Safe Operations with Portable Radios

The IAFC designed a Best Practices for Portable Radios document that helps firefighters figure out the safest and most effective means to use this equipment as technology evolves.


The portable radio is the single most important device for public safety voice communications. Presently, there are more portable radios in the fire service than ever before. This increase in radio purchases nationwide is largely due to the FIRE Act Grant and Department of Homeland Security (DHS) public safety communications grants that followed the horrendous attacks of 9/11. Grants like the Public Safety Interoperability Communications (PSIC) grant injected billions of dollars for operable and interoperable radios.

The fact that there are more radios on the fireground presents some new challenges for incident commanders and firefighters that must be addressed to insure the safe and effective use of these radios. With the exception of large metropolitan cities, portable radios were only assigned to chief officers and company officers. In many localities, even that level of radio assignments was considered a luxury.

Today, radios are being assigned more frequently to every on-scene firefighter. As you can imagine or have already experienced, more radios increase the complexity of fireground communications. Whether it is the shear number of voice communications or the echoes from nearby radios, there is much more to communications than ever before.

Looking back, radios were also much simpler in their design and functionality. Radios had one or two channels; today the radios may have several hundred channels. Years ago, radios were only simplex and were analog; today the radios may be digital and/or operate on a trunked radio system. All of these changes and enhancements send a clear signal that much more training is required to use the radios effectively and safely.

The fire service also faces extreme environments which are generally unique to other public safety disciplines. Firefighters must enter extreme heat, zero visibility while searching for victims or trying to locate and extinguish the fire. The firefighter also works in challenging high noise environments such as power saws, apparatus engines, and PASS devices. Adding to these already difficult settings, the firefighter must operate the radio while wearing self-contained breathing apparatus (SCBA) and manipulate the radio controls with large bulky gloves in total darkness. All things considered, this sounds like (and could be) a recipe for disaster; especially if there is insufficient training with the very communications device that may be the only link to command or help should the firefighter become trapped and/or injured.

Here are a few questions to ponder:

  1. When members of your department start their service (volunteer or career) how much radio training do they receive?
  2. How well do you know how to use the radio that you use now?
  3. How much Mayday training do you conduct using radios?
  4. Do you have a Mayday radio procedure?
  5. How much do you know about the capabilities available to your radio?
  6. How well do you train/enforce proper radio discipline?
  7. Do you have an interoperability plan and exercise it?

If my hunch is correct and from what I have heard from a number of fire chiefs, there are a number of these questions that you answered uncomfortably. Unfortunately there are very limited recommendations when it comes to portable radio training.

Recognizing all of this, I believe that is imperative to promote the International Association of Fire Chiefs' (IAFC) Best Practices for Portable Radios PowerPoint presentation published in June 2008. I have abbreviated the best practices to focus on field user considerations, the full presentation can be found on the IAFC website.

Section 1: Field User Considerations for Portable Radio Use

Recommendation: Use the radio for the initial distress call before manual activation of the PASS in a Mayday situation when practical. PASS devices create a great deal of background noise very close to the radio microphone so transmitting on the radio before activating a PASS optimizes the probability that a voice message can be transmitted successfully.

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