Preventing RIC Radio Chaos: The 3/3 Option

BY ANTHONY AVILLO

It started out as a routine familiarization and training drill with a new piece of equipment that our department had recently purchased. Ultimately, however, it changed the way we looked at rapid intervention company (RIC) operations, especially from a command and control standpoint.

North Hudson (NJ) Regional Fire and Rescue (NHRFR) recently acquired a firefighter locator system, consisting of personal transmitters individual firefighters attach to their clothing or integrate into their self-contained breathing apparatus (SCBA) and the receivers to which they transmit. The department equipped all its battalion commander vehicles, all squad companies that respond as RICs, and the safety officer with handheld firefighter locator receivers.

According to the manufacturer’s Web site, the individual transmitter emits a high-frequency, 2.46-GHz signal that can be tracked using the handheld receiver. Unlike ultrasonic waves that bounce off all walls and ceilings, this firefighter locator’s signal can penetrate walls, ceilings, and floors. The receiver looks similar to an old Courageous Cat gun (for those of you who actually remember Courageous Cat) and allows rescuers to track personnel whose personal alert safety system (PASS) alarm has activated. The closer the receiver is to the distressed individual, the stronger the signal, indicated numerically as a percentage and graphically by light bar display.

I had tested a similar piece of equipment at the Fire Department Instructors Conference (FDIC) about five years ago and was very happy that NHRFR had finally acquired it. You cannot fool this thing and, believe me, we tried! I highly recommend the firefighter locator; it will complement any RIC equipment inventory (photos 1, 2).

(1, 2) The firefighter locator device. According to the device’s display in photo 2, the searchers are looking for a North Hudson Ladder 2 Bravo firefighter. The yellow light bar indicates they are getting closer. (Photos by author.)

THE DRILL

The familiarization drill started out as an evolution designed to integrate the firefighter locator with NHRFR’s Mayday, rope-guided large-area search and radio communication procedures. We were operating in a “borrowed” four-story windowless warehouse, whose owners allowed us to use it for training on weekends, outside of business hours (photo 3). We dispensed with the usual diabolical search drill evolutions we would normally employ in lieu of a simpler, friendlier evolution. We used no masks or SCBA and left on some of the warehouse lights. We did not “hood” any rescuers to simulate zero visibility, as is usual in this type of drill. The aim was to reinforce the proper use of the locator tool and to build confidence. Even so, it was still tough to find victims because of maze-like configurations, machinery, isolated hallways, and randomly located office and workshop areas (photos 4, 5).

(3) Note the size of the structure used for the drill. Undisciplined firefighters could easily get lost in such a place; they would not make it out alive.
(4, 5) The drill structure’s interior layout. Even with the lights on, this place is a firefighter’s nightmare.

We set up the command post (CP) and command board on the building’s exterior side A. The scenario: All four members of a rescue company, while conducting rope-guided search operations on the warehouse’s third floor, each become separated from the lifeline, but not at the same time. The Mayday calls were staggered about a minute or two apart.

In this evolution, once the first Mayday was received, we began our rescue operation according to our standard operating procedures (SOPs). The incident commander (IC) acknowledged the Mayday and the staff at the CP gathered the location, unit, name, air supply, and resources (LUNAR) information. These data were relayed to the RIC command officer, who had been assigned to oversee and monitor the rescue operation and the RIC activities from the CP. Fireground operations switched to another radio frequency (channel 2) while the Mayday firefighters remained on the original fireground operations frequency (channel 1) with the RIC.

Then the second Mayday came in and, in quick succession, the third and the fourth. They came in so fast that the distressed firefighters’ transmissions were stepping all over each other. In addition, the RIC, which had been deployed already when the first Mayday was received, using the LUNAR information, had a very difficult time distinguishing among the Mayday callers and their corresponding locations in the building. RIC command had an even harder time sorting the whole mess out and relaying information to the RIC without being stepped on.

If it wasn’t for the firefighter locator system, it would have been even worse. When a PASS alarm activates, the locator’s receiver displays the firefighter’s SCBA identification, company, and apparatus position on its screen, and the team can choose which distressed firefighter to go after.

In reality, this operation would require several RICs using several devices. In our drill, we limited the RIC operation to two companies operating together (or splitting up, depending on what they decided). Each RIC had a firefighter locator receiver, and we had one at the CP (which is also part of our SOP). One of the device’s helpful features allows you to scroll among Mayday requests and determine who seems to be nearest or in the most distress (i.e., has the lowest air supply).

The main problem we encountered at the CP was that the radio chaos and the multiple Mayday requests were creating a “chicken without a head” issue for the RIC. In addition, the RIC’s anxiety level was pretty much through the roof with trying to figure out which distressed firefighter was transmitting—and this was only a drill!

Another failed rescue option we tried was to use feedback-assisted rescue (FAR) operations. Since the RIC used the same frequency as the Maydays, the feedback was transmitted over the RIC radios as well as those of the distressed firefighters, rendering the option useless. The accepted practice of trying to tell rescue teams in the heat of battle and in limited or zero visibility to turn down their radios so a FAR operation can be conducted is just not practical and is doomed to failure.

THE 3/3 OPTION

Although the RIC team eventually found everyone, including the fourth Mayday who “wandered” up to the fourth floor instead of the third (as planned in the evolution), it was apparent to all that we were not at all effective in managing the Mayday. More importantly, based on the time it took the RIC to find them and the likely survival time limits that would be placed on them, most, if not all, of the “lost” members would not have made it out of there alive. We gathered at the CP to discuss the issue. The rescue captain who was inside monitoring the activity firsthand confirmed what we all knew: The drill did not work. He suggested we use a third frequency for the RIC team.

The response to that suggestion was typical of the hard-core veterans that we are: “What? A third channel? A third chief on the radio? Preposterous! We can’t do that! I don’t think that has been done before, has it? How do we manage three frequencies when we are having a problem with managing two?”

I was also somewhat skeptical. I didn’t think it was feasible and I thought it would likely create more confusion. However, the way we were doing it at the moment was not working at all, so we figured we would give it a shot. One issue immediately discussed was that we had to arrange for enough personnel to be on hand at the CP to manage the operation on three frequencies—you now need three command officers. Luckily, this was a drill and we could play around with the situation and brainstorm it a little more.

This time, when the Mayday was broadcast, as in the first evolution, after acknowledging the Mayday and gathering the necessary LUNAR information, I, as the IC, moved the fireground operations (and myself) to another channel. Let’s say the original fireground frequency was channel 1. Once the Mayday came in, I moved the fireground operations to channel 2, leaving the original fireground frequency (channel 1) open for the Mayday firefighters. I assigned my safety officer as the Mayday manager; he stayed on channel 1. On receipt of a Mayday and while I was gathering initial information, the safety officer was instructed to immediately report to the CP from wherever he was and to stay on channel 1 and communicate with the distressed firefighters from the CP. His job was to gather additional information and to keep in contact with the Mayday firefighters.

We then sent the RIC inside for the rescue, designating channel 3 as the RIC frequency; the RIC command officer was at the CP. In this evolution, while I was still handling the simulated fire, the Mayday manager was communicating verbally with the RIC command officer at the CP, feeding him the information required to coordinate the rescue. In fact, as the additional Maydays came in, the messages were more easily deciphered and prioritized because they were on the dedicated Mayday frequency rather than competing with all the screaming on the RIC channel. The Mayday manager would then verbally relay this information to RIC command, who would transmit it to the RIC on its frequency (channel 3).

Advantages

To our surprise, using three frequencies worked out much better than we anticipated. After consulting with all involved, we found the advantages were many.

  • First and foremost, separating the Mayday and the RIC frequencies drastically reduced radio insanity. Anyone who has tried to pull off a multiple Mayday/RIC operation (or even a single Mayday with an excited distressed firefighter) knows about this insanity. Some fireground operations suffer regularly from radio insanity even without a Mayday!
  • RIC members liked being on a different frequency and said that the emotional burden of the urgent predicament coupled with the unnerving radio transmissions from the distressed firefighters had been reduced. They felt they could operate in a more businesslike manner when they were not hearing transmissions like “I’m running out of air!” and “Get me out of here!”
  • Without the radio insanity, the RIC also reported its members could focus more on listening for any distress signals from the lost firefighter (e.g., PASS alarm, banging on objects to be better heard, and so on).
  • Verbal, face-to-face communication between the Mayday manager and RIC command at the CP helps RIC command prioritize messages, which keeps the Mayday and rescue frequencies less cluttered. Also, if a message is not understood, it can be clarified instantly, which can’t always be done on the radio. The Mayday manager acts as a dispatcher for RIC command and provides only the essential information.
  • The RIC frequency carries only necessary information from the Mayday manager, which the RIC command officer and RIC-to-RIC command transmissions determine.
  • FAR broadcast only on the Mayday frequency was easier. The RIC found it was easier to hear and track, since the feedback was transmitted only over the radio of the distressed member, not also that of the RIC, as happened in the previous two-frequency evolutions. 

Disadvantages

To show that it is not all roses, there are some disadvantages.

  • The RIC has no direct communication with the distressed firefighters. Although it might be feasible to allow one RIC member to monitor the Mayday frequency, this might complicate the operation at the wrong time and confuse things. We tried this, but it did not work well and is not recommended. If operations are conducted properly, the RIC should not need to talk to the distressed firefighter.
  • There is an urgent need to secure and coordinate supervisory personnel at the CP as a matter of policy. You will need at least three supervisory personnel to pull this operation off. This might be difficult but not impossible to do in a smaller department if planned for properly. Some options to consider include the following:
  • —Increase your command staff on initial alarms. (If you have a staffing issue, this might not be realistic.)
    —Use a command company. If you need it, call it.
    —Use a company officer who has been trained; it might be best to train them all! This might be the most realistic and practical solution.
    —Develop a policy addressing a superior officer mutual-aid response to all working fires. This might be the best answer.
    —If you are really lucky or persuasive, you might even be able to convince the higher-ups that additional command officers are a necessity and increase your staffing. 

FINAL THOUGHTS

We found that the accountability officer (in NHRFR, the command technician; in others, an aide), must be a big piece of the puzzle here. You must immediately document the Mayday information and times and track the RIC’s submersion time. We used the bottom part of our command board to track fire activities. To track the Mayday information, we used the top of the board. You might need to use a separate command tech (a Mayday tech) for the RIC operation, especially if there are multiple Maydays. If only one command board is available, in a pinch, use a marker on a car hood or wall. Get something down (photo 6).

(6) You must have a tracking and documentation mechanism in place to track the activities of the RIC operation. Here, we use the bottom portion of the command board. Make sure you take a picture of it before you erase it.

When confronted with a building of the magnitude of that in which we were training, I would also consider a second or even a third RIC right away. In addition, the response of additional safety and chief officers should not be far from your mind as IC.

Of course, all RIC policies would be in effect here, such as the request for an additional two alarms (one for suppression and one to support RIC operations), additional RIC teams, advanced life support response, and so on, but that is information for another article.

The Incident Commander Mayday Checklist (see sidebar) is a guide to help manage a Mayday. It is never easy.

STAY ON THE LIFELINE

Although the primary goal of this drill was to familiarize members with the firefighter locator device, we made sure that personnel realized in no uncertain terms that, in such a building, if they operate without discipline and leave a lifeline or hoseline (or never bring in a lifeline at all), their chances of survival once they get into trouble are extremely remote.

This alternative approach to the Mayday operations is certainly worth exploring further. We ran another drill the following week in the same building with different companies, and all felt it was an improvement over the present two-channel system we use. Through our department Safety Committee, we have proposed modifications to our Mayday SOP.

Author George Will said: “The future has a way of arriving unannounced.” Have you thought about it?

Author’s note: A discussion forum on this article is available on the Fire Engineering Community Web site. Comments and suggestions regarding this operation would be welcome. Let’s hear from you!

ANTHONY AVILLO, a 26-year fire service veteran, is a deputy chief with North Hudson (NJ) Regional Fire and Rescue, assigned as 1st Platoon regional tour commander. He has a bachelor’s degree in fire science from New Jersey City University. He is an instructor at the Bergen County (NJ) and Monmouth County (NJ) Fire Academies. Avillo is a member of the FDIC and Fire Engineering advisory boards. He is the author of Fireground Strategies, Second Edition (Fire Engineering, 2008) and Fireground Strategies Scenarios Workbook, Second Edition (2010). He is a contributing author to Fire Engineering’s Handbook for Firefighter I and II (Fire Engineering, 2009) and co-author of its Study Guide (Fire Engineering, 2010). 

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