Fire Fighting in Canada

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Radio communications need practice

December 13, 2007 
By Jeff Weber

As first responders, radio communications have become indispensable at an emergency incident. We have become dependant on our ability to communicate, and are extremely disappointed and frustrated when that system doesn’t work for some reason. Imagine the old days before radio communications were available.

Back then firefighters went to emergency incidents with little more than a box number or brief description of the call. They had little ability to call for more help, no ability to communicate around the incident other than shouting, yelling, signing or hand signals. No ability to communicate with the inside of a hot zone. No communications back to dispatch with information about the scene, let alone the ability to get more information from dispatch. No ability to receive more calls or incidents until the vehicles returned to the fire hall.

We seem to take our ability to communicate with each other for granted now. There seems to be more opportunity to communicate with each other every day, from two-way radios, to cellular phones, to wireless text messaging, to palm computing. We are frustrated, angered and confused when communications break down and cease to function, yet in several large scale incidents the first problem is communications and the first systems to become overwhelmed are the cellular phone systems.

Radio communications have become an extremely powerful and necessary tool, yet is sometimes regarded as an accessory, or a nice-to-have luxury. Even training with radios often seems to take a backseat to other priorities. Radio communications should be reviewed on a regular basis to ensure full familiarity with how the radio system functions, how to avoid pitfalls, and how to overcome or work around failures or problems with the system.
Here are some areas to work on at your department:


1.     Familiarity with radio equipment is your first concern. It is one thing to be able to operate your radio equipment in the hall. It is quite different to be able to do it in the heat of an emergency event. It sounds easy enough. After all, the operation of your radio is simply keying your mic and talking. Don’t forget being able to change channels or talk groups, depending on your system. Do you take extra batteries in with you? If not, why not? Can you change a battery in the dark, with gloves on, under pressure? This is easily accomplished with some drills. Know your radio. Know what channel or group it is in. Try this: pick up the remote from your TV. Do you know where the channel select buttons are without looking? Do you know where the volume is? How about your cell phone? Can you pick it up, turn on the power and adjust the volume while you’re doing something else? This stems from familiarity with the tool you’re using and practice. Your radio can be, and should be, the same. Practice with it.

2.     Incorporate radio use into everyday training. By using radios all the time, radio use becomes second nature like your cell phone or TV remote. If you’re doing search and rescue training bring your radios into play exactly how you would use them at the emergency scene.

3. Practice failures. Drill with your personnel on how to deal with radio failures. You know your systems’ shortcomings the best and you should know how to get around them. Practice these procedures and again do it while you’re practicing other skills. Add in planned communication failures to your regular training. They seem to happen anyway so practice dealing with them.

4. Prepare all training to include radio use and plan for it. Make sure enough radios are available and ready for the personnel who are to be involved in your training. Just like you would prepare the necessary pumps, hose,
ladders and other equipment, prepare the radios too. Make sure they are charged and ready to go. Frustration on the fireground runs high when communication fails. Imagine how radio failure is viewed on the training ground by
in-service crews. The training will become a mockery. Try to have the same radios that are used by the in-service crews. When firefighters go to train, they want to be trained on the equipment they use regularly, not some antiquated system that was deemed obsolete for operations, but is okay for training.

5.     Radios on the fireground and the training ground are necessary for safety. If it is important enough for a commander to be in touch with crews at a fire incident when they enter, it is important enough for safety reasons to be in radio communication with all crews operating at a training exercise. Especially when those crews are entering an IDLH atmosphere. No matter how controlled, there is always a margin for error. I’m always a little nervous when doing live fire training exercises until all the crews are out and accounted for. Staying in communication with the internal crews lightens this nervousness a little.

6.     Set procedures for radio use and have your personnel adhere to the procedures even in training exercises. Again the cornerstone of the department is the ability for it to set what is acceptable practice and have personnel stick to it. Set appropriate language protocols and deal with personnel who don’t adhere. The radio system is not a play toy. Make sure all personnel are aware that others listen in. If it is not the general public using scanners, then it is other firefighters using radios and pagers. Radio system abuse will come back to haunt your department. Take radio communications seriously.

7.     Practice with your neighbours. Ensure you can communicate. Another one of the frustrating opportunities for communications failures is incompatibility of radios. Notice I didn’t call it a radio failure. Radios that are not made to communicate with each other are not failing. It is the failure of the leaders of the departments who didn’t pre-plan the ability to communicate with each other. If you are a municipality that depends heavily on mutual aid or automatic aid agreements, you should be highly motivated to ensure steps are taken up front for communications. Again establish procedures together and practice those procedures for working together.

8.     Practice your language and wording on the radio. The more you practice, the more polished you will sound. Have something to say prior to keying the mic. A platoon chief on my department once said to me that he feels less confident communicating with a radio after he returns from a long vacation. Practice with dispatch or another firefighter on a different talk group or channel if the opportunity exists. Critique each other and practice again.

9.     Use good radio practices and practice them. There are all kinds of radio protocols out there. Chose what is right for your department and your equipment and again practice it. I mean holding the mic a few inches from your mouth. Using a steady and calm voice. Practice and use the phonetic alphabet, i.e. Alpha, Bravo, Charlie, etc. Get used to using it so you don’t stumble on it when you need it.

10. 10-code vs. plain language. I am neither a advocate nor an adversary of the 10-code system, but you better make sure you’re understood not only by your own personnel, but also by anyone else who needs to understand your message. The acceptable 10 codes should be part of your written procedures if that is what you’re going to use. Language should also be considered when the department is working out communication issues with mutual aid partners. An emergency incident wouldn’t be a good place to find out that you use 10-code communications and your mutual aid partners use plain language or worse, different 10-codes than yours.

11. Get your communications division involved in the training if possible. These folks are an invaluable resource. Use them whenever you can to co-operate with training scenarios. Your dispatchers are the most familiar with the radio procedures, strengths and weaknesses of the equipment, and best practices. Why wouldn’t you involve them? This is also an opportunity for them to effect change for problems they come up with. Your dispatchers may be able to offer you unique solutions to some of the problems that are being faced in the field with your current equipment.

12. Pre-plan and practice contingency plans for failures. What happens when radio communications fail? Who does what? How do you get another battery, antenna, power supply, radio or repeater quickly? The important aspect is planning how to re-establish communications. How is that done? Once that is taken care of, practice the plan.
Radio communications are a necessity that is only going to become more prevalent in the future. It needs our attention. Just like a skilled pump operator can make a pump system work like a symphony, a skilled radio operator can become a maestro of communications. You can tell at an incident when someone has the mastery of his or her radio communications system. They are the ones who rarely have hiccups with the radio, they sound confident, clear and the communications coming from him or her are precise. I can guarantee that person is familiar with the radio, and procedures that affect radio communications. You should be too.

To discuss an area that is a little off topic I would like to take an opportunity to say congratulations to all of the Canadian athletes who competed in the 2006 Winter Olympics. My hat is off to you for your dedication, persistence, energy and inspiration for the next generation of competitors. I would also like to say a special thank you to everyone who makes it possible for these amazing people to represent our country. Thank you to the coaches, officials, parents, mentors, siblings, spouses, children and anyone else who has inspired an athlete to reach the pinnacle of competition. It makes me extremely proud to be a Canadian.

Capt. Jeff Weber is a 13-year veteran firefighter with the Kitchener (Ont.) Fire Dept. Promoted captain in 1999, he moved from the suppression division to training in 2003. He is an active member of Kitchener’s high/low angle rope rescue committee, water rescue committee, haz-mat committee and confined space committee. He has also served since 1995 as an associate member on the joint occupational health and safety committee. Weber holds a teacher/trainer of adults certificate from Conestoga College.

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