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Stopbad: November 2013

We all know the fire service is constantly changing. Twenty-five years ago, we had few portable radios; when we sent firefighters into a burning structure we could not contact them other than by yelling at them.

November 12, 2013
By Gord Schreiner

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We all know the fire service is constantly changing. Twenty-five years ago, we had few portable radios; when we sent firefighters into a burning structure we could not contact them other than by yelling at them. Now, we do not think of sending a team into a burning structure without portable radios for each member. This change suggests that we should use a call-sign system that allows us to talk to individual members of that team, if necessary. Why? What happens if one team member is separated from the others? How do you call that one member? Calling by name could work, but there might be two or more firefighters with the same name. Also, confidentiality disappears when a given name is used over the radio. If a firefighter is lost or trapped and a real name is spoken, it is likely that many others, even those outside of your department, will know right away what is going on and who is affected.

Some departments use their engine-company assignments as their call signs while on the fire ground. So, Engine 1 remains Engine 1 when it is doing an interior attack or search. If two teams are needed (assuming a four-person engine company) from Engine 1, the crew is further split into Engine 1 Alpha and Engine 1 Bravo. This, again, does not provide individual call signs and does not take advantage of having more than one radio on the team. If one member from Engine 1 Alpha gets separated from the others, it becomes difficult to communicate with that person without using real names.

Some departments use task-orientated call signs. An interior attack team would be called Attack 1, and an interior search team is Search 1, and so on. Again, this does not take advantage of all the radios on the team. And, using this system can lead to other problems. A firefighter who is using a task-oriented call sign might have his call sign changed several times during the same incident, and will certainly have a different call sign at the next incident to which he responds. Firefighters need to remember their latest call signs and must try not to respond to call signs that they may have used at a previous incident.

Task-oriented call signs can be confusing, even at simple incidents. The first-in confinment team might be called Attack 1 while the first-in search team going to the second-floor bedrooms for a primary search might be called Search 1. The second-in confinment team might be called Attack 2 and the second-in search team, conducting a primary search on the first floor, would be called Search 2. So Search 1 is on floor two and Search 2 is on floor one. What happens if Attack 1 finds the victim and Search 1 is then asked to confine the fire? Attack 1 would be rescuing and Search 1 would be confining. If we add divisions and groups, a call sign system can unravel and, still, there is no way to contact individual firefighters without using real names.

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The solution is call signs for life. In the call-signs-for-life system, firefighters are assigned call signs when they join the department and they use the same call signs for their entire careers, at every incident, no matter what task they are doing. This system is safe and effective. Just as we don’t change the names on our rigs when they are assigned to different tasks, we should not change our firefighters’ call signs. Firefighters and incident commanders have enough to think about without having to remember different call signs.

Call signs for life works extremely well. Firefighters working on individual tasks, such as traffic, use their individual call signs. When working in teams, the team leader’s call sign is used to contact the team. After calling a team lead and getting no response, the incident commander can always try to call another member on the team. Team members who become separated can contact command using their individual call signs. Don’t overthink this: the system is simple and works great. My department and many other departments have been using this system for quite some time; in fact, all 10 departments in our region use call signs for life. Dozens of departments across Canada use call signs for life because it makes sense and is safer and more effective than other systems. Firefighters  don’t need to remember everyone’s call signs, just their own. Passport tags include the firefighters’ names and call-sign numbers. Firefighters love this system as it makes their jobs easier and safer.

In my department, we display all firefighters’ call signs on their PPE, kind of like putting numbers on your rigs for easier indentification. Individual call signs are on helmet patches, decals, the rear of helmets, and are Velcroed on the jackets and pants. We can see your call sign and you can see your call sign; you will never forget your call sign.

What will your call sign be at the next incident you attend? If you are using call signs for life, you know right now!


Gord Schreiner joined the fire service in 1975 and is a full-time fire chief in Comox, B.C., where he also manages the Comox Fire Training Centre. He is a structural protection specialist with the Office of the Fire Commissioner and worked at the 2010 Winter Olympics as a venue commander. Chief Schreiner also serves as the educational chair for the Fire Chiefs’ Association of British Columbia. Contact him at firehall@comox.ca and follow him on Twitter at @comoxfire


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