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The general safety rule at fires is that firefighters without radios must work within voice contact or sight of the officer. If a firefighter has a portable radio, however, he or she may work out of sight of the officer and yet stay in radio contact. Radio-equipped firefighters can be given several assignments at a fire and the officer may still communicate with the firefighters and maintain supervisory safety.
In many large urban departments engine companies carry three portable radios each. They are assigned to the officer, the pump operator and the standpipe-control firefighter. The officer, upon discovering a fire on the upper floor of a building with a standpipe, can order the pump operator to supply the standpipe. Then, after the hose is stretched and charged, the pressure and volume can be controlled by communications between the officer at the nozzle and the firefighter at the standpipe outlet controlling the valve. There is no delay.
A ladder company requires even more portable radios in order to be productive and safe. Portable radios reduce "freelancing" - firefighters wandering around with no assignments. There is no accountability and supervision when freelancing occurs. Portable radios allow officers to give specific orders to firefighters working at remote locations. They also allow firefighters to notify officers when assigned tasks are completed and to request other assignments.
In some large cities ladder companies are each assigned four handi-talkies. The officer supervising the forcible entry team has one. The chauffeur down the street positioning the ladder for a rescue also has one. The firefighter assigned to the roof vent assignment has one so he can communicate fire conditions in shafts, on the roof and at the rear of the building to the officer. And the firefighter assigned as outside vent position or at a high-rise fire continues to operate the elevator in phase 2 - the firefighter operation mode - also has a radio. He can notify the officer if the elevator fails due to water, smoke or fire and he becomes trapped.
During a serious fire at which a full assignment of eight or 10 companies arrives, the chiefs, officers and firefighters may try to transmit radio messages at the same time. This creates a communications overload. When that happens, the fireground commander cannot possibly respond to every message. Fortunately, this happens at a small number of fires.
At a serious fire, when engine officers are calling for water pressure, ladder officers are asking for search and rescue reports, and the chiefs are requesting progress reports, communication volume at the fire increases rapidly and can become unmanageable for a short time, then it tapers off as the fire spread becomes controlled and rescues accomplished.
During this short period of communications overload, the chief may consider two actions:
- To listen to the messages and prioritize them, then respond only to critical transmissions.
- Use a multi-frequency radio to set up a command channel. That is, divide messages into two channels or frequencies. One channel/frequency carries fire company tactic messages, the other carries command messages.
To prioritize radio transmissions during a short period of communications overload, the fireground commander must monitor every message but acknowledge and respond to only critical transmissions. For example, a message reporting a trapped or missing firefighter - a "Mayday" - or an "urgent" message is the highest-priority transmission a fireground commander can receive. This message must be acknowledged and acted upon. A rapid intervention team must be sent immediately to assist and rescue the caller. Another high-priority message is discovery of a fire victim. This message must be acknowledged and medical assistance dispatched immediately.
Yet another high-priority message often transmitted during the communications overload at a high-rise fire concerns a person in distress, inside an apartment or office. These messages are usually received from a dispatcher. The person in distress telephones the fire dispatcher, who relays the message to the fireground commander. During the communications overload, there may not be firefighters available to rescue the telephone caller; if so, these messages must be recorded and acted upon as soon as firefighting activity needs permit.