The evolution of fireground communications systems

Modern communication systems help prepare departments for the increasingly dynamic all-hazards environment


It’s not that long ago, when you think about it, that fire departments struggled to maintain a line of communication between the incident commander (IC) and firefighters working in hazard areas, like inside a structure fire. Fortunately, fireground technology has come a long way, particularly with communications systems. But do you know what to expect from a modern-day communication system? Let’s examine what’s available to help departments improve the safety, efficiency and effectiveness of their fireground operations.

Incident management: radios, Bluetooth and pagers

One of the bigger “leaps” in communication technology came with the development of mission-critical two-way radios that offer more features and capabilities, far beyond simply two-way voice communication.

Fireground technology has come a long way, particularly with communications systems. (Photo/OK.gov)
Fireground technology has come a long way, particularly with communications systems. (Photo/OK.gov)

Today’s radios are designed to perform in the most extreme environments, with specially engineered firefighter-friendly features like extra-large controls for use while wearing duty gloves, larger visual displays for better viewing when visibility is poor, and voice-announcement features where the radio vocalizes what channel and zone they are in so they can navigate the radio without having to look at it in zero-visibility conditions.

Integrated Bluetooth technology makes today’s radios compatible with a large selection of wireless accessories, including in-mask microphones found into today’s SCBA facepieces straight out of the box.

Portable pagers are part of the communications backbone for many volunteer and combination fire departments. Pagers today can store up to 16 minutes of voice recordings, have customizable call alerts, and improved receiver design. They’re also more rugged and reliable than previous generations of pagers.

Personnel accountability systems to the rescue

During an emergency, an IC working with an automated personnel accountability system (PAS) can be the difference between a life lost and a life saved, particularly for first responders grappling with stress, overexertion, trauma or the potential for being asphyxiated, caught or trapped.

There are an increasing number of passive personnel accountability systems available to fire departments. These systems enable the IC to more easily identify who has responded to the incident, conduct personnel accountability reports (PAR) more efficiently and effectively, and issue an emergency evacuation order more quickly, all from the convenience of a notebook or tablet computer.

A radio-based passive PAS recognizes a responding fire company when the fire apparatus is started up and its mobile radio becomes active – let’s say, Engine 7 – and automatically puts that resource into the PAS. When Engine 7’s officer turns on his or her portable radio, the system identifies that Engine 7’s officer is active and adds that information to the system.

The IC needs only to open the PAS on their notebook or tablet PC to immediately see what resources are committed and responding to their emergency incident.

Advanced PAR checks

Forget the necessity of conducting a time-consuming PAR over the radio with voice communication. An automated PAS enables the IC to initiate a PAR from their notebook or tablet PC and send it out over the two-way radio. Each responder – who has access to either a mobile or portable radio – acknowledges the IC's request for a PAR check by simply pressing a designated button on their radios. (With this feature, the IC gets acknowledgement of PAR status from both Engine 7’s mobile radio – where the driver/operator is located – and portable radio of Engine 7’s officer who’s on the floor 2 with the rest of their crew.)

Incident command receives confirmation of who has acknowledged the PAR check and a count of those yet to respond. Overall, it’s a win/win solution: The IC has a more accurate accounting of personnel, and the amount of time it takes to conduct the PAR check cuts down on radio traffic and saves time.

Ensuring alerts are heard

Radio systems are available today with customizable tactical alert messaging features that enable an IC to instantly send an alert (e.g., emergency order to evacuate the structure) to every firefighter and officer on the emergency scene simultaneously. When the IC initiates such an alert, every active radio on the scene receives a visual and audible notification without creating additional radio traffic.

Radio systems can have as many as 16 different alerts available for customization, and an IC has the flexibility to broadcast such alerts to everyone on the emergency scene, a select group (e.g., Division 2 or Vent Group) or to just a single firefighter or officer.

Know who's in trouble

Let’s say a firefighter becomes distressed and the situation requires a mayday declaration. But what if the firefighter cannot transmit their situation via a radio transmission because they’re incapacitated, or they’ve lost their radio?

Portable radios are now available with automatic “firefighter down” alert features that add another valuable level of safety. The on-board accelerometer in the radio monitors an individual's movement and orientation. If a responder is motionless and in a horizontal position for a predetermined amount of time, the radio will automatically transmit an emergency alert, notifying the IC and nearby units that the responder is potentially in distress.

A safer fireground

Together with the right combination of computer hardware and software, today’s communications systems can provide for safer emergency operations that are more effective and more efficient. And who doesn’t like the sound of that?

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