Communicating in the Wildland Urban Interface

Communicating during emergency operations is a constant challenge for those in the fire service. Nowhere does that become more evident than during a wildland urban interface (WUI) incident.

The basic understanding is that direct channels operate via "line of sight." Repeated channels are reliant upon the actual repeating unit, and it is not uncommon to have multiple repeater units (fixed or portable) to spread the signal around an incident. Repeated channels are vital in the urban interface. Unfortunately these systems are subject to failure by overuse and improper positioning of the repeater unit itself. A note on repeater tones: a repeater tone is a sub-audible tone that is broadcast as soon as you depress the push-to-talk button, which then "unlocks" the repeater unit for use. This allows for the usage of more repeaters. Spend some time with your radio technicians to learn more on this subject. It is important!

If you arrive on an established WUI incident that is being managed by an incident management team (IMT), many of your radio concerns will likely be addressed. The incident will have an assigned communications unit leader who can program/clone your radio as well as answer any questions you have regarding incident communications. A cache of radios will be on hand for those in need. With the arrival of the IMT, a formal incident action plan (IAP) will be produced which will contain the "Incident Communications Plan." The communications plan will contain the information you will need to know regarding incident communications.

Topography And Distance

Radio transmissions are subjected to challenges presented by terrain variations and distance. Even with the placement of repeaters you will, at some point, find yourself in a radio "dead zone." It is important that you are aware when this happens and have a plan to correct the problem. If you find yourself on the edge of the "dead zone" where radio transmissions are intermittent, the following options may be of assistance:

  • Switch the transmit power to "high." This puts more battery power towards transmitting a signal.
  • Try a vehicle/mobile radio if available. These radios are more powerful than the typical handheld portable radio.
  • Check your battery. If using a clamshell (BK battery case that holds AA batteries) replace the batteries.
  • Go to high ground. Sometimes this is as simple as standing on top of an engine, holding the radio higher, or even relocating a few feet away.
  • A longer antenna can help, but they are susceptible to breakage. These are sometimes available through the communications unit.
  • Consider using a person positioned such that they can be used as a mobile repeater, otherwise known as the "human repeater."

Note: upon return to base camp, notify the communications unit leader of any dead spots you found on your assignment.

Final Thoughts

First the good news. With the advent of mobile repeaters and hardware "technological advances," communications on wildfires is better than it's ever been. The bad news is it's still not perfect! The following tips will keep almost any loss in communications to a minimum.

  • Know the three key incident frequencies (which are listed on the communications plan):
    1. The division/group tactical channel.
    2. The command channel.
    3. The air-to-ground channel.
  • Perform constant radio checks if you suspect your movement on the fire could place you in a dead zone. If you lose communications on your division/group tactical "direct" channel, your next move is to try to get out on the command "repeated" channel. Your third choice, in the case of an emergency is to use the "air-to-ground" channel to relay important radio traffic via aircraft.
  • To check if you are in range of hitting a repeater, a simple test can be performed. Press the push-to-talk button briefly. Once you release the button, a faint audible "click" should be heard. This brief noise is an indicator that you have unlocked the repeater unit and have a useable repeated channel.

Firefighter safety is and always has been directly connected to our ability to communicate clearly and effectively during difficult situations. The wildland is no exception. The time spent educating yourself and honing your wildland radio skills will keep you and those around you safer in the dangerous environment we call the wildland urban interface.

  • See author Quinn MacLeod Live at Firehouse World! Quinn will be presenting "What Did You Say? Managing Risk Through Improved Communications" at Firehouse World in San Diego, Feb. 28 - March 4.

QUINN MacLEOD is the owner and lead instructor of Integrated Fire Solutions, and has been in the fire service since 1985, including 20 years on the line with the Parker, CO, Fire District. He is also NWCG qualified as a wildfire Division Supervisor and holds a Fire Science Associate's Degree and numerous state and national certifications, including fire officer and fire instructor. You can contact Quinn by e-mail at: RICK LYNSKY currently works as a battalion chief for the City of Montebello, CA, Fire Department. He started his fire service career in 1982 and has an AS degree fire science and a BA in Public Administration. He is NWCG qualified as a Division Supervisor and Structure Protection Specialist. You can contact Rick by e-mail