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Conduct of Operations Newsletter #2

Mark Hunn

Topic: Communications and PPE

Summary: Proper techniques enhance communication while wearing PPE.

Full Article:

Keeping ourselves safe often necessitates using Personal Protective Equipment, or PPE. Ranging from a basic hard hat, hearing protection and safety glasses, to fully encapsulated hazardous material suits, PPE can make communicating clearly a challenge. Continuing our focus on communications, we'll discuss this challenge and ways of overcoming it, beginning with hearing protection.

By its nature, hearing protection can sometimes be a barrier to clear communication in high noise environments. With simple foam or plastic earplugs that simply fill the ear canal, all sound tends to be reduced, including those we want to hear. Because our ears are more sensitive to speech frequencies than background noise, conversation can become easier. Making this happen requires proper technique.

Our own voices sound louder to us while we're wearing ear plugs. Because of this, we lower our voices just when we should be speaking up! The fix seems pretty easy doesn't it? Knowing our tendency to speak softly, put a bit more oomph behind your voice when you're talking while wearing hearing protection.

There's another issue you should be aware of, most people don't raise their voices in proportion to higher noise levels, even without the problem we just discussed. So, when you think your voice is loud enough, do yourself one better and you'll probably be pretty close.

Respiratory protection adds another layer of complexity to our communication problem. While there are in-mask amplification systems available, in my experience they are not a panacea. Where there is a program in place to change/recharge the amplifier's batteries before they fail, amplifiers can work well. Human nature being what it is however; this doesn't happen often enough.

What, then, to do? Simply talking louder while wearing a mask has a tendency to overwhelm most masks' speaking diaphragms, resulting in an even tinnier, harder to understand, sound. In my experience, face to face communication seems to work the best when I pitch my voice down slightly, as well as upping the volume. Your mileage may vary, but this has worked for me and many people that I've trained. The point is to experiment and find a technique that works for you in the masks you wear.

Using a telephone handset, radio, or an announcing system microphone while wearing a mask is another common problem. Here's, a technique that's worked for me. Rather than holding the microphone to the speaking diaphragm, hold it near the exhalation valve. This lets the microphone element get the full effect of your voice, rather than relying on that diaphragm as an intermediary.

With a two-way (full-duplex for communications junkies) system, like a telephone, this technique requires adapting the manner in which we converse. My recommendation is to allow only one person to talk at a time when someone in the conversation is on-mask. While this is always a good idea, any time that you have to move the earpiece further away from your ear to use the microphone effectively, as when wearing a mask, it's vital. It can take some getting used to, but using a proword (procedure word) like "over" is useful.

Some radio systems have a tone alert that beeps when one side of a conversation unkeys the mic. Telephone systems don't have this luxury. Use "over" and make things easy.

Need I also add that taking a breath, fully keying the mic, and then speaking is a good idea? How many times have you heard that first word in a transmission get cut off?

That's it for this outing.