Apparatus & Equipment, Firefighter Training, Firefighting, Tech Zone

Understanding Emergency Communications

Firefighter reaching for a radio
Photo courtesy of Rita Reith, Indianapolis Fire Department

By Jonah Smith

I have always been a huge proponent of calm radio traffic, however I have not always been a good example of it. We all remember our first fire, pin- in, or serious medical call, and more than likely it was not calm in our mind. Sure, I have yelled on the radio and said some dumb stuff, but with experience comes a calm radio demeanor. This expectation is not just for the officer–it should be for everyone who has a radio. These days audio, is recorded and broadcast all over the Internet, so the impression someone may get of your department may come from a five-second audio clip.

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Almost every firefighter has heard the old quote from Andy Fredericks: “The garbage man doesn’t get excited when he turns the corner and sees trash, because he’s expecting it. Likewise, you should be expecting fire on every run.” Yet we continue to hear folks on the radio screaming as though they are seeing the apocalypse unfolding in front of them. I can play you numerous audio clips of officers pulling up to the biggest fire they have ever scene and sounding like it is just a fire alarm. On the flip side of that, I can play you plenty of audio where officers pull up to a trash fire and make it sound like they are narrowly escaping the gates of hell. When I address the topic during training, I always advocate for the use of the 3 Cs of communication: Stay clear, concise, and calm. With these simple rules, communications on every emergency scene can be vastly improved.

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Clear

Everyone that as ever listened to the radio knows that quite often you cannot understand some radio traffic that you may hear. Accents, department-specific terms, and other factors can impede one’s ability to understand certain radio traffic. This is frustrating for both the listener and the transmitter. First, the transmitter is upset because no one is responding or comprehending what he is saying. Secondly, the listeners are frustrated because they know information is being broadcast but they are unable figure out what it is. Also, the listener may judge from the tone of voice or urgency of the message that the information could be mission-critical or safety-sensitive. Many of the errors causing this failure to communicate can be attributed directly to training our members to talk on the radio.

To talk on the radio, no matter what the manufacturer, you must place the microphone one to two inches away from your mouth or voice port. There are many self-contained breathing apparatus accessories that assist with in-mask communications, but if you don’t have those, ensure you bring the microphone up to the voice port at the distance mentioned above. In addition, normal conversational voice should be used when communicating on the radio. Some people do have a “radio voice,” but we need to ensure that we are using a clear tone of voice and speech. No one is helped on the emergency scene if we rush words, use improper slang, or some code word no one knows.

Speak clearly by using common department terminology. Speak into the microphone, and have a clear understanding of how it feels to be on the receiving end of the radio traffic. When we are in an emergency situation on the fireground, we must realize that these are the critical times that we must transmit information clearly and quickly to all members there or responding in. Yelling on the radio only makes your transmission less clear to others. The loud voice on your end actually makes it more difficult for the users on the other end to understand what you are saying. Pick up some of the studies on portable radios and they will only reaffirm that the louder the sound, the more garbled the transmission tends to be. With all that said, there are times where yelling is unavoidable, such as when you are overrun with heat and fire. In our line of work these situations will happen, but we must to do our best to remain as calm as possible.

Concise

Being concise on the radio is definitely one of the biggest challenges we face when it comes to communications. We all know the guy who talks the fire out, turns the two-car accident into a three-alarm talk-fest, or gives a dissertation on the conditions on a fire alarm. We all have them in our department, and sometimes I have even been that guy. We have to realize that only one person can talk at a time on the channel, and that someone else may have something more important to say than what we may be communicating. In addition, firefighters typically have a short attention span. We all know we tend to drown out some things after a certain timer goes off in our head. Being concise should become a habit for all firefighters and officers when we talk on the radio. Never before have there ever been so many radios on the fireground, so limiting radio traffic is more important than ever.

Sometimes less is more. If we limit the length and the detail of what we transmit, people may get more out of it than a 25-second transmission describing the thread count of the sheets inside the house. Much of the time, firefighters just need simple information, so our descriptions and transmissions should reflect that. There are some situations where a long transmission is needed, such as a hazardous materials scene or even some technical rescue scenes, but not every scene needs to as long-winded. Be concise, get your point across, release the button, and give up the air time to those who may need to transmit pertinent information.

Calm

As I mentioned above, being calm on the radio is of paramount importance, especially when it comes to the first-in officer. The saying goes, “How the first line goes indicates how the fire will go.” This holds true with communications as well. If the first-arriving officer screams, everyone will be that excited as they arrive and, as studies continue to show this, will only contribute to more fireground errors. However, if the officer exhibits a calm, no-nonsense, and sensible approach to the fire, the incoming units will be much more disciplined, calm, and deliberate with their actions after their arrival. Also, as I mentioned above, a calm transmitter on the radio is much easier to understand. The louder you speak into the radio, the harder it is for the radio to collect your voice, convert it, and transmit it to other users.

Some would argue that if you are calm on the big fires, people won’t know they are big. I have heard this from command officers in two departments, and I disagree. Officers that remain calm on the radio have a better and more effective command presence thank do those who fail to keep their cool. I don’t believe it is the incident commander’s (IC) job to make a fire sound big or small for anyone. It is their job to safely mitigate the incident. If you have been in the fire service for any length of time, you certainly know the most successful and respected officers are those who are calm in the face of adversity. Firefighters love to see a calm officer or chief when adversity is staring them down.

To understand how being calm affects people in a group, we need to look no further than the military. All great military leaders remained cool under fire. You never hear of any that failed under pressure or locked up, so don’t be the IC that does. Being calm isn’t something that just comes automatically to all firefighters, though. It takes time, experience, and some mistakes. I was a radio screamer on two incidents where I was in command, and those incidents changed me. I listened to the tapes and laughed at myself sounding like a scared little 10-year-old. Since the last of those incidents, I have changed. I’m sure many of you reading this had “those” incidents; the question is, did you learn from them, or are you still an overly excited IC?

The Radio as a Tool

The portable radios that we use are often the most neglected tools we carry as firefighters. Few people understand how the current radio technology operates or the implications of some of the choices made by those who program them. Currently, the nation is in a transition to digital, and many communities have switched to or plan to move towards a trunked system. This type of technology has major implications for the fireground that few understand. Although I cannot list every possible feature of the radios your department uses, I can tell you even the most basic portables have features that you may need to know about but don’t even know they exist. As firefighters we train on many topics, but few officers or departments emphasize communications or radio training while creating departmental training schedules.

It is always a good idea to refresh yourself on the location of commonly used mutual-aid channels, or those channels/talk groups that may need to be accessed in a time-sensitive manner when doing your daily checks. If your template or programming is so complex you can’t remember it, create a laminated layout for the apparatus or create a cheat sheet to help you access the channels in a timely manner.

Be The Change

Through some friendships I have forged in the past few months, I have taken in a bit of a new philosophy that is different than what I once had regarding the fire service. I have begun to realize that change starts with me; or in the case of this article, it starts with you. Practice with your crews some of the items I have discussed, implement a change in yourself, fix it in your station, and then others will follow suit. If you set the good example, others will follow as they see the positive outcomes that come out of what you have done on scenes.

Communications is the most neglected subject in terms of training in the fire service. Continuously, the National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health cites communication as an issue during firefighter line-of-duty deaths. Make the change in your department and yourself to fix some of the communication issues you may have within your jurisdiction. Too many times, informed individuals stand by on the sidelines and fail to make suggestions that could save someone’s life when it comes to communications. Ensure that your jurisdiction coordinates with your radio programming representatives to ensure the fire department has input into the purchasing and programming of radios. As it is in any part of our profession, the more cooperation and the better the communication, the better the outcome.

Clear, concise and calm radio traffic doesn’t come automatically to firefighters; we must practice, train, and reinforce these concepts. Practice talking on the radio as much as you can so that when the time comes to use it, you will be ready. Be the change and encourage others to follow these concepts to create a safer fireground environment. If everyone is on the same page when it comes to communications, the department will be more effective, efficient, and successful.

Jonah SmithJonah Smith is a relief captain with the Charlotte (NC) Fire Department assigned to Ladder 13/Haz-Mat 2. Jonah is a member of the adjunct faculty at Fayetteville State University and serves as an instructor at Rowan Cabarrus Community College. He is an active volunteer with the Pleasant Valley (SC) Fire Department and is the health and safety committee Chair for the International Association of Fire Fighters Local 660.

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Originally ran January 29, 2013.