By Jonah Smith
Each firefighter in the country has used, seen, or heard a radio used on the fireground. Over the past 15 years, the radio’s role on the fireground has evolved. Modern day technology allows for radios to do more than just simple radio transmissions; however, has all this added technology changed the core purpose of the radios we depend on so much that performance is affected in a negative way? Numerous manufacturers have finally begun to address the challenges of the fire service in the past few years, but we still must gain more attention when it comes to portable radios.
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In many departments, most firefighters have a radio on them as they enter the immediately dangerous to life and health (IDLH) environment; however, many of them lack basic training on the use of the radio. Using the radio is considered to be a “click and talk” training module during basic training, but anyone who has read any studies on the human reaction to stress understands that this training will not be sufficient for proper performance during an emergency situation. The National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) addresses the training of the firefighter on radio equipment in NFPA 1407, Standard for Fire Service Rapid Intervention Crews. The NFPA states a firefighter who is part of a rapid intervention team (RIT) shall be trained and evaluated on radio equipment among other things.
If you read or review line-of-duty death (LODD) reports, many times firefighters behave erratically, improperly, and even uncharacteristically when placed in life-or-death situations. Often, this behavior is caused by the psychological and physiological adaptations our bodies make as part of the reaction to stress. If one understands these changes, one knows that the main way to overcome them is by continuous and repetitive training. Too often, we fail to incorporate the radio into this training, and one must understand that it isn’t an optional portion of firefighter training. Additionally, we must include incident commanders and line officers in receiving the emergency messages and reacting to them. The same stress reactions can cripple an incident commander (IC), and often the stress leads to auditory exclusion, causing the IC to miss crucial information. Few departments are fortunate enough to have two individuals dedicated to listening to radio traffic on the fireground, so each department must train based on the realities they experience, not an ideal situation.
The first part of any radio training needs to discuss the positioning of the radio in or on the personal protective equipment (PPE). There has been very little study by the fire service and manufacturers relating to radio performance in different positions. However, there is mounting evidence that the cord connected to the remote speaker microphone (RSM) is the weakest link and will melt at temperatures as low as 160˚. Some departments mandate the use of the radio pockets, citing thermal protection for the radio; others have no mandates. Either way, each firefighter needs to understand the limitations of each method of placement.
I place mine on a radio strap under my coat with the mic draped out. I wear my radio on my left side–not because that’s the way everyone else does it but because I am comfortable with the options it offers and the way it interfaces with my self-contained breathing apparatus setup. One key thing to consider when choosing a position is that your choice could potentially affect everyone else in your department, county, and fire scene, depending on your radio system. If your radio fails because of the way it is positioned, that failure could affect numerous other firefighters as well as agencies that use your system. One mic cord failure on the fireground can cripple communications for an indefinite period of time and, more importantly, delay your getting the help you may need in an emergency.
Setup and Options
The second part of training on radios needs to include some basic things about the radio and your particular channel setup and options. The question “What happens when I press this button?” should never be asked beyond basic firefighter training. The time to explore that type of questions is prior to actual emergency scenes. Operators (firefighters) need to understand where pertinent channels are located and where common mutual-aid/automatic-aid channels are. Too often, a radio technician decides the options fire service radios will have in a given municipality, even though they lack the basic knowledge of how we operate while using radios. Additionally, we as a service fail to push to have input on radio options, and we often just stick with what the police go with even though there are numerous differences in our needs on the fireground. Again, the last thing we need is to try to locate a channel as we respond to an emergency.
One of the final recommended modules of training is for the dispatchers, not the basic firefighters. These individuals are perhaps the most under-appreciated yet most important groups of support personnel firefighters have. They sit in a room waiting on us to request resources, information, and additional services all day without any regret. In addition, they are in a controlled environment, away from the stressful situations we encounter, including firefighter emergencies. This fact allows them to remain vigilant and ensure that all transmissions are heard. If you are a student of firefighter emergencies, you are well aware that the ICs on scene miss a majority of urgent Mayday transmissions. With proper basic training and familiarization, your dispatchers can become firefighters’ best friends.
The dispatcher should monitor and record fireground traffic to allow for quick playback or urgent and Mayday messages. This capability alone will assist in saving firefighters lives should they become caught or trapped. Firefighters often discount the role of the dispatcher when it comes to on-scene mitigation, but I want to ensure everyone understands that they are life savers and our link to everything we need while we are on the street. Training the dispatchers isn’t that difficult; it just needs to involve some basic firefighter knowledge, such as the sounds of a low-air alarm, a personal alert safety system device, and a saw. This knowledge will allow them to pass on more information to the IC during urgent radio traffic to ensure the IC has all information that is available.
Modern fireground communications are no longer as simple as turning on the radio and talking. There are numerous factors that affect how well we communicate and many pieces of technology that play into the puzzle. As a service, we must learn to embrace the changes and overcome some of the new challenges being presented in this realm. Additionally, we must always incorporate the use of the radio into all of our training evolutions because in the real world it will be used extensively. Without properly preparing our personnel to communicate urgent situations on the fireground, we are setting ourselves up for tragic failure.
The level of technology of the modern radio systems has changed to variables of the fireground. The systems are so dependent on computers and proper programming that they can inhibit our ability to convey simple messages. Simple items like a system having a preprogrammed “time out” feature to stop keyed-up radios from tying up a channel for longer than 30, 60, or 90 seconds can affect the way we handle our emergencies in our respective jurisdictions. Few firefighters understand the implications of the system programming, but they are the first to find the issues that poor programming can cause. The fire service must take the time to become involved in the design, implementation, and continuous improvement of the communications systems we use every day on every single call to which we respond. We expect our hose, nozzles, and apparatus to function every time we need them, so why should we settle for anything less with our communications equipment?
The topic of communications comes up in nearly every fireground emergency, near miss, and LODD, yet we have never emphasized its importance as much as we have recently. We must continue to emphasize the importance of radio training, use, and design to ensure that we prepare the members of our departments to perform at an elite level should they face an emergency situation. We owe it to the public we serve as well as the members of our department to ensure that we are prepared to communicate clearly and safely on the fireground. We expect peak performance out of the rest of our equipment every time on every call, so we need to have the same expectation and confidence in our communications skills and equipment.
Firefighters from chief to rookie should understand the importance of knowing their radio as they do every other piece of equipment in their cache, and they should never discount its importance. A radio is sometimes the only link between help and a firefighter on the interior. The radio is the most critical piece of PPE assigned on today’s fireground and should be valued as such each day. Remember the last time your radio didn’t work on a call? I am sure the result was a chaotic and disorganized scene that left everyone searching for some clarity. Each day, take the time to train on what the limitations of your system and equipment are so that you are ready when you are most in need of them.
JONAH SMITH is a captain with the Charlotte (NC) Fire Department and a volunteer firefighter with the Pleasant Valley (SC) Fire Department. He serves as an adjunct professor for Fayetteville State University and Rowan Cabbarrus Community College in the fire service programs. He is the secretary for IAFF Local 660.
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