Solutions to enhance rear crew communication

rescue swimmer royal navy
It's good to talk

During helicopter rescues, communication with and among rear crew members is critical to safe and effective operations. Mario Pierobon delves into the specific requirements and distinctive features of rear crew communication, and explores how developing technology is enabling improved communication options

In the last few years, the helicopter operations industry has witnessed an important step forward in terms of communication solutions that facilitate the operations of a helicopter rescuer. “Nowadays, there are many companies that offer ‘active noise reduction’ technology in their headsets or helmets; this new technology lowered unwanted noise and increased the acoustical comfort,” said Capt. Vincenzo Pucillo, Flight Operations Manager at helicopter emergency medical services (HEMS) operator Alidaunia. “The helmets are now more ergonomic, and more attention is placed on this type of equipment. One should also not forget that many systems have become lighter compared to the past, and this is also important when using night vision imaging systems (NVIS), for example.”

Communication needs of rescuers

Overall, the communication needs of rescuers vary from operator to operator. According to Pucillo, however, rescuers always require clear communications with everyone involved in the specific operation; for example, there might be the need to talk at the same time with both the crew on board of the aircraft and the staff on the ground, causalities included.

According to Rob Thomas of The School for Mountain Leadership in South Africa, the communication requirements of the rear crew are actually quite straightforward. “There must be a communication headset that mounts onto a rescue helmet and has an integral push-to-talk (PTT), and that plugs into the aircraft intercom system (ICS) but can rapidly disconnect and plug into a handheld aviation radio. It also needs to be easy to remove from the rescue helmet quickly and without tools, either for ground rescues or to reconfigure it back to an Alice-band style headset,” he said. “Moreover, it should not be bulky or heavy. Previous experience has shown that a flight crew helmet is a misery to deal with when working as a technical rescuer.”

Microphones and earpieces must guarantee clear communications, especially in noisy technology environments as well as under the heavy downwash of the helicopter. “Helmets must be light in order not to compromise the movements of the rescuers, but at the same they must be capable of protecting the user from danger,” highlighted Pucillo.

Master Corporal Johanie Maheu, 14 Wing Imaging – Greenwood, NS

Master Corporal Johanie Maheu, 14 Wing Imaging – Greenwood, NS

ICS plugging and unplugging

Of particular importance to helicopter rescuers is the ability to unplug from their radio and plug into the helicopter ICS, and vice versa. According to Thomas, there are currently a few standard options available to rescue crews. One option is an aviation headset with aviation plugs. “The rescuer can then unplug from the ICS and plug into a radio when needing to exit the aircraft. It is simple to use and probably the most cost effective,” said Thomas.

Another option is to remain constantly on the radio, and communicate with the flight crew exclusively by radio, even when in the aircraft. “The downside of this is that the rescuer is excluded from all intercom chatter and may lose some of the essential intra-aircraft communications. This is often the option available to rescue swimmers,” said Thomas. “It is also possible to use a plug-in system that connects to the ICS as an interface between the rescuer and the aircraft.

It is also possible to use a plug-in system that connects to the ICS as an interface between the rescuer and the aircraft

Some of these work on Bluetooth with all the range limitations associated with that, while others seem to work on ultra-high frequency (UHF).”

Custom solutions are also an option. There is normally a hefty price tag that goes hand in hand with these, and the after-market support may leave a lot to be desired. “For rescuers who are flight crews and who are using flight helmets, it is simply a matter of getting a handheld radio and an appropriate pigtail, but the issue of the PTT emerges. Finding the PTT on a handheld radio that is in a chest rig can sometimes be awkward, especially when wearing gloves,” said Thomas.

For rescuers who are not flight crews but are either rescue technicians or rescue swimmers, many rescue helmets have the option of mounting ear defenders and clip-on communications headsets, but there are not many aviation headsets that have an off-the-shelf option for mounting onto a helmet. “An additional requirement for technical rescuers is the ability to disconnect the headset from the helmet in the field easily if the nature of the task becomes less aviation-centric,” said Thomas. “As an example, it is possible to take an aviation headset which has a built in PTT on the ear cup and make a helmet mount for it, using the helmet mounts for a set of passive ear defenders. It does the trick, but it requires some tinkering.

For rescue swimmers, there is the additional compounding factor of everything having to be waterproof

For rescue swimmers, there is the additional compounding factor of everything having to be waterproof. Sometimes this means that the solution needs either a throat-mic or bone-conduction mic and results in a highly specialised solution.”

Corporal Mathieu Gaudreault, Canadian Forces Combat Camera

Corporal Mathieu Gaudreault, Canadian Forces Combat Camera

Future developments

Looking to the future and in particular at the possible improvements that could be provided by the manufacturers, Pucillo says that developments are revolving around lighter helmets with a particular focus on the safety of the devices that cannot be compromised. “Some companies are developing ‘wireless’ helmets that can guarantee a great freedom both on board of the aircraft and on the ground. Moreover, in the future we will see helmets with data projected directly on the visors, this is a kind of technology that is normally used only on high-end military aircraft,” he concludes.