Achieving Radio Discipline

BY MICHAEL CAPOZIELLO

Your success on the fireground as a firefighter or an officer centers around your training and self-discipline. Part of your responsibilities while practicing self-discipline is to make sure you wear your gear the right way, bring the right tools for the job at hand, and be in the right position. Self-discipline also applies to use of the radio and is often overlooked or not taken seriously by many.

How many times have you shaken your head in amazement at what was coming across the radio/scanner? How many times have you been entertained by the “screamers,” those individuals who make it sound as if half the town were burning down when they are calling in a trash can fire to the dispatcher? How about a fire scene where it seems as if everyone is “stepping” over each other’s radio transmissions again and again for the duration of the alarm? It may be entertaining on your end, but I’m sure it’s not a productive process on the other end-the fireground.

Many times, proper radio skills and procedures are overlooked during drill sessions. To some, “If you can talk, you can use a radio.” It’s no big deal, and there is no need to practice. How about the excuse, “Training time is valuable; we don’t have time to practice something as simple as that”? Unfortunately, some departments can’t afford multiple radios and don’t have enough to go around.

Teaching and learning proper radio procedures and skills may not be as cool and as exciting as practicing forcible entry techniques or tearing a car apart with your extrication equipment; however, they’re critically important parts of the overall picture of your department’s operations and of being successful on the fireground.

Tips for Maintaining Radio Discipline Keep Calm and Carry On

Stay as calm as possible when transmitting messages, even in the most critical and hectic of times. It is true that your troops will get excited if you get excited. At the very least, we all should have been trained in Radio 101: Stop, think, and listen before you speak. Take a few seconds to think about what you want to say. Listen to what is being played out over the air waves. Wait for clear air time, making sure orders or important size-up information or instructions are not being given to another unit. Then transmit your message slowly and clearly in your normal speaking voice. If you need to take a deep breath before you transmit, do so. Do whatever you need to do to calm yourself down. No one but you will know you are doing this.

If your radio is equipped with a delay, wait for this tone or chirp to stop before transmitting; otherwise, the first part of your message will be cut off. Keep the microphone an inch or two from your face when transmitting. When transmitting, be aware of possible feedback from other radios in your general vicinity. While operating on the immediate fireground, be aware of the background noise of the operation unfolding-handlines in operation, saws running, windows breaking, and the normal shouting on the fireground. Wait for a lull in the commotion. If possible, turn your back to these noises to help transmit a clear message.

It’s especially important to stay calm and speak slowly and clearly while wearing your self-contained breathing apparatus (SCBA) face piece. Messages transmitted on the fire floor while wearing SCBA are hard to understand under the best of situations. Find the best position for the microphone (mic) of your SCBA. What does the manufacturer recommend? Does your face piece have a voice port for the mic? Practice giving various messages to see at which angle and position the mic transmits the clearest message.

Eliminate Unnecessary Transmissions

The radio is not a telephone; do not operate it as one. Radio transmissions must be brief and to the point. Like the “screamer” we spoke of earlier, I’m sure we have all heard the “long-winded” firefighter who seems to drag out every transmission with needless repetitive information. Once again: Stop, think, and listen. Take a moment to mentally compose what you want to say and to determine if it is relevant to the situation. I recall a transmission from my department where the officer requested the electric department to respond to a commercial building where the service line into the building was ripped off. The dispatcher was on the phone making the proper notification when the officer called again with an additional transmission, “The bricks to the building were ripped out.” Okay, what action were you requesting? This added information had no effect on the response of the electric department and was not of any relevance for the dispatcher. The situation may be of concern to the members operating at this alarm, but it is not necessary to transmit it over the air.

Make sure your radio messages are directed to an individual or a particular company/unit. Do not transmit a vague message such as, “What’s the status of the fire?” This sort of transmission invites multiple responses and needless transmissions. Worse, the person or company/unit you directed the message to may be the only one who did not reply because of all the needless radio traffic.

Never leave a unit waiting for a response without some sort of acknowledgment. After a few seconds of “dead air,” the unit will assume that its message was not received and most likely will call again with an unnecessary transmission. Acknowledge all transmissions directed to you.

Don’t use words or sayings such as the following: “Be advised,” “At this time,” or “Okay, received 10-4” (they all have the same meaning). Avoid words or terms that do not add to clarity, meaning, or brevity.

Watch out for those “filler” syllables like “um,” “uh,” or “aahhh” between words and sentences while on air. Not only do they drag out the message, but they also make you come off as if you are not sure of what you are doing. People use these fillers in everyday conversations and even in public speeches; they act to eliminate “dead space” between thoughts and ideas. There should never be any “dead space/air” when speaking over the fire radio. Keeping your messages short and to the point helps to eliminate these fillers. The longer and more drawn out your message is, the more likely you may fall into the trap of using fillers. Knowing what you are talking about is the best cure for using them.

Be confident in what you’re going to say. Know how to give a proper size-up and request status reports from companies/units. Understand ahead of time the proper way to request utilities, the Red Cross, or a fire marshal before you get on the radio. You absolutely can tell the difference between chiefs/officers who know what they are doing and those who are not sure of what they are doing.

Practice Radio Situational Awareness

Situational awareness is one of the “buzzwords” in the fire service these days. What is it? It is a state of being aware of your surroundings and knowing what is happening around you at all times. It means knowing where you are in relation to the dangers that will affect your operations on the fireground.

This thought process can be applied to radio usage as well. Understand where you and your company/unit will be situated in the big picture of the alarm response. What will be your particular duties and operations? How will this impact and dictate your radio usage? Understand your crew’s role on the fireground. Are you going to be the second-due engine or truck? Will you be the mutual-aid rapid intervention team (RIT)? Will you be outside ventilation (OV)? Is it going to be your job to find and shut off the utilities to the building? Will you most likely be transmitting messages while wearing your SCBA face piece? Operating in these varying situations and assignments will give you a different set of responsibilities and jobs. Each fireground position and function will also give you a defined predictable set of radio transmissions. It is very important that you understand and anticipate what will be expected of you in your duties and role in the overall firefight.

In the real world during the heat and excitement of acting in the OV role, you may not have heard exactly what was happening on the radio the last minute or so, but you know you heard something being transmitted. If your message is not an urgent message, listen for a moment to what’s being reported. Understand your radio situational awareness and where your reports will fit into the time line of the firefighting operation. This is Radio 101 once again: Stop, think, and listen before you speak. If the incident commander (IC) just asked the status of the primary searches from the first-due ladder truck, you should have the common sense to understand there will be a reply to the message. If no reply is given, most likely the IC will ask again. This is radio traffic I hope we all agree you should not “step on” by transmitting over. Don’t jump in with an entirely different message. It is common sense, but sometimes our emotions and anxiousness to get a message out override commonsense thinking, especially in newer members with limited radio experience. Just because a radio is strapped to your shoulder does not mean you have to transmit something on every alarm. “Speak when spoken to” may be the way of doing business for most firefighters carrying a radio.

Each department has its way of doing things. Although all fires are unpredictable, the flow of the fire attack and its radio “sound track” follow a somewhat predetermined script. Understanding radio situational awareness will help determine where you fit in on the fireground and in the big radio picture.

Solid Radio Skills May Save Your Life

Practicing proper radio discipline on a day-to-day and alarm-to-alarm basis will help prepare you if you ever find yourself in the situation of having to call a Mayday. This will be the most stressful time you will ever have to make a radio transmission, and you may have only one shot at getting it right and having the receiving party understand it correctly.

Let your training take over: Stay calm, stop, think, and listen. Will you be able to think back to your training using LUNAR (Location, Unit, Name, Assignment/Air, Resources) or UCAN (Unit, Conditions, Actions, Needs) as a guide in helping you transmit information during a Mayday? Will you be able to control your emotions? Of course, controlling your emotions in a true Mayday situation will be nothing like controlling your emotions while transmitting a third alarm or a secondary search report; however, practicing solid self-discipline as a routine on the fireground will most likely help you to gather your composure. Remember, you may only have one shot at getting the message over the air.

Even if you are not the person transmitting the Mayday, you still have to be at your disciplined best when one is transmitted. Exceptional radio communication during a Mayday is a necessity. If you are not directly involved with the Mayday or RIT, you must continue to fight the fire. Does this mean you remain on the same channel or switch to another channel for the ongoing fireground operations? You must know your department’s procedures for a Mayday incident in advance. Other members on the fireground must not clog the radio with needless transmissions at this point. As hard as it may be, you need to have the self-discipline to remain quiet unless you have something of urgency that will help with the rescue efforts.

“Oh, That’s Just the Way He Is”

When describing an individual who practices poor radio skills, we often hear the excuse, “Oh, that’s just the way he is.” I don’t know about you, but I’m sick and tired of hearing this statement as an excuse or a “crutch” for individuals who use poor radio skills. Those people have never been taught the correct way or may be intimidated by using a portable radio. You need to correct bad habits and eliminate any fears people may have. They need to be as confident and as comfortable in their abilities to use the radio as they are in using a set of irons or operating the nozzle.

Always include radio communications in a drill no matter how complex or simple, with or without SCBA. Even in a simple ladder-throwing exercise, have the members talk on the radio to someone acting as an IC.

If you’re a chief officer, request copies of complete audio recordings of alarm incidents to critique and review when needed. Face it: You know when radio communication went bad at your alarms. Don’t shrug it off; review it so everyone involved can listen and learn.

Here’s an exercise you can do. If you’re an officer or someone who rides the front seat a lot, find a way to record and listen to yourself on alarms. This advice was given to me years back while taking an officer training class. Back in the day, we set up a tape recorder (remember those things?) next to the Plectron®. When you run out to a call, press “record.” You may think you know how you sound on the radio, but many times it’s quite different when you hear yourself.

Like every other task on the fireground, practice makes perfect. Strive to be the best you can be in all aspects of the fire service. Don’t let the radio end of things intimidate you or be your shortcoming as a firefighter or an officer. Don’t be the “that’s the way he is” firefighter.


MICHAEL CAPOZIELLO is a 30-year member and former chief of the Elmont (NY) Fire Department. He is a department training officer, a public information officer, and an historian. He is also a supervising dispatcher at Nassau County (NY) Fire Communications FIRECOM and the training officer on the fieldcom unit. He has been a member of the Nassau County fire service critical incident stress management team for the past 14 years.


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