies; associations; and courts. The advisory council also has representatives from Canada, the United Kingdom, and Israel. Tomlin says that if a technology meets the criteria, OLETC stands ready to provide market research and evaluation; application and competitive analysis; and information on intellectual property, licensing, strategic partnerships, and capital formation. OLETC also provides operational demonstration opportunities and coaches participants in project management and commercialization planning.

In addition to its day-to-day commercialization assistance initiatives, Tomlin says OLETC hosts three to four Commercialization Planning Workshops® each year for entrepreneurs with little experience in commercializing product or for established businesses that want to pursue the public safety market. These 5-day workshops give technologists the tools and knowledge they need to take their ideas or products to market. OLETC also sponsors a yearly National Commercialization Conference to bring manufacturers and venture capitalists together with technologists and inventors. But the ultimate opportunity to demonstrate new technologies and receive feedback, Tomlin says, occurs at the annual Mock Prison Riot at the former West Virginia Penitentiary in Moundsville. The event brings together hundreds of corrections officers and tactical teams to use and assess new technologies in realistic situations. Organized by NIJ, OLETC, the National Corrections and Law EnforcementTraining and Technology Center, and the West Virginia Division of Corrections, the 2003 Mock Prison Riot on April 27–30 is expected to showcase 75 different technologies for almost 1,200 law enforcement and corrections professionals.

For more information about the commercialization assistance and activities offered through the Office of Law Enforcement Technology Commercialization or the technologies mentioned in this article, call 888–306–5328 or log on to the center’s website, www.oletc.org. For information about the Law Enforcement and Corrections Technology Advisory Council, contact Jeff Vining, 800–248–2742, or e-mail, jvining@nlectc.org.

This article was reprinted from the Spring 2003 edition of TechBeat, the award-winning quarterly newsmagazine of the National Law Enforcement and Corrections Technology Center system, a
program of the National Institute of Justice under Cooperative Agreement #96–MU–MU–K011, awarded by the U.S. Department of Justice. Analyses of test results do not represent product approval or endorsement by the National Institute of Justice, U.S. Department of Justice; the National Institute of Standards and Technology, U.S. Department of Commerce; or Aspen Systems Corporation. Points of view or opinions contained within this document are those of the authors and do not necessarily represent the official position or policies of the U.S. Department of Justice.

The National Institute of Justice is a component of the Office of Justice Programs, which also includes the Bureau of Justice Assistance, Bureau of Justice Statistics, Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention, and Office for Victims of Crime.

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