Fire Fighting in Canada

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Stopbad: March 2014

Effective radio communication is the most important safety factor on the fire ground.

February 26, 2014 
By Gord Schreiner

Effective radio communication is the most important safety factor on the fire ground. While not all fire departments can provide a radio for each firefighter, it is safe to say that more radios on the fire ground mean a safer fire ground. However, if radio discipline is not practised, more radios also make for a more complicated fire ground.

The first step in effective communication is to select a basic model that works for your department. The next step is to train, either on the training ground or in the classroom, using the model.

As with most of the topics I write about, I like systems that are simple. If you don’t have a system in place, you are likely to spend more time trying to sort out radio communications than you spend trying to solve the problem to which you were called in the first place.

I suggest a model known as the four Cs of communication: connect, convey, clarify and confirm.


Here is an example of the system:

The incident commander (IC) wants to communicate with Team1.

Connect: Command calls Team 1: “Team 1 from command.” Team 1 responds: “Team 1.” If Team 1 were to say, “Go ahead,” the IC would not know definitively with whom he or she is communicating.

Convey: Command sends a message: “Team 1, withdraw from structure.”

Clarify: Team No. 1 clarifies: “Team 1 is withdrawing from structure.” If Team 1 just says, “Roger,” it is unclear if the message was understood.

Confirm: Command confirms: “Affirmative Team No. 1.” This system is very simple, easy to use and very reliable. However, it still needs to be practised. 

When should a team communicate on the radio?

  • 100 per cent of the time when entering a structure or an environment immediately dangerous to life and health (IDLH). Why? For many reasons, but the No. 1 reason is to ensure your radio is on and turned to the right channel. Other reasons are to let others on the fire ground know what you are up to and to confirm your orders.
  • 100 per cent of the time when exiting a structure or environment that is IDLH. Why? So everyone knows you are out.
  • 100 per cent of the time when changing floors. Why? So everyone knows where you are.
  • 100 per cent of the time when asked to do so. Why? So we know you are safe.
  • 100 per cent of the time to convey important information, such as the number of victims, fire location and status, and any benchmarks.

Who should be speaking on the radios? Team leaders only; other members on the team should have their radios on (why carry a radio if you are not going to turn it on?) but the volume should be turned down. Team leaders speak; other team members listen and speak only when asked or if they become separated from the team.

What you say over the radio should mean something. I recommend that every fire department develop a glossary of terms. A simple document with 20 to 30 words should be developed and shared with the department (and with neighbouring departments) so that everyone knows the terms and their meanings. Why? Incident commanders don’t have time to explain the meaning of each order on the fire ground at 3 a.m. Does everyone understand that evacuate, withdraw and abandon each have different meanings? If your firefighters do not know the proper meaning of each word, your fire ground will quickly become more challenging and dangerous than it needs to be.

Do you have a formatted status report? Again, select a model and practise it. I like to use the TAP acronym for my status reports. Team: is your team accounted for? Air: what is the lowest level of air on your team? (We use only two choices for air supply – above 50 per cent or below 50 per cent; this lets command know which teams can continue working and which teams should be withdrawn.) Position: where is your team? This report confirms much of what should already be on the IC’s scene-management board, while checking on the firefighting team’s air supply. Teams can add other pertinent information if needed.

A status report is different from a roll call, which is used to quickly determine if all of the teams are still accounted for. Often after a collapse, explosion or other major fire-ground event, both a status report and a roll call are requested to achieve a personal accountably report.

Practise these simple radio models and your fire ground operations will go a lot smoother in the future.

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. Contact him at and follow him on Twitter at @comoxfire

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