Fireground Radio Channel: To Switch or Not to Switch?


One of the ongoing debates in the fire service is whether to switch radio channels on the fireground when a Mayday is transmitted. Simply answering yes or no is the easy part; understanding the question—and why it’s being asked—is actually the real answer to the question.

Think about the question for a minute: Should we switch firefighters to another radio channel during a Mayday? Before we commit to an action (or answer), let’s try and understand why we even consider switching a radio channel when something bad happens on the fireground.

We use the radio for a number of reasons, but the main purpose is to communicate needed information to update firefighters on how things are going. The information flows from Command to individual companies, from companies to Command, between companies, and between individual company members. The information can be routine (transmitting common information updates that take place on every fireground: search results, fire location, crew location, ventilation needs) or it can be emergency (Mayday, safety issue, evacuation). Whatever the information, it must be communicated, received, and understood.

We continually debate whether we should change radio channels because there seems to be too much information (traffic) on the regular (assigned) channel.

There’s too much information on the assigned channel not because we’re overloaded with important information on the fireground but because we don’t practice radio discipline. Radio discipline refers to the proper timing and use of the radio on the fireground. It’s a learned skill that firefighters must continually use and practice for it to work on the fireground. Radio discipline starts with the individual user.


Let’s face it: We have all types of radio communicators on the fireground. We have radio users who understand how and when to use the radio—and the value of a well-thought-out, short and concise message. These users constantly listen to the radio for information. They also use the radio to provide needed information. They believe in the value of need-to-know, not nice-to-know, information. They also realize that if they can provide the information face-to-face, without jamming up the radio, then that may be the best way to communicate it.

Next we have those radio communicators who never think before they speak. We’re not even sure if they’re thinking as they speak, because it certainly doesn’t sound like it. The first reaction to these radio communicators is, What did he just say? The user often repeats the message because it wasn’t clear or understandable the first time. Many times, after a couple of failed attempts at understanding the message, the message is simply lost, indicating it probably never needed to be said in the first place. The problem with these users is that they draw in other users. Oftentimes the dispatch center or control operator chimes in to try and help others understand the message; sometimes it works, and sometimes it doesn’t. What this does do is take up more valuable airtime that someone else may need.

Next we have those users who recite War and Peace every time they key up the microphone. We all have them, and we all know that we don’t have time to extract their coded language. Just when you think they’re ready to stop, they get their second wind and continue!

We also have those users who never talk on the radio, even when they have information (need to know) that would make the job easier or safer. They’ll always tell you after that they almost got on the radio and said this or that but decided not to.

Finally, we have those users who don’t even turn their radio on when they operate on the fireground; if they do, they fail to get it on the correct channel or turn the volume up loud enough to hear it.

So, when we show up on the fireground and a Mayday is transmitted, should we switch radio channels? Let’s not go there yet.


Let’s talk a little about the radio, how you carry it, and how you operate it.

Radio types.We use a variety of radios on the fireground: some simple and some sophisticated, some with a couple of channels, and some with way too many channels. We now have analog and digital (the jury is still out on the operational end on some of these). No matter which type of radio you have, do you know how to use it? How many channels are on it? Where is the channel selector located? Where are the on/off and volume switches? Is a lapel microphone attached to the radio? Is this lapel microphone optional or mandatory?

Channels. As for the channel, does your department have a dispatch channel? Do you operate on fireground or tactical channels? When do you switch? Some departments have the luxury of dispatching on one channel and then putting all responding units on an operations channel for that incident. Unfortunately, some departments still have to dispatch and operate on the same channel. Many departments fall somewhere in the middle. At the very least, all departments should strive to get at least one fireground operations channel so that all of the potential dispatch traffic doesn’t have to be transmitted on top of an actual working incident (try for grant funding, at the very least, to move in this direction).

Carrying the radio. Where do you carry your radio? Radio pocket? Which side of your body? Radio strap? Inside your coat or outside? Do you actively listen to your radio when working on the fireground? Can you hear it? All the time?

If you carry your radio in a radio pocket, which way is the speaker facing—toward your chest or away from you? Is the volume all the way up? Do you use a lapel microphone? How is it carried? Where is it carried? Does it stay secured or does it fall down around your waist/knees? If you don’t use a lapel microphone, when you try and listen, do you have to stop and put your ear down toward the radio pocket? When you transmit, do you have to take the radio out of your pocket to talk? Have you ever dropped your radio?

If you carry your radio with a radio strap, is the strap worn under your turnout coat or on top of it? If it’s worn on top of your coat, is it under the SCBA or on top of it? Is your lapel microphone secured, and does it stay in place? When you listen, are you able to hear through the lapel microphone? When you transmit, how much effort does it take to key the radio and talk?

Obviously, the use of a lapel microphone with a radio strap is strongly recommended. In addition, when the radio strap is worn under the turnout coat, it’s less of an entanglement hazard. This setup, when practiced, requires minimal effort to hear and transmit messages.

Operating the radio under fireground conditions. The key here is fireground! Operating a radio outside a fire building is a whole lot different than operating it inside. It’s easy to operate a radio when you don’t have fire gloves on. It’s easy to operate a radio when you’re not wearing turnout gear and an SCBA, crawling around, unable to see, stretching more hose, operating a nozzle, or performing a search. If you’ve set your gear up to operate under worst-case fireground conditions, listening and transmitting are not that difficult. Practice not only with the physical skill of operating the radio but also with the mental skill of forming your message prior to speaking.


Should we switch radio channels when a fireground Mayday is transmitted—that is, should we move all noninvolved firefighters (those not directly involved in the Mayday) to another channel and leave only the Mayday firefighter and RIT operation on the original channel? The argument for changing is so we can lessen (or limit) the radio traffic that would be taking place. Also, it’s for all those firefighters who are not involved in the Mayday operation. The answer is found in realistic fireground training—and I strongly believe that the answer is NO.

Why? Because it is nearly impossible to change the radio channel (consistently and with 100 percent assurance that all members got the message and performed the skill) with fire gloves on under realistic fireground conditions. How can you find out if this is true? Try it! Don’t set up a drill where everyone knows that it’s coming; set up a drill and request the change when the participants are performing real skills with real sounds, smoke, heat, and fireground challenges (not enough hose stretched, multiple people jamming a stairway, saws operating on the roof, confusion) to see if it works.

Then set up another, similar drill and do it again. Then do it again. Don’t rely on one session. Test it as if every firefighter’s life depends on it, starting with the firefighter who was in trouble to begin with.

All firefighters on the fireground are involved in any Mayday that occurs on that fireground. This doesn’t mean that everyone should drop what they’re doing to help; they must have the discipline to continue to do their assigned job. What this does mean is that if any firefighters operating on the fireground can solve the problem of the Mayday firefighter before someone else can, then they should communicate their actions (clearly and concisely to Command) and assist with the solution as long as it’s not at the expense of creating additional Maydays arising out of failing to complete their first mission.

For example, if you’re the engine crew moving down the stairs to extinguish a basement fire and there’s a Mayday transmitted for a firefighter disoriented and lost in the basement, then continue to advance the line down the stairs. At the same time, crew members may be able to assist the Mayday firefighter as they make their way into the basement. The engine crew has to have the discipline to keep the line pushing forward, but they may be able to assist the firefighter while help is on the way. In fact, they may be able to solve the problem before help arrives. What they can’t do is abandon their line (and first mission) because that action may result in three or four additional Mayday transmissions because the fire extends (you can escalate it from here).

If the policy stated that all operating units (with the exception of the Mayday firefighter and the RIT companies) were to switch (let’s say attempt to switch) to a different radio channel, what impact would that have on the operation?


To begin to end this debate, start a series of training sessions for all firefighters that starts to develop fireground communication skills. Teach all members—officers, engineers, privates, chiefs, and anyone else on the fireground—the value of information. Then continue by teaching the consequences of no information in terms of delayed performance, duplicate performance, or just plain chaotic performance.

Next, put this training to use on the fireground by incorporating it into your normal fireground procedures. Teach all members what’s at stake when a Mayday is transmitted. Teach them all how to react when a Mayday is transmitted. Teach them the value of Emergency Traffic Only when a Mayday is underway on the fireground.

And then enforce the procedures during normal operations through Command. Use benchmarks for common fireground events (search results, fire location, fire control, ventilation performed, crew location), and hold the crews accountable by requesting the information if it’s not provided in a timely manner. Develop radio skills through use on the fireground (after explaining things during training) before a Mayday takes place so that the Mayday firefighter has access to as many resources as possible when in trouble on the fireground.

Radios and Recruits

What kind of results should we expect from new firefighters if radios are nonexistent during their initial learning? Throughout new firefighters’ training, are they issued a radio and taught its value and the operating techniques? If your department is like most, the answer is no. The keys to efficient performance on the fireground are training and developing correct habits from the start. Every recruit firefighter should be issued a radio to be used during training. You don’t have to issue the same radios you’re using on the street, although that would provide the best results. What you’re really trying to do from the start is teach them the value of the radio and communication and how to use it. As their time winds down in the academy, get them some time on the street radios. During the early days, simply instill through training and repetitive use that the radio is as much a part of their everyday firefighting equipment as their SCBA is.

JIM McCORMACK has been a firefightewr for 18 years and is a lieutenant with the Indianapolis (IN) Fire Department. He is the founder and president of the Fire Department Training Network (, a membership network dedicated to firefighter training, and the author of Firefighter Survival and Firefighter Rescue and Rapid Intervention Teams.

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