Radio Communications on the Fireground

Radio Communications on the Fireground



Since the development of organized firefighting in the United States, there has been a need for effective fireground radio communications. Unfortunately, this is one area that is too often ignored. Incident radio communications is a vital ingredient for the successful outcome of any fire or emergency incident.

In the years following World War II, fire departments across the nation began to equip their apparatus and support units with twoway radios. Advanced technology has greatly improved the radio in the last 40 years. The large tube sets of yesteryear have evolved into the micro-electronic units now in service. The radio has emerged as a most vital tool in the modern fire service arsenal.

From the start of an incident, radio communications will set the tone for the entire operation. Incident radio communications is not, nor can it be, a one-way street. In order to facilitate a rapid and orderly flow of information it must be a two-way operation. The fireground commander and the communications center both share equal responsibility for this flow of information.

Before fire and incident radio communications can become effective, a department must have a proper procedure that will lead to the successful operation of a radio system. The operation depends on the rapid and accurate exchange of information between the communications center and units at the scene.

Building blocks of communication

Fire service radio communications consists of three phases that are considered to be the basic building blocks for an effective fire and incident ground radio communications procedure. They are:

  • Initial contact. This includes relaying who is calling and the unit being called. A most important part of the initial call is the acknowledgement from the unit being called. For example, a typical initial call might be as follows: “Fire Alarm to C-2.” “C-2 answering.”
  • Exchange. This second step may take a variety of forms. Usually it is as follows: “Engine 5 to an outside fire the rear of 831 Mass. Ave.“
  • Termination. This last step may be simply the acknowledgement of the message or just the dispatcher giving the time.

Teamwork and information flow are vital at emergency scene

Effective fire and incident ground radio communications involves three major components: the company officer, the fireground commander, and the communications center. Each one relies on the others for the constant flow and exchange of information during an incident.

The first-due company officer carries a great burden. Upon his arrival he is expected to make a fast size up, formulate and carry out the initial attack plan, and give a brief report on conditions encountered. However, many times this report is so brief, it is not effective.

The communications center receives a quick summary: fire showing or smoke showing. Showing from what? A dwelling, a mercantile building, an automobile? A report of this type tells nothing.

A complete report should include building type and extent of involvement. A complete report will answer a number of questions. It will let the other responding companies know the extent of the situation and allow the fireground commander to make a more structured attack plan. It will also alert the communications center and companies still in quarters as to the nature of the fire or incident and that further alarms may be required.

The fireground commander is responsible for the overall command of the incident. He must establish and maintain, as much as is feasibly possible, a clear and accurate picture of the incident. To do this, he must place himself in a position that offers an excellent view of the scene. He must also receive a constant flow of information from his officers and from the communications center. This flow of information will allow him to make clearer and more precise decisions while dealing with the incident.

The communications center is at a distinct disadvantage when units are operating at the incident. Because he is not at the emergency site, the dispatcher must rely on established radio procedure, or be a mind reader. The communications center should establish and maintain a flow of information to and from the incident.

This flow of information should be smooth and offer facts and other pertinent data only. During an incident, this flow of information will come from many sources and support agencies. For example, personnel at the scene will need to know if the following conditions exist: water main breaks in the incident area, apparatus breakdowns, drastic changes in the weather conditions, etc.

The communications center must be able to organize the flow of information, orders, special instructions, or units into a coherent pattern.


Pre-planning and training for the incident in advance can lead to improvements and more efficient procedures. Here are some guidelines for establishing effective fire and incident ground radio communications:

  • The chief of department should encourage strict radio discipline.
  • Upon arrival at the scene, the first-due company officer should give the communications center a brief report on conditions.
  • Only the first-due company and first-due chief should report his arrival at the scene. This avoids unnecessary use of the radio.
  • The fireground commander should give a brief and concise report to the communications center 5-10 minutes after arrival on the scene.
  • The fireground commander should give the communication center frequent progress reports during the entire incident.
  • Develop a standard operating procedure for radio and incident communications.
  • Conduct frequent training drills with all members of the department, including communications personnel.

Training the entire fire department in effective radio communications is the key to obtaining a successful outcome of an emergency incident. Both the suppression force and the communications center are expected to work as a team. The better the training, the better the teamwork!

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