Radio Procedures

Feb. 1, 1997
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 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.
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.
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.

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.

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.

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