Pre-planning for a radio system blackout

No matter how well maintained communications systems are, they will eventually fail


Editor's note: We're pleased to announce FireRescue1 friend and columnist Charles Bailey has authored his first book, "Discussions For Fire Service Personnel," which is available in both paperback and digital formats. Check out Charles' archive of columns for a flavor of his work for us – and head to Lulu.com to order his book of new, original content.

By Charles Bailey

Imagine that you are the communications chief for a major metropolitan area. One evening your home phone rings and your shift commander advises that, as best as he can tell, your radio system has just stopped working. Luckily there are no major incidents working but you both know that could change at a moment's notice. After you hang up the phone, you rush to get dressed and head in. You live 30 minutes from the communications center, but today the drive feels like it takes days. The radio is eerily quiet.

As you pull up to the security guard, you flash your badge, he waves you in. You pause because you realize that you are no closer to an answer to the problem you face than you were when the phone first rang. It is a sick, empty feeling that fills your stomach as you imagine call takers processing a working house fire or an infant code. The guard yells your name, jostling you out of the nightmare as you turn to park.

It did not have to be this way.

When life was easy as the officer of Engine 2 on the West Side of The City, you often took your shift to the Worndown Warehouse. It was important, you thought, for a company officer to pre-plan with his firefighters. Worndown Warehouse was a large building that had seen many different lives since it was first built. Originally a cold storage building, the "Warehouse," as locals called it, was last used as a rave spot. Large illegal gatherings were common and it was rumored that local homeless had set up squatter's quarters in more remote parts of the building.

There was not an inch of that large, complexly arranged building that you and your crew did not know, including where the firefighting water was coming from and how you planned to get it on the fire. Having a fire in that building was just a matter of time.

The Warehouse caught on fire. Though the building was lost, you and your crew saved four people from certain death. At the medal ceremony, the Chief and the Mayor both credited your work pre-planning the structure as the primary cause for your success; you agreed.

A few promotions later and you are the communications chief for a major metropolitan area. One evening, your home phone rings and your shift commander advises that as best as he can tell your radio system has just stopped working.

We're now back to the original scenario — this time with more drastic conditions but a less drastic outcome for one simple reason.

There is a major fire, still escalating, that was dispatched by phone. He has already called the Field Deputy, who has notified each of the Battalion Chiefs, who have in turn notified the station officers. Units who were on the air and realized that they could no longer talk immediately turned to direct channels and placed calls back to their stations. EMS units continued their operations but placed cell phone calls back to their assigned stations to let their officer know that they were OK.

Meanwhile your shift commander has called your neighboring jurisdictions and asked to borrow talk groups on their trunked radio systems. Because you anticipated this problem, your shift commander knew who to call and which resources to ask for. Within 20 minutes of noticing that the system was down, all field units are able to communicate with each other and with the communications center.

The communications center used a combination of telephones, mobile data computers, and even text messaging to send incident information and remain in contact with field units. Extra staff arrived quickly and you turned your focus from keeping the system running to figuring out what happened and how it was going to get fixed.

Units assigned to the three-alarm fire dispatched four minutes after the radio system died were able to communicate locally on the direct channels. There was no confusion because each Battalion had a pre-designated direct channel. The outlying companies were in the dark until they got within three blocks of the incident but it all worked out.

Emergency communications systems are complex systems. No matter how new they are and no matter how well maintained they are, they will eventually fail. This is a fundamental fact. Fire departments have no problem understanding the importance of pre-planning target buildings. They spend thousands of hours training for the statistically unlikely terrorist event. But how many fire departments pre-plan various states of radio system failure and practice the plans?

When the radio failure does occur, the difference between a medal and a pink slip will be the amount of time your system has spent identifying possible failure states then pre-planning and practicing your reaction.

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