Alex Kundrat has been in tree care for 45 years, starting when he was 15 years old. For the past several years, he’s run both his own tree care company, Cleveland, Ohio-based Alex’s Tree Service, Inc., and Speak Easy Communications Solutions, LLC, a three-year TCIA corporate member company, also based in Cleveland, that sells communication systems for blue- and green-collar job sites.
“Communications is really taking off,” says Kundrat, who says he got into his second business because of his experiences in the first. “About 10 years ago, I saw a competitor’s Bluetooth intercoms in a trade show.” Kundrat recalls thinking, “This is going to make work so much more efficient.’”
He bought a set, worked with the units and discovered a benefit he hadn’t expected.
“What I found out, interestingly enough, was that anxiety was significantly reduced,” Kundrat says. “I thought I was exhausted at the end of the day because tree work is hard work, which it is, but I also was mentally exhausted from trying to explain something to someone 30 feet away or 30 feet down who just couldn’t comprehend what I was trying to say. You know, you’re telling them how to rope something and control it over the wires, and they don’t understand.
“It made work so much more efficient, and I started thinking, ‘The sky’s the limit. I can sell these all over. All sorts of industries need this.’”
True. Noise-reducing communication headsets are a common and important tool used on any job site, from tree care to construction, providing better efficiency, safety, productivity and, as Kundrat says, better peace of mind for those on the site.
He is not alone.
“At TCI EXPO two years ago, a guy came up and gave me a bear hug and said, ‘You know what, you’ve stopped more fights. I can’t thank you (enough),’” relates Chris Clarke, director of global sales for Sena Technologies, Inc., based in Irvine, California. “I said, ‘What do you mean?’ He said, ‘Well, you’ve got a bunch of arborists who were yelling at each other up and down the tree all day long, two or three days a week. People have come to blows because someone felt they were being yelled at, and now they can say, ‘Hey Bob, a piece is coming down,’ or, ‘Hey Bob, can you do this?’”
The altercations had stopped, the bear-hug guy told him.
Clarke says companies buy them for safety, but soon realize other benefits, such as increased productivity and greater professionalism, since workers are no longer yelling back and forth to each other in their customers’ backyards. (He notes that it’s been replaced by the worker who appears to be “talking to himself” in the backyard, a subject of humor on the job site.)
“Basically, any high-noise industrial customer who needs hands-free communication, we’re going to be a good fit for them,” says Doug Sartin, outside account executive at Austin, Texas-based Setcom Corporation. “Obviously, tree service is one of them, but that’s not the full extent of it. We sell to public-works departments, vacuum-truck operators who are cleaning out sewer lines, crane operators, asphalt paving customers working on street repair, the list goes on and on. We’re also very heavily invested in fire service. Public safety is a major focus of our equipment as well.”
Sena officially entered tree care five years ago, but the actual entry into the market came years earlier, when enterprising motorcycle-riding arborists bought the same communication systems they used for their bike helmets and attached them to arborist helmets. Like those who work in industrial settings, riders are safer when they can communicate hands-free, and many prefer to reduce the noise around them. Clarke says that Sena became aware of tree-work applications only after those arborists began contacting the company and suggesting modifications. “Since then, we’ve taken what they started and used that same technology to create products more for the arborist.”
It is not the only time the market identified the need for the company.
“We weren’t in factories at all, and then all of a sudden (in spring of 2020), I got a call from the director of IT (information technology) with General Mills saying, ‘Hey, can we do this and this?’ I said, ‘Sure,’ and since that day we’ve done millions of dollars of business in that industry because of COVID-19, by creating products that will work in factories. The technology is there. It’s just a matter of shaping the form so it fits the application.”
In the interest of tree care businesses considering an upgrade to their communications, some of the leading communication-set suppliers gave us feedback on the systems. The purpose of the systems on the market are the same: to increase efficiency and safety by allowing crew members to talk with one another on a noisy outdoor job site, while also protecting workers’ hearing.
Kundrat offers this scenario to illustrate the benefits of strong communications among all parties on a tree care job site.
“I’m cutting a limb (with a crane assist) and it’s starting a pinch. I don’t have to turn around and give hand signals, especially if the crane operator’s staring into the sun trying to see me. I’ve just got to say, ‘Tip it a little toward the house, you’re pinching the saw.’ Boom, it cuts free. He swings over to the drop zone. The crew member with the saw (says), ‘Hey, let me cut these bottom limbs off and get them out of here before we lay it down.’ Drops it down, zip-zip, two limbs. Lifts it out of the way. Crew members chip the two limbs. Then, ‘Hey, push it toward the chipper, we’re going to lay it back toward the house.’
“You just saved 60 seconds, at least, on this one pick,” Kundrat says. “Add that up over a day, a week, these things pay for themselves in two weeks.”
Not only can crews communicate more effectively, they can do so without having to pick up a walkie-talkie or push a button, leaving hands free for the work at hand.
“In a lot of situations, you can save significant time on those jobs,” Sartin agrees. “If they’ve got a busy day and they’re able to talk more effectively with each other, they’re going to be shaving hours off the job.”
The leading differences between systems are price, quality and technology. Consumers also should be aware that, while most communication systems are intended to be used with earmuffs and hard hats, some come with different components; for instance, some come with the earmuffs and others are fitted into the earmuffs or strapped onto a hard hat for use.
Noise reduction, communication improvement
For those considering a system, one thing to evaluate is how the headset reduces surrounding noise as well as noise coming in through the microphone, while still keeping the conversation at full volume.
For instance, the Setcom system comes with noise-canceling earmuffs that reduce ambient noise by 43 decibels, says Sartin. He also extols the full-duplex capabilities of some brands (including Setcom) as opposed to the half-duplex systems used by others. Simply put, the full-duplex allows speakers to communicate in real time, as if on a conference call. The half-duplex is a voice-activated system similar to a walkie-talkie, so only one person is able to speak at a time.
“From a safety perspective, if you have a crew of people on the headsets, it’s much more ideal for them to have the real-time communication as opposed to the half-duplex, because somebody could yell for somebody to cut a saw off or cut the grinder, and if somebody’s talking, they’re still going to hear it,” Sartin says.
The Speak Easy system, which fits into existing earmuffs, has noise-reducing technology in its microphones.
“They’ll pick up a steady, low-frequency sound, typical of engines,” says Kundrat, whose company also relies on full-duplex capability. “If you clang a steel I-beam, they will not cancel that out. A truck shooting past you on the road, it doesn’t have time to cancel. (It will reduce or eliminate) industrial, heavy-engine noise, machinery, that type of thing; it knocks chain saws down significantly.
“What I do is go into volume boost and wear earplugs under it, and that takes the edge off the saws,” says Kundrat, who lives with hearing loss from his early days in the business. “If you have good hearing, you can just turn the volume down and take the edge off the saws. Saws are high frequency and in the same range as speech, and if it was canceled out, you’d miss the ‘ph’ and ‘sh’ sounds in the English language, which would make it very difficult to understand.”
Kundrat also cautions against over-reliance on the headsets and urges headset wearers to use caution on all job sites.
“Just because someone says in the headset ‘I’m backing up’ doesn’t mean they should be any less careful than they would be without the headset,” he says. “What if one guy’s headset broke or died? The person backing up still needs to wait to hear ‘All clear’ from the people around them. We can’t get too comfortable with technology.”
As always, crews should stay cautious and stay smart.
“There are still protocols that all those companies have with communication,” Clarke says. “Meaning, before you drop anything, you’ve got to announce. Before you climb, you need to tell people, ‘Hey, I’m about to ascend.’ There are protocols they still do that they did prior to the comms, it’s just that now everybody can hear them much better.”
The Down and Dirty on Headsets
What should the consumer look for in a communication system? Here is what some of the leading sellers had to say about their products’ features and benefits.
“3M’s Peltor LiteCom Headsets have become more popular in recent years, mainly because they’re easy to use and help keep workers safe and productive,” according to Fredrik Johansson, global product marketing manager with 3M’s Hearing Protection & Communications Solutions, Personal Safety Division. “With the voice-activated,
noise-canceling communication microphone and extended operating times, the headsets enable workers to clearly communicate in noise.”
In addition to tree care, 3M supplies the process industries, steel industry and pulp and paper industry. Sawmills are one of their main customers.
“I can share important feedback 3M has received from tree care customers,” Johansson relates, echoing Alex Kundrat, “which is that, once workers start using the LiteCom Headsets, not only are they able to communicate with fellow workers more easily, but they feel safer and less isolated on the job. Tree care crews are able to clearly communicate using the LiteCom Headsets, even around extreme noise like a chain saw.”
The Peltor LiteCom Headsets feature built-in programmable analog and DMR (digital mobile radio) two-way communication. They have voice-operated transmission for hands-free operation. The price is dependent on the version/type, but ranges from $600 to $1,200.
Speak Easy is the exclusive distributor of the Vertix line of communication products, which include helmet-
communication units called the Actio, Actio Pro and Actio Pro-C, ranging in price from $160 to $280 per unit. They can be installed on hard hats and in earmuffs to allow two-way communication between from two to six people in and around a job site.
The system uses Bluetooth technology to allow workers to communicate as if they were on a conference call, company president Alex Kundrat says, while filtering out other loud job-site noises. He adds that the technology is improving constantly.
“We’ve had 30 improvements in five years,” Kundrat says. “This is the third model, and we’re improving the wiring on the next batch.”
Setcom’s Liberator Max wireless system is a stand-alone, wireless, headset-to-headset intercom system. Outside account executive Doug Sartin promotes the quality and ease of use for a system near the high end in price, at $750 per unit.
“We don’t require any base station, any installation, anything like that. It’s literally a headset that you turn on and use to start talking to each other,” Sartin says. There are no buttons to hold down, which allows hands-free use and open conversation where all users can talk at the same time.
They come in sets of up to eight units, and can operate over eight channels. With no base station (also called a communications hub), crew members simply tune to the same channel and talk freely in a closed group, without interference. “It’s really easy to get up and go.”
It is a durable headset, says Sartin, who notes that the company can service the equipment itself, without needing to send it out.
The Tufftalk M ($499 per unit) uses the mesh protocol, a “self-healing, self-optimizing network, always looking for the best connection and seeking a new one when a device disconnects,” according to the company. It allows the user to communicate with up to 23 other people. It is the top of the line for the Tufftalk series, the other versions of which connect via Bluetooth.
Coming this fall: the 33i, the first unit specifically designed for the arborist field. It uses tough cabling, components that attach to the helmet and speakers that go inside existing earmuffs. Units are priced at $269 per.
“The difference in product is usually the intercom part of the product,” says Chris Clarke, director of global sales, noting that in addition to the technologies mentioned (Bluetooth, mesh, half-duplex, full-duplex), some use FM radio or a Wi-Fi hub that sets up on a truck. “We use full-duplex,” says Clarke.
“I’m making more than a million units a year of that (electronic) board, so my economy of scale is a little different,” Clarke says. “I’m using the same board in a moto unit, a ski helmet, a bicycle helmet, a boating unit, a factory unit, a medical unit … so, I’m basically creating a board with that technology” for multiple uses.