The Professional Volunteer Fire Department, Part 10 – Radio Communication

By Thomas A. Merrill

Clear and concise radio communication can help an emergency incident go smoother and contribute to a successful outcome. Conversely, poor radio communication can lead to confusion, fireground errors and injuries, and can even paint a picture of a dysfunctional confused fire department. The professional volunteer fire department not only takes the steps necessary to ensure adequate radio procedures are in place but drills with radios and practices basic radio procedures, size-up scenarios, and Mayday situations on a regular basis.  

My regular paid job is that of a fire dispatcher, so I am exposed to communication issues not just as a firefighter but in the dispatch center as well. Good radio procedures and practices apply to dispatchers and firefighters alike.   

Even with today’s modern communication equipment allowing departments to respond, to call on scene, and to do many other tasks at the push of a button, spoken communication is still important and plays a critical role in any emergency operation. Therefore, radio communication training is just as important as radio equipment training.

One thing to remember today is that your radio transmissions are heard everywhere. Hearing incidents unfold on the radio used to be limited to people listening in your immediate area and maybe up to a short distance away if the listener had a decent antenna on his scanner radio. Today, however, thanks to more sophisticated equipment and the Internet, people can hear us across the United States and even the world, for that matter. People can listen, and they are listening. Hopefully, they are listening to a professional operation.  

Right or wrong, radio transmissions can also directly impact a department’s overall reputation. Are the commanders calm and poised? Do members babble on relentlessly, or do they give many unnecessary transmissions (sometimes referred to as “the DJ”)? Do people scream and yell like they are confronting a fire for the first time? Do they feel the need to editorialize or make disparaging comments on the air? Or, are the transmissions calm, poised, and pertinent, which certainly contributes to a department’s professional reputation.

I believe that radios should be in the hands of every firefighter on the fire ground; it’s 2013! I cannot walk into a store today without seeing 16-year-old clerks handling radios and communicating with other associates. How then can we be sending firefighters into harm’s way and not give them a radio? I have heard arguments that too many radios on the fireground contribute to chaos and too much unnecessary radio traffic. Hogwash! The key is to teach and practice radio discipline and to properly train personnel. This training must be done regularly, and it must be done with firefighters and the dispatchers all working together.

You must ensure your firefighters are comfortable with the radio, understand all the features associated with it, and are proficient in using it at a chaotic emergency scene.  An entire evening drill could easily be devoted to radio standard operating procedures (SOPs). However, communication training can be incorporated into every training drill in some way. For example, when practicing pumper operations crews can also use the radios in the manner expected on the fireground. Even at an emergency medical services (EMS) drill, radios can be worked into the scenario. Train exactly like you will work, and you will work exactly like you have trained.   

In addition to learning how the mobile and portable radios work, emphasize transmitting Maydays and urgent communication messages. The communication center should adopt uniform terminology for these situations, and it should be conveyed and understood to all departments under its control. Having an SOP is one thing, but practicing various scenarios is another. Thank goodness it doesn’t happen often (and, of course, I hope it never does), but having well established and well rehearsed urgent and Mayday SOPs is invaluable.  

When training my firefighters, the first thing I like to say is, “listen before talking.” If you hear dispatch telling a unit to go with its message, do not interrupt! Let the other unit deliver their message. Conversely, if you hear a unit calling dispatch, let dispatch handle that transmission before proceeding with your message. Before pushing that transmit button, please take the time to “listen.”

The second thing I like to emphasize is to keep emotions in check, stay calm, and relax. Act like a trained professional firefighter who is capable and confident. Yelling and getting excited certainly can contribute to a chaotic situation and lead to mistakes and confusion and lead others to question a firefighter’s ability to handle a situation. When confronted with a fire, why act surprised? Aren’t we firefighters? Yes, sometimes things go wrong, mistakes are made, and unforeseen problems occur. Getting excited, yelling, or making silly comments only makes matters worse, complicates the situation, and can get people hurt. It also damages a department’s reputation.

I learned a very valuable lesson from a chief who served shortly before me. His chief’s tenure was marked with many significant fires. On several occasions, things occurred that threw a monkey wrench into his operation, and I would observe how he handled it and made the best out of a bad situation. Once he understood there was a problem, he would always take corrective actions by calmly and effectively issuing orders over the radio. Even if a firefighter did something wrong contributing to the problem, he would tell me that yelling and screaming would only complicate the issue and make matters worse. He would make sure to discuss the mistake later, back in the firehouse.

But, at the time of the problem, he would simply carry on and improvise; adapt; and take corrective actions, calmly yet succinctly. That is called “command presence,” and he certainly had that.

When confronted with fire or any emergency incident, act like you have been there before; yelling and getting excited not only can excite the firefighters but it makes a department sound unprepared and unprofessional.

When talking on the radio, try, and eliminate the “ahs” and “ums” and practice getting your message across in a brief yet concise manner. Some departments embrace 10-code terminology while others prefer plain language and simple terminology. Whatever your area’s preference, practice and be proficient at it. In addition, when calling another unit, our communication center has found it works best to get the units attention by calling their unit identification (ID) first, and then to give your unit ID.

Departments should also have a procedure in place for handling that second call that might come in while they are already out on a call. As both a dispatcher and a firefighter, I am amazed at the confusion and chaos that sometimes occurs when this happens. To me, it can seem amateurish and unprofessional for a department to act surprised and unprepared when that second call is toned out. It can also prove to be extremely dangerous if multiple units are racing around and crossing paths. Well established and rehearsed “second call” procedures” create a calm, professional environment and can also greatly eliminate risk.

Dispatchers certainly play an extremely important role on the fire/rescue team and must be recognized as professionals as well. However, just like the professional firefighter, the dispatcher must also train and practice and earn that professional title.  

Poor staffing levels in communication centers and cumbersome call processing procedures that can lead to lengthy delays in getting calls dispatched have become topics receiving much nationwide media attention. Although it’s important for dispatchers to gather all the required and important information, you must take steps to ensure calls are dispatched as quickly as possible.

For fire emergencies, it’s important for the dispatcher to say what is actually burning. Is it a house? A church? A store or an apartment building filled with people? Generic terms like “structure fire” or “alarm of fire” certainly get your attention, but it’s more useful if the dispatcher follows that with information by describing what is burning. That way, responding firefighters can begin preplanning actions that need to be taken on their arrival.

When somebody calls 911 to report a fire in his house, a dispatcher should NEVER simply yell “get out of the house.” Yes, we do want the occupant tp exit, but it’s more important to ask the occupant if they can safely exit the house. Sometimes the dispatcher is able to help the occupant locate a safe way out or a room of refuge if he finds his original path blocked by smoke or fire. It’s also important for the dispatcher to ask how many people are in the house and where they are so all this information can be passed on to responding units.

Once the call is dispatched, the professional dispatcher should pay close attention to radio transmissions and monitor the radio channels. There have been numerous examples over the years of an alert dispatcher being the one to notify an incident commander of a Mayday or other urgent radio transmission that was missed by the command staff.  

Dispatchers should repeat orders and directions whenever possible to ensure the orders are heard and understood correctly. What good is it for a dispatcher to say “that’s clear” or “10-4” when the message is important and needs repeating? Think about how bad it could be if a dispatcher acknowledges a message by saying “that’s clear” when the message warned firefighters to stay away from a particular area of a building due to a collapse potential?

Even if the message is not necessarily a danger warning but something more innocent such as directions regarding which driveway to use or for certain units to hold in quarters, repeat the message over and over clearly.  Dispatchers sometimes argue that, with repeaters and todays more sophisticated radio equipment, responding firefighters are better able to hear the transmissions so it is not necessary to repeat them. But, what if the volunteer is depending on his pager radio to hear what is going on as he responds in his personal vehicle? The pager may only have limited reception so the dispatcher repeating important directions is critical. Heck, sometimes the firefighter might just miss the original message. Clearly communicated and repeated orders help overcome barriers such as sirens, air horns, crowd commotion and other noise that is experienced in our operations. Also, by repeating transmissions, the dispatcher is helping to paint a picture for all incoming units, allowing responding firefighters to be better prepared when they arrive on scene.

A very helpful practice being employed by many communication centers today is has dispatchers giving ICs regular time updates, letting them know how long they have been working at an incident. This is a great idea and is extremely beneficial. The incident commander (IC) can make decisions and change strategy and tactics based on how long they have been operating at an incident.

Finally, your department’s communication center can impact its image positively by issuing press releases regarding significant or interesting incidents. Oftentimes, busy volunteer chiefs and officers do not have the time to send out these press releases and are glad to have the dispatchers do it. The media is going to tell the story anyway, so this not only ensures that accurate information is provided but it can also give proper credit to the departments(s) and personnel involved. Remember to only include details provided and approved by the ICs.

In some cases, the media may not be aware an incident occurred. Sometimes, the actions of a fire department might not even involve a fire or major emergency, but the story can generate good publicity for a department and its firefighters. 

Radios are an important tool on today’s fireground. Clear, concise communication techniques can help contribute to a successful outcome at any emergency scene. Dispatchers and firefighters alike should work together to ensure radio procedures are adopted and practiced. Help enhance your department’s professional reputation by using radios properly.


Tom Merrill is a 30-year fire department veteran in the Snyder Fire Department, which is located in Amherst, New York. He served 26 years as a department officer, including 15 years in the chief officer ranks, and recently completed five years as chief of department. He also is a professional fire dispatcher for the town of Amherst fire alarm office. He can be reached at



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