Fireground Communications At Major Fires & Emergencies

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...


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At a serious fire it is not unusual for the chief in command to receive 10 or 20 reports of people in distress on upper floors of a high-rise apartment building. For many years, dispatchers would hold these messages until the communication overload and firefighting activities were reduced to manageable levels, then relay the locations of the people calling reporting distress. This is no longer true. Two incidents were catalysts for the change: a 1987 Chicago high-rise office building fire in which a woman called for help on the telephone to the dispatcher before being overcome by smoke; and a 1988 New York City high-rise residence building fire in which several people called for help on the telephone before leaping to their deaths during a compactor fire. Such calls for help are now immediately transmitted to the chief in charge of a fire, regardless of the amount of radio traffic. Dispatchers were the targets of civil charges and investigations following those incidents. Fire dispatchers and 911 dispatchers no longer hold or delay these messages for distress or assistance.

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During a high-rise fire, several thousand people may be inside the skyscraper. You cannot order them all to leave the building during a fire. The stairway capacity is not designed to have all people in a high-rise building leave at one time. Some occupants close to the fire must be ordered to leave, and others in remote areas directed to stay.

Firefighters must extinguish a high-rise fire while most people remain in place. In this type of fire strategy, "defend the place," the fireground commander must inform the occupants on what to do. The occupants may not comply with the fireground commander's instructions or they may not hear them - but the fireground commander must order announcements to be made over the public address system anyway, telling occupants what is taking place.

You must give occupants of a high-rise building directions over the public address system during a fire. After the fire, the press and lawyers will want to know exactly what the fire department told the occupants to do during the blaze. Every high-rise apartment house and office building should have a public address system to allow the fire department to communicate evacuation instructions that can be heard by all occupants.

If there is a public address system and there is a serious fire in the building, the following are several announcements the building manager or person in charge should be ordered to make:

"There is a fire in the building and the fire department is on the scene."

After the location of the fire floor has been determined and if its size indicates evacuation is necessary, order people to leave the fire floor and the floor above. For example, if the fire is on the 20th floor:

"All persons on the 20th and 21st floors leave the building in an orderly manner. All other people on other floors remain in place unless smoke or fire is visible. Notify the lobby desk if you require assistance."

After the attack stairs and evacuation stairs have been determined, order the following message:

"All occupants leaving should use stairs A. Do not use stairs B. The fire department is using stairs B. It will fill up with smoke. I repeat, use stairs A to evacuate the building."

If other floors are evacuated repeat the latter message several times during the fire. After the fire is under control, the following announcement should be made to calm people:

"The fire has been declared under control by the fire department. Any person requesting assistance notifies the lobby desk."

Command Frequency

At a fire, a communications officer should be assigned to assist the fireground commander. A communications officer is different from a public information officer and different from the officer in charge of the field communication command vehicle. For example, a communications officer facilitates communications between the fireground commander and the firefighters inside the building battling the blaze. A public information officer facilitates communications between the fireground commander and the press and public television stations. A field communications command officer facilitates communications between the fireground commander and the dispatcher.

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A communications officer assumes the burden of firefighting communications in several ways. He or she may take over the command board controlling and identifying where sectors and companies are located inside the building; or ask the foreground commander if the command channel should be established when communications overload occurs.

To establish a command frequency the portable radios must be equipped with two frequencies for use as fireground channels and sector officers must have firefighter/aides working with them in the building. If the radios have channels only for tactical and dispatcher, or if the sector officer does not have firefighter/aides to monitor the tactical channel, a command channel cannot be established and there is no way to manage radio overload. However, if sector offices have firefighters with them to monitor tactical messages and the handi-talkie has the extra fireground channel for a command function, then the communications officer can establish the command channel to reduce message volume by following these steps: