The fire service has continued and will continue to work its way through a variety of changes. Many of the problems and difficulties we see and face day to day are due to our resistance to change. However, in a society that has become more and more dependent on new technologies, we often forget to stay current and proficient in what we consider to be basic within the areas we are now involved.

One of these areas is radio communications, specifically on the fireground. Somewhere on the list of contributing factors to a firefighter`s death or serious injury will be “a lack of good fireground communications.” In such cases when tragedy strikes, a firefighter dies, and faulty radio communications are a factor, articles and editorials are written, and, if available, a video and an audio of the incident are reviewed. There is no argument that this reaction is warranted and serves a need, but often we find that the basics are skipped over. Modern advances have helped in many places but have also hurt us at times. If we don`t hear a firefighter calling for help or a message telling us to change our tactics, the “trickle down” list of items and actions that contributed to the death or injury will list the communications failure near the top.



What should we look for ahead of time so that we can strengthen our fireground communications? As you read the following, think back to some of the communications problems you may have seen in your department. Ask yourself how your department rates in that specific area.

Portable radios: Are they available? To whom? Believe it or not, many fire departments do not have portable radios or are limited to a very small number. This is often due to budget constraints, but then again, where do fireground communications rank on your needs or wish list? What has been troubling is to see fire departments that are limited to only so many portable radios issue them to some of their officers. This presents a problem. What happens when the guys with the radios don`t show up or make the rig or whatever? The officer or acting officer who climbed into the right seat has nothing. Make the radios available to the person in charge of that piece of apparatus. If the fear is that leaving the radio in the rig might result in a dead battery because of nonuse or not being checked, then maybe a battery maintenance or rotation program is in order. Or simply place the radio chargers or “rack” charger in a place that is easily accessible to the officer of each rig so he can grab the portable radio before getting on the apparatus.

Do the portable radios have shoulder/ remote mics? Many times, we will order the portable radios with the remote mics on them, only to take the mics off and put them in a drawer. This has to be one of the biggest reasons for fireground communications failure. If the message can`t be heard, it will be missed. The remote mic enables you to protect the radio by placing it in a turnout coat pocket or a radio case and clipping the mic to an area on your coat or radio-carrying case strap that is near your ears. Have you ever noticed that usually the only time the radio without the remote mic is near the officer`s face is when he has something to say? If the remote mic is attached, leaving it clipped to the radio antenna and placing it in a pocket doesn`t help much either. Remember, the most important people on the fireground are our own people. Keep the mic clipped or fastened over your heart, because that`s where your people should be.

Have a good maintenance program. A battery maintenance and rotation program may be warranted. Also, check the operation of the radio. Make sure all of the frequencies receive as well as transmit. In a number of instances, a radio has worked on the main dispatch channel but failed to receive on the fireground channel.

Do you have a fireground communications guideline that also covers portable radio use? Do you use or get assigned a fireground channel at an incident? Trying to run an incident on the main dispatch channel is difficult enough with all of the radio traffic and becomes just that much more difficult as the incident escalates. Establish and use a fireground channel as soon as possible. It should not be used only during severe weather conditions when the main channel is jammed.

Some fire departments believe that they should wait until the incident commander (IC) arrives and after they are set up before switching to a fireground channel. This works but at times can be difficult if you`re crawling down a hallway in the heat and smoke and hear the announcement to “switch to fireground and acknowledge.” Trying to find channel 2 or the channel you use for fireground operations with gloves on in the smoke can be difficult. One way to make this a little easier is to program the portable radio to transmit and receive the primary fireground frequency in the last channel slot, such as channel 8 on an eight-channel portable radio. Then all the member has to do is turn the channel selection knob all the way to the other end to be on the fireground channel. If you use a secondary fireground channel, place it in the position just before the primary one, such as channel 7 on an eight-channel radio. If the secondary fireground channel must be used, all the member has to do is turn the channel selector knob to the opposite end and then back one slot. This is much easier than trying to find channel 3 or 4 on an eight- or 16-channel radio.

What protocol do you use concerning radio traffic on the fireground during an emergency? It is vital to have in place a clearly defined guideline on the use of terminology such as “urgent” and “emergency traffic” to clear the radio and “mayday” when a member or crew is in trouble.

Progress reports from the IC and working companies. Granted there are many “radio talk show hosts” who love to use their radios, but good, clear, concise, and regular progress reports are needed. Giving reports on a regular basis helps to eliminate the on-radio asking of many questions pertaining to the progress of the incident.

Getting help. As the incident continues to escalate, the IC should assign an aide or plans chief. Some fire departments use an officer as a senior advisor to the IC during an incident. This helps reduce the IC`s workload and increases the chance that he will listen to the radio, reducing the potential for missing an important message. Many times, a call or repeated calls for help have gone unheard because the IC was busy or had his radio at his side or in his rear pocket. A chief officer with whom I teach, and whom I admire, has said many times, “There are a lot of incident commanders who have been rumored to talk out of their “sector c,” but we all know that`s physically impossible. So why do they keep their radios in their back pockets?”

Using a communications or command unit can be of great help to the IC. Whether it`s the responding shift commander`s vehicle or a specially designed communications unit, it can provide an environment free from many fireground distractions. A communications unit with a plans chief or senior advisor can offer the incident commander a partner and the help that will allow him to concentrate more on the incident itself. Even with these vehicles available, you still need to make sure you have someone, such as an operations chief and/or sector officers, watching your people in close proximity to the building.

Develop and implement a good fireground emergency guideline. A lost/trapped firefighter guideline can help ensure that the proper steps will be taken when faced with a fireground emergency involving one of your own. In a world full of technologies and advanced equipment, basics such as talking and listening sometimes can be overlooked and result in a tragic ending.

These are just a few of the areas concerning fireground communications. Take some time to look at how your department operates and handles your fireground communications. A more efficient and safe fireground can only be the result. n

RICK LASKY, an 18-year veteran of the fire service, is a battalion chief with the Darien-Woodridge Fire District in Darien, Illinois, and is currently assigned to the Training/Safety Division. He is also an instructor for the Illinois Fire Chiefs` Association, an editorial advisory board member of Fire Engineering, and a member of the FDIC advisory board.

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(Photo by Hank Sajovic.)

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(Left) Are portable radios available to all responding officers? The IC or operations chief and the sector officer must have a radio. (Right) Having a remote mic and leaving it attached to the radio allows the officer to hear the message more clearly and reduces the chance of missing an important message. (Photos by author.)

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(Left) A plans chief or senior advisor can be of great assistance to the IC. (Middle) The shift commander`s vehicle provides a good environment for effective fireground communications. (Right) Specially designed command/communications units, such as this one used by the Westmont (IL) Fire Department, offer the IC an environment free of distractions. (Photos by author.)

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