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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After making more than a dozen attempts to contact a unit at the scene, he dispatched the only remaining engine solely to act as a radio contact. This made it necessary to call in a mutual aid engine to cover the district. All that was needed was one member designated to monitor the radio and pass along the information. The department involved in this incident had equipped most of its members with portable radios on both base and fireground frequencies; lack of equipment was not a cause of this problem.

This incident occurred a few years ago before the more widespread use of the incident command system and command posts. However, if no one at the command post is paying attention to the base radio, only to the fireground frequency, the same situation could occur. Many departments have begun to designate the pump operator of the second- or third-arriving engine as the radio contact. This is logical since the pump operator is usually close to the apparatus and can easily monitor the radio.

All department members should be trained in radio discipline. Picking up the microphone and blurting out a message over the air is poor practice since it could "cover" a more important message. This also applies to radio messages given at the scene on the fireground frequency. A unit should contact the dispatcher, wait for an acknowledgement and then transmit the message. If any message you receive is not completely clear to you, ask that it be repeated.

Everyone in the department should be familiar with the terms to be used in extreme situations "Mayday," "Urgent," "Emergency," etc. It should be made clear that these terms are to be used only in very serious situations. Routine use or overuse of this radio terminology will reduce its effectiveness. All unnecessary radio traffic should cease when a message of this type is given. The reason for giving this type of message should be quickly ascertained (collapse, firefighter down or loss of water supply, for example). At no time should a message prefaced by one of these terms be ignored or not acknowledged.

All radio messages should be acknowledged, something that is obvious but often not done. If the receiver does not acknowledge the message correctly, the sender usually has no choice but to repeat it. This results in unnecessary radio transmissions.


Leroy P. McKeever is a supervising dispatcher in the FDNY Bureau of Communications, assigned to the Bronx.