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Stop Bad: Call Signs for Life!

Of all the articles I have written, the one on Call Signs for Life I wrote five years ago continues to garner a lot of inquiries. Dozens of departments have switched to this simple system and most have said that changing their radio call signs has been one of the best decisions they have made.

March 5, 2018 
By Gord Schreiner

The fire service is constantly changing, as is our need for safer and more effective fire ground communication. Thirty 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 would not think about of sending a team of firefighters into a burning structure without a portable radio 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? Because it is a safer and more effective method. Using the older systems, what happens if one team member is separated from the others? How do you call that one member individually? Calling by name could work, but there might be two or more firefighters with the same name. Also, confidentiality disappears when a real name is used over the radio.

Some departments still use their engine-company assignments as their call signs 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 (|or something similar). 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 still 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. A firefighter who is using a task-oriented call sign might have his or her call sign changed several times during the same incident, and will certainly have a different call sign at the next incident. Firefighters need to remember their latest call signs and must try not to respond to call signs that they may have used previously.

Task-oriented call signs can be confusing, even at simple incidents. The first-in confinement team might be called Attack 1 while the first-in search team conducting a primary search on the second-floor of a building might be called Search 1. The second-in confinement team might be called Attack 2 and the second-in search team, searching 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? If we add divisions and groups, a call sign system can unravel very fast, and still we would have no way to contact individual firefighters without using real names.


The solution is Call Signs for Life. Firefighters are assigned a call sign when they join the department and they use the same call sign for their entire career, at every incident, no matter what task they are doing. This system is safe and effective. We don’t change the names on our rigs if they are assigned to different tasks, we should not change our firefighters’ call signs.

Call Signs for Life works extremely well, as proven by the hundreds of departments using the system daily. 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 leader and getting no response, the incident commander can try to call another member on the team using their call sign. Team members who become separated can contact command using their individual call signs. Don’t over think this: the system is simple and works great. Our department and many other departments across North America have used this system at thousands of incidents. Firefighters don’t need to remember everyone’s call signs, just their own. Some departments may add the assigned function to the call sign. For example, “355, Attack, from Command.” In this case 355 would be the leader of an attack team.

In our department, we display all firefighters’ call signs on their PPE, kind of like putting numbers on rigs for easier identification. Individual call signs are on helmet patches, decals on the rear of helmets, and are attached 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 the Call Signs for Life method you already know!

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

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