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One important leadership trait a fireground commander must have is the ability to communicate. Fire-ground communications involves sending and receiving radio messages, as well as interpreting information upon which you make decisions.
Photo by Jay L. Heath
During major incidents, fire officers must be equipped with radios that allow them to communicate with fireground commanders. Plus, the assignment of portable radios to firefighters increases their productivity.
During a major incident, a fireground commander must communicate with fire officers at the scene; occupants of the burning building to give instruction how to exit; and the dispatcher to call for resources and describe the progress of the fire.
To effectively communicate to those people, the fireground commander has three requirements:
- A portable radio capable of transmitting radio messages in any type of building without interference from steel or concrete.
- A public address system that has the capability of reaching occupants on every floor stair and apartments.
- Most important, a communications officer to assist with the fireground communications.
Good fireground communications start during the building's planning and construction stages. This is when fire department portable radios must be tested and their capability and power verified. Portable radios must be able to transmit from the lobby to the roof.
Often, structural steel and dense concrete interfere with fire department portable radio transmission. In older cities, buildings were constructed before fire departments obtained portable radios to be used for command and control of fires. In many cities fire department portable radios cannot transmit messages to the upper floors of some buildings during fires.
If a fire occurs on the upper floor and our radios don't work, we quickly substitute alternate means of communications. For example, we use the house telephone, we set up a relay system of portable radios on intermediate floors, we stretch a telephone hard wire up the stairs, or we use a substitute, a "repeater," which is a more powerful radio at the command post.
None of those communications alternatives, however, are satisfactory. They give the fireground commander limited communications to firefighters or they take time to set up or they are too complex and often fail due to the steel and concrete in the structure. As one veteran chief said, using one of these communications alternatives during a fire is similar to a soldier who is trained with an M-16 rifle over many months suddenly being issued an M-21 rifle during an important battle and told to use this instead of the rifle with which he is familiar.
Today, some enlightened owners of buildings who have discovered that firefighter equipment cannot transmit emergency messages due to steel and concrete interference have installed radio cables in their structures. These cables allow the typical radio carried by firefighters and chiefs to operate properly and transmit messages from the lobby to the roof. This retrofit cable not only allows fireground communications in the building during a serious fire but also during "nuisance" alarms, smoke alarms, false alarms and minor emergencies.
When our portable radios transmit properly, we can discover the reason for the alarm and send firefighters back quickly. Good fire communications create less downtime for workers in a high-rise office building and let firefighters leave the building more quickly and return to other duties.
The assignment of portable radios to firefighters increases their productivity. For example, a fire company that has only one handi-talkie assigned to the officer requires all firefighters to stay with the officer for safety reasons. It is too easy to get lost in smoke on a large area floor during a fire. Firefighters can become disoriented when work spaces such as cubicles, small offices and large open areas are filled with smoke.