Radio Procedures

Leroy P. McKeever offers fire departments a practical guide in using their radio system to relay imperative information.


The radio is the heart of any fire department communications system. Your department may not have computerized dispatching, mobile data terminals in the rigs or voice alarms in the firehouse but it probably has a radio system. Your radio system may be operated by the fire department, a regional...


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The radio is the heart of any fire department communications system. Your department may not have computerized dispatching, mobile data terminals in the rigs or voice alarms in the firehouse but it probably has a radio system. Your radio system may be operated by the fire department, a regional communications center or another agency such as the police department or sheriff's office. Some systems have as few as a dozen radios while a large system may have well over a thousand mobile, base and portable units.

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Photo by Keith D. Cullom/IFPA
A basic function of any fire department radio system is to alert units, stations or personnel and to transmit and receive critical information. Here, chiefs, officers and aides from the Los Angeles County Fire Department keep in contact with companies operating at an incident.


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Photo Courtesy of Valley News
A fire chief and an assistant chief use local communications SOPs to make contact with different agencies during an incident in Louisiana.

The radio system will be used every time the fire department is active, including fire and emergency incidents, training, community relations projects and inspection duties. As a result radio operating policies should be an important part of any fire department's standard operating procedures.

A basic function of any fire department radio system is alerting units, stations or personnel and making notifications to various officials and agencies. Another important function is to convey critical information between the units in the field and the base dispatcher. Messages from the dispatcher to the units may include the location of people trapped or in distress at a high-rise building fire, the properties of a chemical involved in a hazmat incident or the location of hydrants in a new industrial park. Examples of messages from the scene to the base may include instructions for incoming units, the extent of the incident and where injured firefighters are being taken.

Information that is being relayed must be the same information received from the source with no additions or subtractions. This applies to the base operator as well as units enroute or at the scene. If a message is complicated, its contents should be written down by the recipient don't trust it to memory.

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Photo by Letitia Jenkins
Charlestown, NH, Fire Chief Gary Wallace communicates with other units upon his arrival at a multi-alarm fire. Radio operating policies are an important part of a fire department's standard operating procedures.

Any message should be given at regular speed and in a normal tone of voice. This is not the time or place for theatrical embellishments! Specific reports should be given, i.e.: "The occupant in Apartment 4E is having trouble breathing and the smoke is getting heavier" or "Have the power shut down on Track 2 between the Pine Street and Oak Street stations only."

A unit at the scene must maintain radio contact with the base even at what appears to be a minor or "routine" incident. Conditions can rapidly change (usually they worsen) and having someone by the radio can speed up the process of calling for additional assistance or receiving reports that indicate a situation is deteriorating.

A fire occurred in an electrical equipment room of a very large apartment house on a hot July night. In addition to the heavy smoke conditions extending throughout the building, the electrical system failed very rapidly. Numerous telephone calls were received by the fire department from people who were hot, in the dark and experiencing a worsening smoke condition. Some of the callers were on the verge of panic. The lone dispatcher on duty did an outstanding job of answering the telephone calls and calming the residents. In between taking the calls he attempted to contact any unit on the fireground to pass on the apartment numbers and locations of the people in distress.

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