Fire Dispatch: Button! Button! Emergency Button!

April 1, 2018
Barry Furey explains why the smallest radio feature--the emergency button--makes the biggest impact.

The portable radio is one of the most beneficial safety devices you will ever use. With it you receive urgent updates from other units on the fireground, pass along essential information, and signal when immediate assistance is required. In addition to all these important capabilities, there is one small component of this device that has an enormous impact: the emergency button. Unfortunately, its use and function are often not clearly understood.

What to know

The first thing you should learn is your department’s specific policy on the button. While emergency buttons could conceivably be used for alerting operating crews of a dangerous condition, such as a live wire down or impending collapse, they are most often reserved for firefighters who experience or observe a mayday situation. Some agencies specify that these distress signals are to be activated only as a last resort, when a verbal message is impossible or impractical, and many plans now include instructions for their use when firefighters come under duress from hostile persons. What does your standard operating procedure (SOP) say?

Next, you need to know where your emergency button is and what it does. Sometimes dubbed the “panic” or “mayday” button, it resembles the tip of a pencil eraser and rests atop the transceiver or remote speaker mic. When pushed and briefly held down, it sends a repetitive series of audible “beeps” across the airwaves, along with the electronic ID of your radio. Several software programmable functions, which are by no means universal, are also set in motion. This is where the variables that greatly affect your safety kick in. Because the combination of settings available is almost infinite, I’ll focus on those most commonly used.

Departments typically opt for one of two methods of identifier formats. Where communication devices are individually issued, your name, badge and/or company number may be sent out when you transmit. Oftentimes, the riding position or duty to which the radio is designated, such as “Ladder 16 – Roof” or “Engine 32 – Irons,” is utilized. However, spare units that are temporarily assigned will not provide such specific information unless they are programmed to do so prior to use. Because the correlation of radios to personnel and their locations is a critical part of on-scene accountability, a distress call from a radio lacking this data is a dangerous situation. When multiple backup handhelds are in service at large-scale operations, the problem increases.

The assignment of the alert is not the same for all trunked radio systems. Some departments opt for the signal to be transmitted to your current talk group, enabling your crew to immediately assist. Other agencies choose to direct your call to an emergency talk group that is constantly monitored, allowing communication to be carried out directly with you on a dedicated resource without interference. The pros and cons of each can be vigorously debated, but the major takeaway is the importance of understanding how your department’s setup works. Whatever method is chosen, regional standardization of such policies can reduce confusion and improve response during crises.

Still, there are more features to consider. Some microphones become temporarily “hot” during an activation, enabling a brief transmission to be made without the need for depressing the push-to-talk switch. The “silent alarm” function, which may be more beneficial for law enforcement than fire, disables audio-visual clues on your portable radio that indicate the emergency mode has been entered. Programming may further prevent you from changing channels after activating the button, blocking your ability to select talk groups that are not set up to handle emergency calls.

Who monitors your emergency transmission—and how—may differ between daily responses and mutual aid to another community. National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) Standard 1221 discusses the need for a telecommunicator to supervise a frequency during major operations, but this is not always the case due to lack of staff. Dispatch equipment also alters how this oversight takes place. For example, while trunked radio systems are moving toward vendor agnostic solutions, not all console electronics fully support every make of equipment in the field. I have personally witnessed 9-1-1 centers where portable radios were provided to manage emergency activations because the fixed technology could not. If these walkie-talkies failed for any reason, critical alerts would not be received. The use of regional interoperability channels or extra-jurisdictional radio networks can also influence what features will be active.

One added caution concerning the buttons themselves: Not all radios are equipped with one, and the presence of a button does not guarantee that it works. Your infrastructure may not support this emergency feature, or your radio may not be programmed to handle it. Ask someone in authority or secure permission to test its operation.

Finally, while your Personal Alert Safety Signal (PASS) device can be triggered both manually and by lack of motion, older radio emergency buttons are totally reliant on user activation. Although both should be utilized in true mayday situations, the International Association of Fire Chiefs (IAFC) recommends that the emergency button be accessed first, as the extreme volume produced by the PASS can make communication difficult. Newer transceivers may be equipped to alert automatically should motion cease or the radio be tilted past a defined angle. Know which one you carry!

Training time

I strongly recommend that all firefighters and communications center personnel become acquainted with emergency button activations and how to react to them as part of their training. Such demonstrations must be carefully regulated; however, because these devices may override all other radio traffic and are purposely attention getting. At minimum, lessons should include the points covered in this article as well as detailed discussions regarding protocol to be followed in cases where the radio ID is both known (assigned to a firefighter or riding position) and unknown (spare unit). For consolidated dispatch centers, guidance must be provided for their handling across every branch of service. Should features, equipment or policies for handling these events change, all parties so effected must be immediately notified and documentation appropriately updated.

In sum

Emergency buttons may be small, but there is much to learn about their operation. The information contained herein focused on portables utilizing trunked radio systems, although other devices may be so equipped. Be sure you familiarize yourself with your departmental SOP and know how all of your equipment functions before trusting your life to it.

About the Author

Barry Furey

BARRY FUREY, who is a Firehouse Contributing Editor, provides consulting and training services in emergency communications. He is the former director of the Raleigh-Wake Emergency Communications Center in North Carolina. During his 50-year public safety career, he has managed 9-1-1 centers and served as a volunteer fire officer in three other states. In 2005, Furey received a life membership in the Association of Public-Safety Communications Officials (APCO) International for his continued work in emergency communications. Furey was inducted into the Firehouse Hall of Fame in 2017.

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