FIRE RADIOS: Keeping It Balanced

By Billy Goldfeder, EFO

Here are two items worth looking into. Both apply to fire communications–especially 800 MHz radios and related systems.

The first is about how the FCC claims to fairly balance public safety and private sector needs when it comes to its duties and our fire radio communications needs … but doesn’t. See the link below.

The second applies to the use of 800 MHz radios on the fireground–and a SAFETY WARNING from the Orange County (CA) Fire Department.

Without going into too much of a tirade, that “balance” usually applies to areas, systems, or people who are kind of equal. For example, at the fire department, we often will be slow for a few hours and then suddenly get multiple runs of different kinds, all at the same time. We have a system in place that allows our shift commander to balance what we need to send to what–based on our ability to have the most effect on those who are in the worst trouble. If we get a heart attack and a broken finger run at the same time, we will balance it heavily on the side of the heart attack run. Sure, we will help the “broken finger,” but it is not as high a priority as the heart attack. A dumpster fire without exposures vs. an occupied structure fire? Get off the road. A person with a headache vs. an accident with entrapment? Warm up the spreader. All “needs” will get our attention, but we immediately weigh where we do the most good and apply the needed resources in a system of balancing and prioritizing. Why? It’s what fire departments are expected to do, and it makes sense!

So now we read where the FCC has to “balance” between a “heart attack” (read: the FIRE SERVICE’s NEEDS FOR GOOD, EFFECTIVE FIRE COMMUNICATIONS SYSTEMS) vs. the “broken finger” (the private sector needs to provide cell phone service–at high levels of profit).

Yes, I really like my cell phone. But we really love it when Tower Ladder 61’s crew radios us from inside the fire building and advises us that they are ok … after we thought they had a problem … and we hear them loud and clear without interference. And they only had to say it once.

Our public servants at the FCC can fix the fire communications integrity issues, but they have to want to do it. And while good cell phone service and the profits of those companies involved may be important, good fire service to citizens and–dare we say it– “Homeland Security” and related “ability to talk and hear on the radio” are the only priorities. No balance issues here.

The FCC really needs to get a handle on this entire fire communications issue as private sector needs vs. fire communication needs are NOT equal in the “balance” scale. Every week we all read more articles on these related problems. It’s not getting any better.

Why should the FCC fix it? Like a fire department, it’s what the FCC is expected to do and it makes SENSE. “But it’s not that simple,” some might say. Why not? It’s just a matter of appropriate prioritization and BALANCE.

Background Information

Read FCC Preempts Local Public Safety Communications Ordinance, by Juan Otero, of the NLC, by visiting


**Safety Advisory**

800MHz Radio and Fire Shelter Use

The following is an important change in procedures when deploying your fire shelter and using the 800 MHz Radio. This concern only addresses the “800 MHz Radio” and is not applicable to the Bendix King pack set or the NIFC cache radios.

It has come to our attention that the 800 MHz radio signal will not penetrate the material of the fire shelter. The material of the shelter won’t let you transmit to the outside of the shelter or receive massages while inside the shelter. In effect, the material of the shelter blocks all 800 MHz radio waves. The radio waves will “bounce around” inside the shelter. All tactical frequencies are subject to this problem. When you enter the shelter your 800 MHz will give you a “Out of Range” messages. The Talk-a-Round channels do work but for an extremely limited distance and line of sight only which will be of little or no assistance. Further more, this “bouncing waves” can cause harm (burn) to the retina of your eyes by keeping the signal inside the shelter. Additionally, this “bounce effect” can damage the transmitter function of the radio rendering it inoperable. You are directed to take the following actions when fire shelter deployment is imminent!

  • Notify your immediate supervisor of the situation and your position and plan.
  • Notify your supervisor when you have reached your safety zone.
  • Report your deployment position to your immediate supervisor, number of personnel deploying, prepare the ground, and order deployment.
  • Ensure all personnel are sheltered and make a final check of the area for employees in distress or in need of assistance.
  • Announce to your immediate supervisor that you are sheltering and that this will be your last transmission until the danger has passed. Don’t attempt to use the 800 MHz Radio while inside the fire shelters.

BILLY GOLDFEDER, EFO, is a battalion chief for the Loveland-Symmes (OH) Fire Department. Previously, he served as a chief in Ohio, Virginia, and Florida; an engineering/public protection representative covering southern New York for the ISO; and a lieutenant with the Manhasset-Lakeville (NY) Fire Department. A 1993 graduate of the National Fire Academy’s Executive Fire Officer Program, he is the former chairman of the International Association of Fire Chiefs Volunteer Section and has been an FDIC instructor for the past 22 years. He recently was appointed as an honorary battalion chief of the Fire Department of New York and is a member of the FDIC and Fire Engineering Advisory Boards.

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