Since its initial launch in 2012, the Pfanner Protos Integral Helmet has been building a reputation as one of the premier personal protective equipment (PPE) items in the world of industrial safety. The “integral” refers to its integrated ear, face and neck protection, with a chin strap and rear ventilation between the inner and outer shell. In April 2022, Pfanner officially released its new Protos Bluetooth Communication System units in the United States. Pfanner’s proprietary Bluetooth communication system is purpose-built to integrate with the Protos Integral Helmet.
I have been pleading with the folks at Pfanner to release these communication units in the U.S. for nearly three years. I was ecstatic when my friend Sebastian Viebahn, Pfanner’s key international account manager, finally got tired of my pestering and promised to send me some units for initial U.S. testing prior to TCI EXPO ’22. Viebahn agreed to send me these units with my promise that I temper my expectations for a future U.S. launch. Pfanner wanted to make sure these communication systems (comms) were perfect before they decided to proceed with the American market debut.
The Protos Integral comm units have been in production in Europe for a few years now. But according to the team at Pfanner, they were experiencing some issues with the earlier Bluetooth units. The comms available now are equipped with the popular Bluetooth 4.2 technology. As a production climbing arborist, skills trainer and tree-service owner, I am always on the hunt for the best available gear to increase safety, longevity and production for myself, my team and our industry.
The arborist-specific version of the Protos, the Protos Integral Arborist, is touted as the only helmet with side impact protection. The built-in stowable ear protection is a favorite feature of the helmet. It is one of the key features that makes this helmet so special. Historically, the only issue with these stowable earmuffs is that they make it rather cumbersome to hardwire communication systems, like Sena or Cardo, into the helmet.
That’s not to say they can’t accommodate these comms; in fact, I have Sena Low Pro 10Ks on nearly all my team’s Protos helmets, but they certainly were not designed to accommodate them. Pfanner’s new communication system was developed specifically for the Protos Integral, so all the cumbersome installation issues have been eliminated. The new Protos comm unit replaces the entire left earmuff. This system lives up to its name as integral.
What makes these new comm units so special?
No wires. The most obvious benefit to the Protos Integral comm system is the lack of exposed wires. The unit only encompasses the left ear, so there is no need to have wires connecting each ear to a “brain” or base station. All the communication bits are self-contained within the earmuff, eliminating the snag risk that wired comms experience. No matter how meticulously you try to hide your wires, you will experience wire snags if you spend any time in a tree or chipping pin oak.
Mute button. The ability to mute your comms with one button click, while still hearing the rest of the crew, may be my favorite feature. Some of the other comm systems out there are starting to incorporate mute features. However, nothing I have tried works as well as the Protos comms. This feature is paramount for safety. Just think how many times you have had to ask a ground worker to turn their comms off while they’re near the chipper so you can communicate with the crane operator, eliminating the chipper operator’s ability to hear verbal commands or crane-operator directions.
Noise cancellation. The left-ear comm unit enjoys the same great 26dB rating as the traditional earpiece, but is also equipped with 20dB noise cancellation from mic pickup.
Simple interface. These units are very streamlined and pair seamlessly. There aren’t any of the sequencing disruptions we’ve experienced with other systems. This includes when one of your teammates intentionally or unintentionally “comms off,” causing other members in the sequence to be kicked out of the communication sequence. Any member can enter and exit the comms without affecting partnering comms.
Transferability. One of the unlooked-for pros of the Protos Integral comms is their transferability. Because the entire unit is encapsulated in one ear, the unit can be removed, sanitized and installed onto another helmet within seconds. If your team’s crew assignments change routinely, then it’s handy having the ability to pass off comm units while allowing the crew member to maintain his or her own helmet. This also makes charging a breeze, because you can swap your comms midday in the event your battery dies.
Battery life. The battery life on these units is pretty similar to that of most Bluetooth comm units. Depending on weather conditions and usage, you can expect to get around 10 hours out of a full charge. We typically range from 9-12 hours. These comms take a little more than an hour to charge on a truck lighter (12-volt auxiliary socket) or about 50 minutes in a wall-mounted outlet.
Phone compatibility. The Protos Integral comm units operate well with your phone.
Things to consider
Lack of compatibility. These comms are specifically designed to companion with the Pfanner Protos helmet, so if anyone on your team isn’t wearing a Protos helmet, you should probably consider selecting a comm system that is compatible with multiple helmet platforms. The Protos Integral comms will not pair with Sena comm units.
Left ear only. The Protos Integral comms only consist of the left earpiece. Some people may prefer two earpieces (hopefully not so they can listen to music while working in a highly dangerous environment). But, after running this system for a while, I prefer the single ear system. I still have my Sena wired into my right ear (we are in the process of switching everyone over to the Protos platform), so I have not yet fully escaped wire snag.
Range. Pfanner claims that these comms are good for 600 meters (650 yards) without physical barriers impeding the clear sight line. I’ll be honest, no communication system I have tried (so most of them) come close in a real-world production setting to meeting the range they claim. The Protos comms are extremely clear, but like most comms, large, multi-level buildings can lead to some communication interruptions.
Price. The Protos Integral comm units are a premium product, so we should expect to see a premium price point. These Bluetooth systems retail for around $380 per system. I know that is a lot of money, especially when paired with an additional $300 for the Protos Integral Helmet. But the full Protos Integral Helmet/Comm System is worth investing in if you can.
Both the helmets and comms are fully modular, so you can replace nearly every piece on them in the event they are damaged or start having issues. The return on investment (ROI) for a system like this should be explored. Quality communication systems will improve safety, expedite training and benefit morale.
I have had communication systems installed on all my helmets over the past six years. I know I am not alone in believing that helmet comm systems are vital to safely performing production tree work. Many arborists believe comm units should be the next required PPE item. You can’t truly understand the benefit of communication systems until – after years of relying upon consistent, concise and conscientious communication – you go without them for a few days.
Pfanner’s Protos Bluetooth Communication System was well worth the wait. If you have the budget for a comprehensive safety solution like this, you will be well rewarded for your investment.
Andrew Jones, CTSP, is an ISA certified arborist, production climber. He is co-founder of Rooted Arbor Care Climbing Solutions, based in St. Louis, Missouri.
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This review/debut reflects the thoughts and opinions of the reviewer as a user and does not constitute or imply an endorsement of the product referenced, nor is it an endorsement of any specific company, product or service. Every entity or individual should review and test all products for applicability, safety and efficacy in their particular operation.