Radio Discipline and the Fireground Radio Channel
To Switch or Not Switch…
One of the debates that continues to make the circuit is whether or not we should switch radio channels on the fireground when a Mayday is transmitted.
Answering Yes or No is the easy part – understanding the question, and why it’s being asked, is actually the real answer to the question.
Think about the question for a minute…should we switch firefighters to another radio channel during a Mayday? Before we commit to an action (or answer), let’s try to understand why we even consider switching a radio channel when something bad happens on the fireground.
There are a number of reasons the radio is used, but the underlying reason is to communicate needed information to keep firefighters updated on how things are going. The information flows from command to individual companies, from companies to command, between companies, and between individual members of companies. The information can be routine – giving common information updates that are found on every fireground (search results, fire location, crew location, ventilation needs, etc.) – or it can be emergency (Mayday, safety issue, evacuation, etc.). Whatever it is, the information must be communicated, received, and understood.
Why all this explanatioN? Because it’s at the root of the discussion about switching the radio channel during a Mayday on the fireground. We continually debate whether or not we should change radio channels because there seems to be too much information (traffic) on the regular (assigned) channel. There’s too much information on the assigned channel not because we’re overloaded with important stuff on the fireground – but because we don’t practice radio discipline. Radio discipline refers to the proper timing and use of the radio on the fireground. It’s a learned skill that must be continually used and practiced in order for it to work on the fireground.
Radio discipline starts with the individual user.
Let’s face it: we have all types of radio communicators on the fireground! To start, we have radio users who understand how and when to use the radio – and the value of a well-thought-out, short and concise, message. These users constantly listen to the radio for information. They also use the radio to provide needed information. They believe in the value of need-to-know, not nice-to-know information. These guys also realize that if the information can be provided face-to-face, without jamming up the radio, then that may be the best way to communicate it.
Next, we have those radio communicators who never think before they speak. We’re not even sure if they’re thinking as they speak, because it certainly doesn’t sound like it. The first reaction to these radio communicators is what did he just say? The message is often repeated because it wasn’t clear or understandable the first time. Many times, after a couple of failed attempts at understanding the message. it is simply lost, indicating it probably never needed to be said in the first place! The problem with these users is that they draw in other users. Often the dispatch center or control operator chimes in to try and help others understand the message; sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn’t. What this does do is take up more valuable airtime that may be needed by someone else.
Next we have those users who recite War and Peace every time they key up the microphone. We all have them, and we all know that we don’t have time to extract their coded language. Just when you think they’re ready to stop, they get their second wind and continue!
We also have those users who never talk on the radio – even when they have information (need-to-know) that would make the job easier, or safer! They’ll always tell you after that they almost got on the radio and said this or that but decided not to.
And finally we have those users who don’t even turn their radio on when they operate on the fireground, or if they do, they fail to get it on the correct channel or turn the volume up loud enough to hear it.
So, when we show up on the fireground and a Mayday is transmitted, should we switch radio channels? Let’s not go there yet!
first, let’s talk a little about the radio, how you carry it, and how you operate it.
We have a variety of radio types that we use on the fireground – some simple and some sophisticated, some with a couple of channels and some with way too many channels. We now have analog and digital (the jury is still out on the operational end on some of these). No matter which type of radio you have, do you know how to use it? How many channels are on it? Where is the channel selector located? Where is the on/off and volume switch? Is there a lapel microphone attached to it? Is this lapel microphone optional or mandatory?
Does your department have a dispatch channel? Do you operate on fireground or tactical channels? When do you switch? Some departments have the luxury of dispatching on one channel and then putting all units responding on an operations channel for that incident. Unfortunately, some departments still have to dispatch and operate on the same channel. Many departments fall somewhere in the middle. At the very least, all departments should strive to get at least one fireground operations channel so that all of the potential dispatch traffic doesn’t have to be transmitted on top of an actual working incident (try for grant funding, at the very least, to move in this direction).
Carrying the Radio
OK! So where do you carry your radio? Radio pocket? Which side of your body? Radio strap? Inside your coat or outside? Do you actively listen to your radio when working on the fireground? Can you hear it? All the time?
Now a few more questions. If you carry your radio in a radio pocket, which way is the speaker facing – toward your chest or away from you? Is the volume all the way up? Do you use a lapel microphone? How is it carried? Where is it carried? Does it stay secured or does it fall down around your waist/knees? If you don’t use a lapel microphone, when you try to listen, do you have to stop and put your ear down towards the radio pocket? When you transmit, do you have to take the radio out of your pocket to talk? Have you ever dropped your radio?
If you carry your radio with a radio strap, is the strap worn under your turnout coat or on top of it? If it’s worn on top of your coat, is it under the SCBA or on top of it? Is your lapel microphone secured and does it stay in place? When you listen, you able to hear through the lapel microphone? When you transmit, how much effort does it take to key the radio and talk?
Obviously from the last two sets of questions, we strongly recommend the use of a lapel microphone and a radio strap. We prefer the radio strap to be worn under the turnout coat so it’s less of an entanglement hazard. This setup, when practiced, requires minimal effort to hear and transmit messages.
Operating the Radio
Finally, let’s talk a bit about using the radio under fireground conditions. The key here is fireground! Operating a radio outside a fire building is a whole lot different from operating it inside. What’s this mean? Well, it’s easy to operate a radio when you don’t have fire gloves on! It’s easy to operate a radio when you’re not wearing turnout gear and an SCBA…while you’re crawling around, unable to see, stretching more hose, operating a nozzle, or performing a search.
Listening and transmitting, if you’ve set your gear up to operate under worst-case fireground conditions, is not that difficult. It takes practice, not only with the physical skill of operating the radio but also with the mental skill of forming your message prior to speaking. Anything beyond that under realistic, worst-case, fireground conditions is the question we started this whole discussion with.
Coming Full Circle: Should We Switch Channels?
Should we switch radio channels when a fireground Mayday is transmitted? That is: Should we move all non-involved firefighters (those not directly involved in the Mayday) to another channel and leave only the Mayday firefighter and RIT operation on the original channel?
The argument for changing is so that we can lessen (or limit) the radio traffic that would be taking place. Also, it’s for all those firefighters who are not involved in the Mayday operation.
We feel that the answer is found in realistic fireground training, and we strongly believe that the answer is NO.
Thinking back to our discussion about the radio, operating it, and carrying it, it is nearly impossible to change the radio channel (consistently and with 100-percent assurance that all members got the message and performed the skill) with fire gloves on — under realistic fireground conditions. How can you find this out? Try it! Don’t set up a drill where everyone knows that it’s coming; set up a drill and request the change when the participants are performing real skills, with real sounds, smoke, heat, and fireground challenges (not enough hose stretched, multiple people jamming a stairway, saws operating on the roof, confusion, etc.) to see if it works.
Then set up another, similar, drill and do it again. Then do it again. Don’t rely on one session; test it as if every firefighter’s life depends on it—because it does (starting with the firefighter that was in trouble to begin with).
All firefighters on the fireground are involved in any Mayday that occurs on that fireground. This doesn’t mean that everyone should drop what they’re doing to help; they must have the discipline to continue to do their assigned job. What this does mean is that if any firefighter/crew operating on the fireground can solve the problem of the Mayday firefighter—before someone else can—then they should communicate their actions (clearly and concisely to command) and assist with the solution as long as it’s not at the expense of creating additional Maydays due to failing to complete their first mission. For example: if you’re the engine crew moving down the stairs to extinguish a basement fire and there’s a Mayday transmitted for a firefighter disoriented and lost in the basement then you should continue to advance the line down the stairs. At the same time members of the crew may be able to assist the Mayday firefighter as they make their way into the basement. The engine crew has to have the discipline to keep the line pushing forward, but they may be able to assist the firefighter while help is on the way. In fact, they may be able to solve the problem before help arrives. What they can’t do is abandon their line (and first mission) because that action may result in three or four additional Mayday transmissions because the fire extends (you can escalate it from here).
If the policy stated that all units operating (with the exception of the Mayday firefighter and the RIT companies) were to switch (let’s say attempt to switch) to a different radio channel, what impact would that have on the operation?
How Do You Begin To End This Debate?
Think about this…. Begin a series of training sessions for all firefighters that starts to develop fireground communication skills. Teach all members—officers, engineers, privates, chiefs, and anyone else on the fireground—the value of information. Then continue by teaching the consequences of no information—in terms of delayed performance, duplicate performance, or just plain CF performance (we all know that one).
Next, put this training to use on the fireground by incorporating it into your normal fireground procedures. Teach all members what’s at stake when a Mayday is transmitted. Teach them all how to react when a Mayday is transmitted. Teach them the value of Emergency Traffic Only when a Mayday is underway on the fireground.
And then enforce the procedures during normal operations through command. Use benchmarks for common fireground events (search results, fire location, fire control, ventilation performed, crew location…), and hold the crews accountable by requesting the information if it’s not provided in a timely manner. Develop radio skills through use on the fireground (after explaining things during training) before a Mayday takes place so that the Mayday firefighter has access to as many resources as possible when in trouble on the fireground.
Next time we’ll talk about Fireground Accountability and PARs!
Publisher’s Note: Lt. McCormack is the president of Fire Department Training Network, a not-for-profit organization dedicated to training firefighters. Log on to www.fdtraining.com to learn more about the outstanding training and educational opportunities they provide.