By David Ruton
Communications is always the first — and usually biggest — problem discussed at post-incident debriefings.
Many improvements have been made in communications devices in the last decade, and although many of these have not made it to enough fire departments in the country, they all assist in making the fire scene safer.
One major improvement is the in-mask microphones on SCBA. Most of the SCBA manufacturers are now offering some type of connection for a two-way radio. Although not cheap, the price should not break the bank of most fire departments. This improvement makes communications between the incident commander and the crews inside the structure possible — no more yelling so that your voice can be heard outside your mask!
Another improvement is in the way that two-way radios operate today. Most often in the past, radios were large and heavy, and operated on either VHF Low-Band (30-50 MHz) or VHF High-Band (150-174 MHz).
Today, UHF radios are more prevalent (450-470 or 800 MHz). These higher frequencies have better building penetration and although the distance they communicate is far shorter, this does not usually pose a problem since we only need to talk on the fire scene.
However, not only have the frequencies changed, the way that radios communicate with each other has altered as well. Many of the radios now available are digital radios, which means the user's voice is converted into a stream of digital bits of data representing the word spoken, transmitted to the receiving radio and reconstructed into audible sounds.
These radios are more reliable because the data is checked for accuracy when it is received prior to being converted into a voice, allowing the message to be heard correctly the first time. With just these two improvements, communications on the fire scene are both simpler and safer.
But these improvements are of little use unless basic procedures are followed. Many of our firefighters and even officers have had no formal training on radio communications. How many of us can remember the first time we were behind the microphone for the first time? I have seen new firefighters absolutely freeze just because they had to put the unit back in quarters over the radio.
A major thing to remember is to always use the word from and not to in your radio communications. Most people listen for their unit identifier, and if it is said first they are more likely to respond to the call than if their unit number is said last.
Correct: "Command from E-1"
Incorrect: "E-1 to Command"
In addition, always finish your communications before releasing the microphone's PTT Switch. There is no reason to expect the person you are calling to not be listening.
Correct: "Command from E-1 – All clear on first floor"
Incorrect: "Command from E-1" – “Command go ahead" – "All clear on first floor"
I know many will say that doing this means you will end up having to repeat yourself, but in the long run, once everyone gets used to this procedure, you won't. Besides that, it takes a lot less time to say it all the first time, thus saving valuable seconds that are of the essence at a fire scene.
I believe that with the use of the new technologies and just these two suggestions, the fire scene will become safer as communications will be clearer and more understandable.
David Ruton, the Eastern Region Director of the FDSOA, has been involved in the fire service since 1985 and is currently a captain at the Buckeye Lake Village Ohio Fire Department. He has also been a dispatcher with the Licking County Ohio 911 Center since 1990. He is a certified incident safety officer – fire suppression, a certified emergency medical dispatcher and currently holds State of Ohio certifications as a Level II – professional firefighter and EMT-B.