IMPROVING FIREGROUND RADIO COMMUNICATIONS
BY ROBERT C. BINGHAM
Good fireground communications should be a part of your everyday operations. They are vital for efficient fireground operations. Most fires that turn into disasters are plagued by poor communications. Despite this, communications in many fire departments could stand to be improved. The following suggestions could help you to improve your department`s communications.
BUY THE RIGHT RADIOS
Too many fire departments buy “Star Wars” radios–more radio than they need. Radios should be “firefighter-proof,” according to an old salty lieutenant; that is, the radios should be constructed so that it is difficult to make mistakes. The more features and gadgets a radio has, the more problems you are likely to have operating them. The characteristics of a good practical radio are simplicity, reliability, and ease of operation. Some radios have tiny knobs and fancy features–such as the capability to phone your stockbroker from the fireground–that are seldom needed on the fireground.
FOCUS ON THE BASICS
Communications can be complicated, so it is important to focus on the basics, such as the following:
Arrival reports. The first company on the scene should give a size-up report–similar to the example below–on the dispatch channel.
Engine 1 (first due) on the scene of a two-story brick, ordinary construction, detached house with heavy smoke showing from one window on the second floor, Side 1, Quadrant A. Passing command.
The report indicates the building type and location of the fire in one succinct message. It is an excellent report because it allows everybody responding to visualize the scene. Others responding are no longer flying blind and will be better prepared when they arrive. Besides helping other responders, it also helps the officer who called it in by forcing him to focus on the problem, which can help him to make good decisions.
The first company in the rear of a building or at the rear of an incident site should give a size-up report, similar to the one below, to Command on the tactical channel:
Engine 2 (second due) on the scene, Side 3. Fire showing from the second-floor windows.
Often poor arrival reports, such as the following, are usually screamed over the radio:
Engine 1 on the scene. Heavy smoke showing.
All that the other responders know from this report is that there is a fire. The fire could be in a detached residential garage or in a major building. This report really doesn`t help inform other responding companies. If the first-arriving company does not give a complete size-up, the next arriving company should give the report.
Companies dispatched to a wrong address should give corrected information on the dispatch channel for the other responding companies. This is common sense, but companies sometimes become excited and simply go into action when they find a fire. Consequently, other responding companies will go to the wrong location.
EVERYBODY SHOULD LISTEN
Listening skills are an important part of communications. Learn to be a good listener. All responding companies should monitor the tactical channel to hear reports between companies on the scene so they will be aware of the fireground situation before arrival. Another advantage to listening is that responding companies monitoring the tactical channel can easily be assigned before they arrive on the fireground.
When everyone on the fireground listens, the operation runs more smoothly and fewer messages must be repeated. For example, if the Exposures Sector calls Command requesting a ladder for checking the attic, Truck 1, on hearing the request, can respond immediately that the ladder is on the way. This action helps Exposures and Command, as well as facilitates radio traffic.
ESTABLISH A FIREGROUND CHANNEL
The tactical channel should be established at the time of dispatch. This is an informal radio channel to report what you see, what you don`t see, and what you think. Good communications are possible while using SCBA. You can effectively talk on the radio through a face mask. It is done every day in many fire departments.
Fireground radio communications should be independent of Dispatch. The fastest, safest, and most accurate communications are direct. Avoid relaying radio messages through Dispatch. If you can`t communicate directly with your own companies, something is seriously wrong.
INFORMAL SIZE-UP REPORTS
It is better to report a potential condition (see examples below) immediately than to give a positive report later (but do both).
“It smells like trash.”
“There is an odor, possibly electrical.”
“I think we have an apartment off.”
“I think we are going to need assistance on this.”
What You Don`t See
If you find no smoke or odors on entering the reported fire floor, notify Command. The actual conditions are obvious to you, but Command doesn`t know whether you`re crawling down a smoky hall or looking for an apartment number.
All Known or Potential Life Problems
Examples of the items that would be included in the report include the following: People are evacuating the building.
People are at the windows.
People are on the balconies.
Whereas any single report may not be significant, multiple reports may indicate a rescue problem.
Solutions, Not Just Problems
Don`t report, “Rescue to Command: We need some more help.” This report is not specific enough and will require Command to have to ask what you need. If you need assistance, report the situation and recommend the solution to the problem, such as in the following example:
We have two codes and need another medic unit and engine company.
If you radio only the information “We have two codes,” Command wouldn`t know whether you`re handling it or are expecting Command to supply resources.
Or, radio the following when the masks are low:
The masks are running out. We will need a fresh engine company and truck company soon.”
Do not radio only the following:
The masks are running out.
Radio the following:
Looks like we are going to need a second alarm.
Not the following:
We have lots of fire.
The radio message should be informative:
Attack to Command: We need a backup line.
Vent to Truck 2: We have rescues in front. Open the roof.
Take action if possible to resolve problems such as in the following:
Rescue to Command: We found a hole in the first floor and covered it with an old door.
When company officers are checking for smoke conditions in a large building by starting from the top floor and working their way down, conditions on the top floor should be reported as soon as possible. The other floors can be grouped. Officers should not wait until all floors have been checked before giving a report, as in the following examples:
Truck 2 to Vent: The top floor number 9 has light smoke. (Always report the floor number of the top floor.)
Vent to Command: Floors 6, 7, and 8 are clear.
RETURNING UNNEEDED COMPANIES
Before notifying Command that you can handle the situation, consider the following: (a) possible extension to walls and ceilings and (b) smoke conditions on all floors.
Be sure. If you do not know all of the above, call in what you do know. Instead of reporting only the following:
We can handle it.
Give a more complete report such as
We have trash in the basement and can handle it with the truck, but we don`t know about the smoke conditions on the upper floors.
When reporting that you can handle a situation, be specific:
Engine 1 can handle it with Truck 1.
We can handle it with Truck 1 only.
We can handle it alone.
ALWAYS ACKNOWLEDGE AND FOLLOW UP
Radio transmissions should always be acknowledged. Sometimes you may hear messages such as “Engine 2 to Command: We have found the fire on the first floor” that are never acknowledged by Command. If important messages are missed, people can die. Too often messages are sent but never acknowledged. Never allow your radio system to become so clogged, busy, or otherwise messed up that messages cannot be acknowledged.
Assume that messages that are not acknowledged have not been received. If the crews are used to their messages not being acknowledged, the whole system becomes sloppy. If companies fail to get a radio acknowledgment, they usually ignore the radio and freelance. Important messages commonly are missed because the IC is not using the ICS and the radio traffic is out of control. Another reason for unacknowledged messages is that the IC is running around with a portable radio and missing the messages.
Too often orders such as “Engine 8, check for water supply problems” are given, but no report is sent back. It is very important that Command and sector leaders follow up on company assignments to ensure accountability and to make sure that the right things get done promptly.
CRITICAL INFORMATION REPORTS
All company officers must understand that the IC is relying on them for information. Danger signs need to be reported. Don`t assume that the IC or others are aware of what you are seeing. Firefighters can get hurt when everybody on the fireground is not aware of what is happening. Too often crews will operate in areas in which conditions may appear normal while being unaware of critical factors occurring around them. Following one collapse that injured firefighters, it was determined that some officers saw some danger signs that were not critical in themselves and were not reported. The combined observations indicated structural problems that ultimately resulted in the collapse. With the right and complete information, the IC and sector leaders can take action to improve firefighter safety.
Emergency traffic messages are very effective for clearing the radio channel for critical messages such as those announcing that firefighters are in trouble or serious situations that have developed. Any sector or company officer can communicate with Command when an emergency exists. Most departments` SOPs use the terms “Emer-gency Traffic” or “Priority” to identify critical messages.
DON`T WASTE RADIO TIME WITH
All radios should have two stickers attached; “Learn by listening” and “Push transmit button with brain, not thumb.” Radio discipline is critical because we can`t afford to waste radio time. Too many incidents have messages such as the following:
Exposures to Command: We`re over here in one of the exposures. It used to be a shoe store, but I don`t think it is anymore. I`ll let you know when we find something out.
We can laugh at such a radio transmission later, but it eats up valuable radio time. Fireground communications should be complete, concise, and clear. The following examples of poor transmissions were taken word for word from the radio tape:
Engine 1 to Command: It`s coming out the window. (What`s coming out the window: fire, smoke, water, or confetti?)
Command to Truck 14: Go to the rear and see if you can help them there. (Help whom? With what?)
Command to Truck 14: Take the second floor. (Do what–fire attack, cover exposures, rescue, and so on?)
Roof to Command: The hatch has been taken off on the roof. (What was the result: Is smoke, fire, or nothing coming out?)
The following radio traffic shows why many ICs get gray.
Command to Squad 3: Is the secondary search complete? (The IC shouldn`t have to ask.)
Squad 3 to Command: We haven`t found anybody yet. We are opening the ceilings. (Are they looking for people in the ceiling?)
Command to Squad 3: Does that mean that the secondary search is completed?
Squad 3: Affirmative.
Moral: Have communications SOPs that outline the required message content.
Many fire departments believe that terminology problems are between fire departments, not within a department. Actually, it is common to have terminology problems within a department. A classic was captured on audiotape during a working house fire. The tape begins at the point where the IC wanted a report on conditions in the rear of the structure and called an engine company lieutenant in the rear for a report. This is how it went:
Command to Engine 2: How is it looking back there?
Engine 2 to Command: It`s going good.
Command to Engine 2: Is it going good-bad or is it going good-good?
Engine 2 to Command: It`s going good, bad. (This really happened. You can`t make stuff like this up.)
Some communications become so mixed up because there are no SOPs. One department uses the term “Take your assigned positions,” but the term is not written in the SOPs. Most members think it means to hold up or stage in line of approach, but it can be interpreted in different ways.
Moral: Make sure that everyone is talking the same language.
POOR FIREGROUND TERMINOLOGY
One afternoon I was the IC at a major fire in the downtown business district. The fire was threatening to come through the roof. The exposure building was attached and much higher than the fire building, which made it a potentially severe exposure hazard.
To protect the exposures, I ordered the truck company to “set up its ladder pipe,” intending that it be ready for action if it were necessary to protect the exposures. When I told them to set up the ladder pipe, I could tell they were not very happy with the order, but I had too many other things happening to pay it any mind.
It turned out that the fire was stopped on the top floor, so the exposures never really became a problem. In talking with the truck members later, I found out that they thought I wanted them to start using the ladder pipe in the middle of an interior operation. I thought “set up” meant get ready to do it, but the truck thought that it meant do it. This incident shows the importance of having common terminology. It ended well, but the worst-case scenario could have been that we would have had crews on the top floor engaged in an interior attack and the truck opening up with master streams from above.
Another example of the dangers of not having common terminology involves an engine company that was directed to cover Exposure 3. The company soon reported back that there was no exposure problem and requested another assignment. They were directed by Command to “cover your position”–not a defined term in that department. It seems that the IC was busy and not sure of what to do with them. What the engine crew did was freelance.
Still another example occurred in a fire department that has an evolution in which a standpipe pack is carried up into large buildings that are not equipped with standpipes. When the fire is located, the standpipe pack is brought to the nearest window and the end of the hose is dropped to the ground. Through the years, the evolution became known simply as “dropping the pack out the window.” One night, at a fire, an officer ordered a firefighter to “drop the pack out the window.” The excited firefighter did what he was told. To the horror of the officer, the firefighter dropped the whole pack out the window. From then on, the firefighter has been known as “Drop Pack Williams” (name changed to protect the guilty).
YOU USUALLY CAN`T REPEAT MESSAGES
Some fireground manuals state that for a message to be understood, it must be repeated back to the originator. Whoever wrote this has never been to a fire. The reality is that that tactical fireground channel is always busy and that repeating messages is not practical, except perhaps for critical messages.
AVOID SCANNING RADIOS
Avoid using radios in the scan mode at emergency operations. The problem is that if the dispatch channel is scanned every time Dispatch sends or receives a message, it interferes with the fireground operation, which can kill your communications. Critical messages may be lost or delayed because somebody on the other side of town has a headache and an ambulance is being dispatched.
ICS AND COMMUNICATIONS
ICS improves communications because sectoring reduces radio transmissions and allows for more face-to-face communications. The company officer is responsible for keeping the sector leaders informed about their locations and the progress being made. Companies should notify their sector leader when an assignment has been completed; if they change position or function; or if they leave the building for air, breaks, and so on.
Sector leaders are responsible for communications from their sector. Before the ICS, the IC sometimes received the same message from three different companies and at other times would get little information. Sector leaders should give progress reports to Operations or Command every five to 10 minutes. Command should not have to ask for progress reports. A sample report would be:
Division 1 to Command: Engine 1 and Engine 2 are attacking the fire and appear to be making progress.
WHO TALKS TO WHOM?
The IC talks to the sector officers unless there is an operations officer to talk to them. The sector officers talk to the company officers. This is how the fireground should operate when the ICS and SOPs are used. Unfortunately, this is not always the case. Command often violates the radio chain of command by talking to company officers instead of sector officers. This is a very common and serious problem. Even in many “ICS fire departments,” the IC talks to companies instead of sector leaders or to a mix of companies and sectors.
The reason this happens is that many ICs fail to sector routine incidents and talk directly to company officers. When an incident escalates, they often continue to talk to company officers instead of sector officers. What we do on the everyday incident becomes a habit that is almost impossible to change in the heat of battle.
It is difficult to follow the proper systems when commanding an escalating incident. When the IC talks to company officers on the radio, the command system is starting to fail. Too often the blame is wrongly placed on the ICS system instead of the fireground commanders.
Moral: Command should talk to the sector officers.
THE IC COORDINATES COMMUNICATIONS
It is critical to firefighter safety that the IC make sure that the right people hear messages that apply to them. For example, if the roof team reports heavy smoke coming from the hatch of an exposure, the IC should make sure that the Exposure Sector copied the message. If the Search Sector is operating on the second floor and the IC gets a report that fire was discovered on the first floor, the IC must immediately notify the Search Sector that the fire is below them. Because the IC delegates functions to different sectors, it is vital that the IC coordinate sector operations.
Messages to the IC are not always accurate. For example, troops operating inside fire buildings usually have tunnel vision. Most fire departments have tales of inside companies reporting that the fire is under control when in fact it is coming through the roof. Interior reports are often best estimates coming from hot, smoky, and often confusing situations. The IC must keep this in mind when receiving and coordinating fireground communications.
THE QUIET RADIO PROBLEM
The fire was reported to be a fire on the roof, and the response was two engines, a truck, a heavy rescue squad, and a battalion chief. On arrival nothing was showing, and companies checked out the roof and the attic while the chief established a command post. I listened to the tactical channel, but there was nothing to hear. The companies checked and went to the command post to inform the chief of their findings. There was no radio traffic at all at this incident. When these companies do have a working fire, communications will probably be a problem because of their lack of practice.
Moral: Every fireground experience sets the stage for future incidents.
IT SOUNDS STUPID, BUT IT WORKS
As an IC or sector officer, do you ever have problems on the fireground because some companies do not answer when you call them? The reason for this usually is that they are not listening or they are on the wrong channel. The answer is to talk to all companies on all alarms. It sounds simple. It may even sound stupid, but it works. Chief Dinosaur says, “We are trying to get less traffic on the radio–not more.” and “What are you going to do on a call like food burning? Invent messages?” The answer to both questions is, Yes. We are trying to reduce radio traffic at nonroutine incidents and increase it at routine incidents. Find a reason to talk to all the companies, even if it is just to call each to confirm that it received the message to return to the station. This forces company officers to become better listeners and communicators. Using this system helps everyone become accustomed to working and talking with each other so that should the “big one” occur, communications will work smoothly.
Moral: Use your radio system at every alarm.
GOOD COMMUNICATION GOES BOTH WAYS
Fireground communication is a two-way street, and it is important for the IC to keep the crews informed of what is happening from the command perspective. Messages from the IC such as “The visible fire in your sector looks as if it has been knocked down as seen from the outside” gives the firefighters feedback and another viewpoint. It also gives them confidence that they are part of an organized effort and that Command is sharp and looking out for their welfare. Acquaint your crews with the game plan. Brief them during long-term incidents such as those that involve hazardous materials or a police barricade so that they know what the situation is and what is expected of them.
INCIDENT PROGRESS REPORTS
Command issues all communications from the incident to Dispatch. The IC should give progress reports at regular intervals. The purpose of the reports is to advise Dispatch, responding companies, and those who might respond what the situation is at the moment.
TYPICAL WORKING FIRE RADIO SEQUENCE
Fireground radio communications should flow. This means that there should be a smooth, reliable, and predictable stream of messages at every incident. SOPs are used to cover routine situations. Directions from the IC are needed only when the circumstances are not routine or normal. This is called “management by exception.” It means that the IC does not need to tell everybody what to do at each fire. The IC needs only to issue detailed orders when the operation is not routine. The following radio transmissions offer an example of good fireground communications:
Engine 1 on the scene of a two-story, row brick house, ordinary construction, with heavy smoke showing from the second floor, Quadrant A. Passing command. (Dispatch channel)
Engine 3 assuming command and backing up Engine 2 in the Attack Sector.
Engine 2 on the scene in the rear with fire showing second floor, Quadrant B.
Engine 2 to Command: The basement is clear, and we`re covering Exposure 2 and assuming command of the Exposures Sector.
Truck 1 on scene. Assuming the Vent Sector and opening roof hatch.
Battalion 1 assuming Command.
Command to Engine 4: Cover Exposure 4. You are assigned to the Exposures Sector. Did you copy this, Exposures?
Exposures to Command: The first floor of Exposure 2 is clear. We are covering the second floor. Light smoke.
Roof team to Command: The hatch is open; heavy smoke is coming out. Both sides look okay from there.
Rescue to Command: Primary search complete. Negative.
Vent to Truck 2: We are working the fire floor. Check below for salvage operations.
T-2 to Vent: We`re throwing covers on the first floor.
E-4 to Exposures: The cockloft of Exposure 4 has heavy smoke but no heat.
Exposures: Command copied E-4`s message.
Attack to Command: Fire appears knocked down. Checking the overhead.
Rescue to Command: Secondary search complete. Results negative.
Vent to Command: Electricity has been cut off.
Exposures to Command: Smoke in Exposure 4 is clearing up.
Command to all companies: Air monitoring negative. All clear. Okay to take masks off.
T-2 to Vent: First floor`s covered. Basement okay.
Ventilation to Command: No extension.
Exposures to Command: Exposures 2 and 4 clear.
Command to Attack and Vent: Go to rehab for a break. Engine 2: You are now assigned to conduct the pre-overhaul safety check of the fire building.
Another happy ending. No muss. No fuss. No errors, and no screamed or lost messages. All the bases were covered. The attack crew attacked, and the backup team protected them. The building was vented and searched, and the exposures were covered. Things went well for the IC because this fire was fought using SOPs and management by exception principles.
DON`T PLAY MUSICAL CHAIRS WITH
Radio channels should be changed as rarely as possible. The fireground tactical channel should be standard; one channel should be designated as the primary tactical channel. If fire channel 2 is your primary tactical fireground channel, portable radios should be left on Channel 2. Unless the channel is unavailable, no channel changes are required. If the channel is not available, then change the channels. This is a better method than having different tactical channels for each response. The fewer changes made, the less chance for error. Some fire departments do not designate a fireground channel until it is needed and requested by the IC. This often results in confusion. Radio channels should be known at the time of dispatch.
Trying to change radio channels in the middle of an operation usually jeopardizes communications. Normally fewer than half of the radios ever get the word. The result is chaos, and on the fireground chaos is dangerous.
Moral: Establish a tactical channel from the beginning; then leave it alone.
THE COMMUNICATIONS OFFICER
At major incidents, it is wise for the IC to assign a communications officer. This officer helps to keep communications operating properly by
recommending the reestablishment of new radio channels when needed,
working with the phone company to establish telephone lines,
setting up fax and cellular telephone links,
ensuring that all the channels are monitored for safety purposes at each incident, and
working with mutual-aid fire departments to handle radio frequency problems.
ADDING RADIO CHANNELS TO A
If another channel is needed, it is usually best to establish a channel for the chief officers. This will relieve radio traffic on the tactical channel. Even when a command channel has been established, the command officers must monitor the tactical channel. A scanning radio is not the answer; there is the danger that a critical message may be missed. One channel is not more important than the other. Critical messages could come over the tactical or the command channel. For the greatest efficiency, the command officer should have an aide who is equipped with another radio to monitor both channels.
The best way to add another tactical channel during an operation is to initiate the new channel at the same time new sectors or branches are established so that existing channels will not be affected. If that is not practical and it is necessary to have some radios change channels, choose sectors that would be easiest to change–usually the noncombatant sectors such as water supply or logistics. Avoid changing the channels of the sectors that are involved in interior firefighting.
Once additional channels have been added, it is very important that the command post constantly monitor all the channels. At major operations at which multiple channels are in use, some radios may be on the wrong channel. There have been incidents where firefighters have called for help on the wrong channel and were never heard. Proper monitoring by a communications officer will address this problem
During major operations, there is always a critical need for more channels. It is wise to have available a cache of radios that are on an entirely different frequency. This doesn`t necessarily mean buying more radios. It means knowing from whom extra radios can be borrowed during a disaster and setting up an agreement for their use beforehand. Cellular phones enhance communications, and they don`t add to radio traffic. Setting up a cellular telephone link between major functions such as the command post and staging will reduce radio traffic.
TALK TO YOUR NEIGHBORS
Using mutual aid is the only way most fire departments can get enough resources to handle major incidents, so it is critical that you talk with your neighboring departments. Establishing a good working relationship with mutual-aid departments before the need for their services arises is critical to a smooth-running radio system. Every-body agrees with this, but hardly anyone does it. It takes a lot of work to make it happen.
When mutual-aid companies are on separate radio channels, it is not necessarily bad. Grouping mutual-aid companies using the same frequency in sectors can work well during major operations. The sector officer is then assigned a radio from the host department.
THE TALE OF THE TAPE
It is easy to tape-record your fireground radio traffic. Often the Dispatch Center will record the incidents. If this is not possible, the taping can be done with a small battery-operated recorder placed in the command post. You will be amazed at the results. The tape will show the flow of the incident and give a different perspective of the fireground. You will hear things you didn`t hear at the time of the incident, and the time sequence may seem faster or slower than you remember it.
Audiotapes are pure gold when it comes to postincident analysis. The fireground tape allows the ICs to evaluate themselves. One chief officer who uses the tape evaluation system has this to say, “I found that I had been using some poor terminology. After listening, I would think of ways to improve for the next time. This has improved me as an incident commander.” Most fire departments don`t evaluate ICs until something goes wrong and causes deaths, injuries, or a major property loss.
A good approach is to have the IC listen to the tape first and then to let the companies or individuals listen at their leisure. Using this laid-back and low-key approach is less threatening to personnel and generates interest and cooperation. After each individual or group has listened to the tape, the IC can sit down with each person or group for an informal talk about how radio communications can be im-proved.
This policy also gives personnel the opportunity to solve their own problems. The IC will often hear unsolicited comments such as, “Next time, I will give clearer reports.” The best way to improve is to recognize your own errors and resolve to correct them. It`s much better than having the boss correct them.
Moral: Audiotapes are an excellent self-improvement tool. n
ROBERT C. BINGHAM, a 31-year veteran of the fire service, is a fire training specialist and conducts fire operations classes and seminars for volunteer and career fire departments on a national level. He formerly was deputy fire chief in the District of Columbia Fire Department, where he served as a command officer for 12 years and was often responsible for all fire and medical services for Washington, D.C. He is an adjunct instructor for the National Fire Academy and was an instructor and course developer for the University of the District of Columbia Fire Science program. He has a B.S. in fire science with a minor in management from the University of Maryland at University College in College Park.