Fire Fighting in Canada

StopBad: Call signs for life

March 4, 2020 
By Gord Schreiner

The fire service is constantly changing. Thirty years ago, we had little to no portable radios. When we sent a team into a burning structure, we could not contact them other than by yelling at them. Today we would not think of sending a team into a burning structure without a portable radio. Modern fire services have portable radios for every member of the team. Teams today may have two to four portable radios, depending on their size. This change alone suggests that we should use a call sign system that allows us (if needed) to talk to the individual members of that team. Why, you say? Well, what happens when one member of your team gets separated from the rest of the team, how do we call that one member? We could call them by name, which should work, but we could have more than one firefighter with the same name or we could or in the case of a mutual aid firefighter, not know how to pronounce the name. Also, once we use the real name, the confidentiality is gone. If that firefighter is lost or trapped and we use the real name on the radio, it is likely that many others, outside of your department will know right away via scanners.

Some departments use their engine company assignments as their call sign when operating on the fireground. Engine #1 remains Engine #1 when they are doing an interior attack or search. In this example, if we needed two teams (assuming a four person engine company) from Engine #1 we would further split them into Engine #1 Alpha and Engine #1 Bravo (or something like this). This does not give us individual call signs and does not take advantage of having more than one radio on that team. If one member from Engine #1 Alpha gets separated from the other, it becomes very difficult to communicate without using real names.

Some departments use task orientated call signs. An interior attack team would likely be called “Attack 1” and interior search team called “Search 1”, and so on. Again, this does not take advantage of more than one radio on that team. Also, using this type of system can lead to many other problems. When using tasks as call signs, a firefighter might have his call sign changed several times during the same incident and will likely have a different call sign at his next incident. The firefighter needs to remember what his latest call sign is and try not to respond to a call sign that the firefighter may have used at a previous incident or earlier at the same incident.

The task call signs can become very confusing, even at simple incidents. The first in confinement team might be called “Attack 1”, the first in search team, going to floor two (bedrooms) for a primary search might be called “Search 1”, the second in confinement team might be called “Attack 2” and the second in search team, conducting a primary on the first floor would be called “Search 2”. So, Search 1 is on floor two and Search 2 is on floor 1. Confused yet? What happens if Attack 1 finds the victim and Search 1 is then asked to confine the fire? We would have Attack 1, rescuing and Search 1 confining. Confusing? You bet.


But there’s a solution: Call Signs for Life! How about a call sign system where you are assigned a call sign when you join the department and use the same call sign for your entire career, the same call sign at every incident doing any task? This is much safer and more effective. Firefighters and incident commanders have enough to think about with having to remember or create a different call sign for every task you do or when you ride on a different engine.

Call Signs for Life works extremely well. If firefighters are working on individual tasks like traffic their individual call sign would be used. When they are working in teams the team leader’s call sign is used to contact the team. If a member of the team gets separated, that firefighter can contact command using their individual call sign. And no, you don’t need to remember everyone’s call sign, just your own. In our case we have displayed the individual call signs on everyone’s PPE, kind of like putting numbers on your rigs for easier identification. Individual call signs are on helmet patches, decals on rear of helmets and Velcro on the jackets and pants. We can see your call sign, you can see your call sign.

Call signs for life can make your fireground safer and more effective, allowing command to think more about strategy and tactics rather than what calls signs to assign in-coming teams. What will be your call sign at the next incident you attend? If you are using Call Signs for Life, you would know right now!

Gord Schreiner joined the fire service in 1975 and is the 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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