Radio in the Fire Service

Radio in the Fire Service

THERE are only three cities in the United States in which the Fire Departments maintain and operate radio systems: Boston, Detroit and San Francisco, the city of Boston being the pioneer in this respect. In each of these three cities there is a Marine Division included in the force of the Fire Department.

A license to construct and operate a radio system must be granted by the Federal Radio Commission. According to the present regulations of that Commission, a city without marine fire service will not be granted radio service for the Fire Department, but messages may be transmitted to police and fire stations and to cars used by the Police and Fire Departments from police radio transmitters.

Chief Henry A. Fox

Amount of Power Allowed for Police Radio Systems

The amount of power allowed for a police radio system depends upon the population, as follows:

Under 100,000 ……………………………. 50 Watts

100,000 to 200,000………………………… 100 “

200,000 to 300,000………………………… 150 “

300,000 to 400,000 ………………………… 200 “

400,000 to 500,000 ……………………….. 250 “

500,000 to 600,000 ………………………… 300 “

600,000 to 700,000 ………………………… 400 “

Over 700,000……………………………. 500 “

If the power from one station in a city of over 700,000 population is insufficient, additional stations may be constructed but not over 500 watts can be used in any one station.

For each radio system above 50 watts power, the services of a man having a second-class license are required, under that power a third-class license is sufficient. The transmitting operator must also have a third-class radio telephone license.

There are four hundred and seventy localities in the United States having a population of over twenty thousand, and at present, about one hundred and eighty municipalities are provided with police radio systems. Of these, one hundred and thirty use medium high frequencies—1,712 to 2,490 kilocycles (175 to 120 meters) and operate with fifty to five hundred watts. The remaining fifty operate on 30,000 to 40,000 kilocycles (10 to 7.5 meters). Where there are fireboats, Fire Department radio service is very essential, in fact, it is quite indispensable.


The Boston Fire Department Radio system has four radio phone sets for transmitting and receiving; one at fire alarm headquarters and one at each of the three fire boats. Wave length 184 meters (1630 kilocycles).

Portable sets referred to in address are of super high frequency, less than 5 watt power; get no shadowing effects, shading, etc.

Power allowed for police radio systems does not apply to fire departments. Boston station is provided with 100 watt power, but uses 50 watts by permission of the Federal Radio Commission. Fire boats use a 7.5 watt set.

Constant communication is always maintained between the fire alarm office and the fire boats.

Boston System Installed Ten Years Ago

Radio transmitting and receiving apparatus was installed by the Boston Fire Department about ten years ago. Because this was the first system of its kind, many difficulties had to be overcome in obtaining apparatus and securing rights to operate.

Before the radio service was established in our department an endeavor was made to provide means to stop the fireboats while enroute to a fire where their services were not required, so that draw-bridges would not be opened unnecessarily, but it seemed impossible to devise a satisfactory method, with the result that many needless runs were made.

Also, there was no way to get information to the boat’s crew as to the position they should take when arriving at pier and wharf fires, or if a boat was engaged in fighting a fire on a ship in the harbor, there was no way to communicate with department officers on land; but with the advent of the radio service the boats are in constant touch with fire alarm headquarters and the chief officer in charge of a fire on the waterfront can transmit his orders through the fire alarm box to the fire alarm office, where in turn it is relayed to the boat by radio, resulting in more efficient operation.

Alarms and All-Out Signals on Radio

All alarms and all-out signals are sounded on the radio in Boston in order that the fireboats may get them automatically. Incidentally the four department cars which are equipped with receivers, get the alarms and special calls are transmitted if the officers in those cars are wanted by headquarters. Probably, more cars will be equipped with radio in the future.

Incidents in Connection with Radio System

Many interesting incidents have been recorded in connection with our radio system, and I will cite one or two of them to show the value of such a system in the Fire Department service.

On June 2, 1927, Box 1234 was received for a fire on the Boston Floating Hospital Ship and upon arrival of the apparatus, the fire had extended to Fiske Wharf. At this particular time only two of our fireboats were in service, the third boat being out of commission due to Annual Government Inspection and repairs. Just previous to the alarm one of the boats had been dispatched down the harbor to a small fire on Rainsford Island. A second alarm from Box 1234 followed closely after the first which indicated a serious waterfront fire and immediately Fire Alarm Office got in touch with the boat by radio and ordered them back, as the services of both boats were needed at the Hospital Ship fire.

On January 5 of this year, I was just leaving Department Headquarters on Bristol Street to go to lunch, when Box 2344 was striking on the tapper. While proceeding along, my aide turned on the radio as usual and in a very few minutes we received the second alarm from this box, followed shortly by the third alarm. Upon receipt of the third alarm we immediately headed for the fire and arrived there right back of the second alarm apparatus. If my car had not been equipped with a radio receiver, I would not have known about this fire, which by the way was the Fenway Park fire, until my driver reported in after dropping us at the restaurant and would have lost some eight or ten minutes in the meantime. This fire had assumed tremendous proportions, having already crossed Lansdowne Street, and quick and decisive action was necessary, as there was no way of determining at that particular moment where the fire would stop, the first arriving companies finding a potential conflagration in progress. You can readily appreciate how valuable the time saved in this instance was to me.

Information for Deputy and District Chiefs

In Boston, there are eighteen Deputy and District Chiefs on duty at all times, who are required to respond promptly to all alarms to which they are assigned, and in order to keep informed, they are obliged, when away from stations, to report frequently to headquarters. Such is true in all cities where there are no outside alarm sounding devices.

When the time arrives that all chiefs’ cars shall be equipped with radio receivers more efficient service will be maintained. Until about a year or two ago, manufacturers of radio apparatus gave little thought to receivers on automobiles. While it was possible to buy receivers for that class of service, they were not reliable and any apparatus that lacks dependability should not be considered for fire alarm service. It has been far better to use the old facilities for obtaining the necessary information. Furthermore, there has not been until recently, any means of getting alarms of fire by means of radio, except in Boston.

However, times are progressing. Many cities and towns already have radio-equipped police departments and it probably will not be long before every well-organized police department will have facilities for transmitting messages by radio. In many sections plans are being made for supplying radio service to a group of towns and, of course, there will be many cities and towns which will have their own individual services. Radio service is quite essential when police cruising cars are used, and in these modern times every department must, in order to function at all, have cruising cars.

With police radio service, there should be no difficulty in making arrangements for broadcasting alarms of fire. As a matter of fact it is generally necessary that officers in cruising cars get that information, so with radio receivers on Fire Department cars, notice can be obtained when alarms strike. Arrangements could undoubtedly be made to get notice of alarms through the radio system of a nearby town it no local system is available, and, as a matter of fact, such arrangements are quite common now. The regulations of the Federal Radio Commission provide for such service.

What Development of Radio Will Mean

Rapid strides are being made in the development of radio so it is not at all unreasonable to state that the time is not far away when it will be possible for the commanding officer at a fire to be able to communicate instantly with each and every officer working under him. Just think what that will mean.

For instance, the Deputy Chief stationed in the rear of the building on fire, reports by radio that two more engine companies are needed in the rear and a District Chief on the fifth floor reports that the fire is getting into the next building. The Chief upon receiving the reports takes the necessary action. He orders one company to do this, another to do that, and orders another alarm sounded, vet in spite of the fact that he has had a tough proposition on his hands and has issued a great many orders, after the job is done he has his normal voice. There has been no shouting of orders. Every order has been given in the ordinary tone of voice. There have been no delays in passing information from subordinates to the Chief and no delays in giving the necessary orders.

This can all be done with apparatus now on the market with sets that can be strapped on a man. but like all radio developments in the early stages, improvements will be made. Sets for this class of work will be made lighter and more compact; in fact, a new development in these types of sets has just been announced whereby the antenna feature is incorporated in a “Sam Browne” belt similar to that worn by traffic officers, doing away with the short antenna which heretofore had to be carried and made the equipment more cumbersome. These sets weigh about four pounds and are two-way sets; that is, messages can be both transmitted and received. They are of very high frequency and of small capacity. Conditions which retard reception on sets with lower frequency have little effect on this type. Their ranges are very short but ample for this class of service.

Daytona Beach Active in Fire Prevention Work During Fire Prevention Week, the Fire Department of Daytona Beach, Fla., placed fire prevention posters in all available windows, all public buildings, each room of every school of the Halifax District and in several adjoining towns. Five special window displays were made. The cutouts of the firemen are from photographs especially posed. The department also gave talks before the twenty public and parochial schools, and several civic and fraternal organizations. Fire drills were held at each school and a note made of the time required. B. B. Hart is Chief and R. B. Johnston is Assistant Chief.

Use of Radio in the Future

Who can foretell what radio will mean to Fire Departments in the future? When we look backward and think of the developments which have been made in the last decade we cannot but wonder what is in store for us. One might predict that wire systems will be replaced by radio for the transmission of alarms but that seems improbable. It is entirely probable, however, that alarms may be transmitted from headquarters to the various stations, and, as a matter of fact, that suggestion has already been given some consideration in the Boston department as an emergency method in the event of disruption of the wire service, but it seems quite inconceivable that alarms can be transmitted by radio from a fire alarm box and have as much reliability as is obtained now. Reliability, it must be borne in mind, is the keyword for fire alarm service.

In the final analysis, however, notwithstanding the advantages and conveniences of radio service which I may have previously outlined in this address, until radio has been further developed, there seems to be but little practical use for it in Fire Department work, other than in connection with marine service.

While it is important that chief officers be in a position to know when alarms are sounded; yet to maintain a radio system solely for the purpose of keeping such officers in touch, seems to be a needless expense and I would not advocate it.

In cities and towns where there are whistles and bells in the alarm system, the Chief should have no difficulty in getting alarms, but where there are no such facilities other means now in vogue will have to be depended upon.

(From a paper read before the annual convention of the New England Association of Fire Chiefs, at Burlington, Vt.)

No posts to display