Although fire chiefs and training officers often struggle for training materials, emergency communications are rarely deeply explored. Let’s face it; practicing talking on a radio is not as exciting as a live burn or practicing the proper placement of ladders. There can also often be an undercurrent of, “We know how to talk – why are we wasting time practicing that?”
There are several reasonable answers to this question, but let’s stick to the two most obvious. First, every incident requires communications. Knowing the ins-and-outs of the foam eductor is important, but if you’re like many departments, you’re making foam only a few times a year. Second, and probably most important, you will use communications if you have to call a Mayday. That by itself should be enough reason to learn everything you can about your radio system.
The exercises listed below feature a mix of stand-alone and adjunct communications drills. You can expand on them or design ones that better suit your department’s needs. Either way, the important thing is that you train.
Many agencies use tabletop scenarios to practice hazardous materials and multiple-alarm/mutual aid responses, but rarely is the communications function given much attention. While knowing how to deploy and command resources is important, so is understanding how communications are taxed during real-world events.
The first drill raises important questions: What channels will be used? What special units may be called? Is their response automatic or dependent on the request of the incident commander? Do they and neighboring departments share a common frequency with your department? Is there a callback plan for off-duty personnel? What happens if a key communication link breaks?
This last scenario can also serve as a valuable drill in itself. Communications systems can fail – often at the most inconvenient times. This second drill consists of inserting a failure into any fire or rescue scenario, then mapping the problems created and suggesting solutions. Fire departments are supposed to have alternate means of dispatch in case the primary fails. What is your secondary means of alerting? Is it practical? What functionality do you lose if your primary dispatch mechanism fails?
You can list individual components or systems on cards, then interject them into your drill. To be more creative – and potentially more realistic – work up to inserting two or more failures. Agencies that believe they have all their bases covered often find out otherwise when the problems begin to get trickier.
Drill number three is an addendum to the typical blacked-out facepiece or high-density smoke exercises that instill firefighters with confidence in airpacks and operating in limited-visibility environments. Add another degree of complexity by having trainees tune their radios to a particular channel while wearing gloves and take note of how they do. If radios accidentally got on an incorrect channel during the real thing, could the firefighters find the proper frequency without looking?
Experience teaches that channels that are always monitored should be placed at each end of the dial. That way, whether you rotate the knob fully to the left or right, you are theoretically in a place that someone can hear you. However, this may not currently be the case, so another methodology may need to be developed. Some radios actually “talk” and announce the channel currently tuned, but this function is not universally supported and in an emergency situation these announcements must compete with ambient noise.
The Mayday drill is exercise four. We all talk about when to call a Mayday, but how many ever practice making the call? As with all the exercises mentioned here, getting your dispatch center involved in beneficial. Here, it is critical. After clearly announcing a test, have all parties carry out their roles. Was anything missed? If so, finding it out here is far better than finding it out on the fireground. Follow your own procedures, but consider using video and audio of real Mayday situations that are available on the web for reinforcement and critique.
Number five is the “Can We Talk?” drill, which can be carried out on a departmental or first-due company basis. This consists of taking a map and identifying all of the radio dead or trouble spots in a region. Proactively, this can be done as part of an inspection process. After all, if you’re there seeing if the sprinkler works, why not check the radio reception? The identified inability to properly communicate with interior crews should have just as much bearing in making tactical decisions as does the presence of hazardous materials.
Each of these drills is simple to conduct, but provides critical knowledge to firefighters concerning their communications systems. In fact, any of these five drills could save your life.