Drills You Won’t Find in the Books: The Fence Drill

Article and photos by Raul Angulo

Firefighters are a stubborn breed, especially when it comes to personal preferences. No one likes to be told what to do, what to wear, or how to wear it. Especially when it comes to portable radios. I strongly suggested in a previous article that any firefighters who use the leather strap and holster to carry their radio under their bunker coat during firefighting operations haven’t thought the whole process through. I listed a few case studies to illustrate the short-sightedness of carrying the radio like this, but if this practice still doesn’t raise a red flag for you, then you’ve never been pinned down before. The only way we’re going to settle the issue is to run you through the “Fence Drill.”


The radio is more than just a means to send and receive orders from the incident commander. It’s your lifeline in case you get trapped inside a structure, so it’s important to make sure your hand microphone (mic) and speaker are securely attached to your coat. Simply clipping it on to the tab of your coat may not be enough. With full bunker gear and tools, it’s hard for a firefighter to be light on his feet. A firefighter can easily add 50 pounds or more to their weight, so when they trip or fall, more momentum is generated. A fall down a basement stairway can be violent. That type of a fall can knock the mic right off the bunker coat. If you’re in heavy smoke with limited visibility, it might be hard to find your mic when you need it the most.

The best method I’ve found to keep my mic secure is the a retractable lanyard system that allows me to pull the mic into the best position to speak while covered and on air with my SCBA. I can let the mic go and it will snap right back to my left shoulder. Even after tripping, tumbles, and reduced profile fireground survival drills, my mic has always been where I expected it to be without fail. I tell all my crews a retractable lanyard system is worth investing in.

Protecting the Box

Let’s quickly review protecting the box. If you trip, one’s natural instinct is to put both arms out in front of you to break your fall and protect yourself. We need to teach firefighters to try and “protect the box” when they fall. This is the space around your upper torso and around your face so you can move your head, see, and breathe. It also allows you some hand movement so you can reach your mic or the portable radio unit, transmit a Mayday, press your emergency button, check your air supply, operate the bypass valve on your self-contained breathing apparatus (SCBA) regulator, activate your PASS device, and turn on your flashlights.

The five positions for protecting the box are:

  • Hands and knees crawl position
  • Locking your elbows and supporting weight on the humerus bones.
  • Push-up position.
  • On your side.
  • On your back supporting the weight using your hands and the elbows.

Every piece of survival equipment should be within that “box” because that’s where your hands are.

The Fence Drill

The fence drill is designed to realistically create the sensation of being pinned. Check out fencing companies in your district for scrap sections of chain-link fences. Lightweight gauge is best. You only need a length approximately 7 x 9 feet, or a section sufficient enough to envelop a firefighter. The metal tube-framed sections also work, but be careful when you weight it. These sections can hurt the firefighter because the chain is rigid. If fencing is not available, you can also create the same sensation by using a heavy-duty plastic tarp or canvas tarp. The fence is best because the company officer can see what the firefighter is doing, allowing the officer to coach them during this fireground survival drill.

The fence drill can be inserted into a SCBA mask confidence course, a search and rescue exercise, or following a lead line or hoseline into a building. Firefighters need to be in full bunkers with SCBA, covered, and on air with their face pieces blacked out. Allow them to carry their portable radios the way they normally do. Obviously you want to target firefighters who wear the radio strap because you want them to experience being pinned down, but trust me, everyone will have trouble reaching their radios. Make sure all the instructors go through this drill first before they put students through it.

RELATED: Handling the Mayday: The Fire Dispatcher’s Crucial Role

As firefighters crawl to the fence station, drop the chain-link fence on them quickly and forcefully. You want to simulate a sudden collapse. Dropping the fence on them will not injure the firefighters. They are well-protected with all their bunker gear in place. Then quickly have one or two instructors lay on the fence to add some weight to the fence and pin the firefighter’s arms and hands. If the firefighter resists and stays in a crawling position, allow him to go through the Mayday radio procedures. Have him reset his radio carrying position and then knock him over so he’s pinned. If he doesn’t fall over, the element of surprise is lost, so talk him through it. “Okay, now lay flat and try to reach your radio.” If you can knock the firefighter over so he’s pinned on the first go, that would be best.

The weight of the instructor is primarily to restrain their movement and give them some sense of confinement to make breathing a little more restrictive–not to crush them. Exercise restraint and use common sense. Once the firefighter is pinned down, ask him if he is “ok” and if he can breathe. Keep the firefighter calm and let him know he can call “stop the drill” at any time and he will be released. Many firefighters have never felt the sensation of being pinned down before. It can be scary and claustrophobic. However, I have received nothing but positive feedback from my students and crews. This is a safe drill.

Firefighter radios do not need to actually be turned on, so you can have them key their mics, the radios, and depress emergency buttons without interfering with actual radio traffic or bothering the fire alarm center. You’re practicing a manipulative skill here. Of course, if you can use actual training channels, live radio practice is better. Make sure if they are successful in keying the mic, that they verbalize the necessary informational criteria for calling a Mayday using LUNAAR – Location, Unit, Name, Assignment, Air reserve, Resources needed.

Once pinned, most firefighters will not be able to reach their radio or their mic–no matter how they carry it. Ask them, “If you can’t reach your radio mic, then how do you call for help?” The answer is…lay still for 30 seconds until their PASS device activates. Every firefighter knows this but many won’t remember during this realistic, frustrating drill. They will try and fight to free themselves from the fence. With every twisting movement, they’re resetting the PASS device. Meanwhile, they are wasting time and using up valuable air.

RELATED: Your Ability to Call a Mayday Depends on How You Wear Your Radio

Firefighters who wear their radio in the breast pocket eventually have greater success in using all the functions of their radio. Grabbing your mic during a fall, laying still to activate the PASS device, learning to protect the box, and realizing having your radio under your coat sucks! These are the four main teaching points. Other teaching points and valuable lessons will present themselves during the fence drill.


I guess in the end, it’s simply a matter of personal preference. But after hours of research, practice, and actual emergency situations, I would conclude that “in the pocket” is the best way to wear the portable radio. If you become pinned down using the radio strap under the bunking coat method using a standard mic cord, you’re settling for one method of calling a Mayday when you actually have four methods available to you. If you can survive the fence drill and still reach your radio under your coat, push your emergency button, key the radio, increase volume, change channels, switch to simplex, and tighten down a loose antenna, then fine – go ahead and keep on wearing your radio under your coat, because you’re a rock star! Others will re-evaluate this method, probably abandon the practice, and most likely be grateful they didn’t have to learn this lesson during an actual Mayday incident. 

RAUL A. ANGULORAUL A. ANGULO is a 37-year veteran and captain of Ladder Co. 6 with the Seattle (WA) Fire Department. He is an international author and instructor on various fire service subjects including strategy and tactics with firefighter accountability, crew development, and company officer leadership. He writes the monthly column “Tool Tech” for Fire Apparatus and Emergency Equipment magazine.


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