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 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:

  1. A portable radio capable of transmitting radio messages in any type of building without interference from steel or concrete.
  2. A public address system that has the capability of reaching occupants on every floor stair and apartments.
  3. Most important, a communications officer to assist with the fireground communications.

Portable Radios

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.

Firefighter Productivity

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.

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.

Communications Overload

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.

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.


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.


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:

  1. Determine the command channel number on the handi-talkie that is to be used.
  2. Contact each sector chief individually on the tactical channel. Give out the number of the command channel and request that the sector chiefs switch to it and contact command on this channel.
  3. After all sectors have been notified and a roll call on the command channel contacts each sector to verify the switch, notify the officer in command to switch to the command channel.
  4. The communications officer at the command post monitors the tactical channel while the fireground commander communicates to the sector officer on the command channel.

Lessons Learned

Part of every post-fire analysis is a recommendation on how to solve a fireground communications problem. It is difficult to communicate over a portable radio when you are under extreme stress. However, we must all constantly attempt to improve our communications skills.

During major fires, chiefs, officers and firefighters must transmit and receive fireground messages, and - most important - comprehend what is being transmitted. There is no such person as a strong "silent" type fireground commander.

Vincent Dunn, a Firehouse® contributing editor, is a deputy chief with the FDNY and a member of the New York City Fire Chiefs Association. He is the author of the books and videos Safety And Survival On The Fireground and Collapse Of Burning Buildings. For information call 800-231-3388.