Essential radio skills for new incident commanders

How to control emotions, use technology and “practice perfect” to enhance fireground communications


Imagine arriving for your first shift post-promotion: Your boots are polished, shirt pressed, collar brass and badge are all shinned, and you are wearing the new radio strap your family gave you as your promotional gift.

You go through all of your duties and checks, including examining your assigned command vehicle. You are all set for the day.

Then reality sets in: You are now responsible for the safety of your shift and your community.

With radio communication, we need to be disciplined enough to practice perfect on every drill, every call and every time we push the push-to-talk button on a radio. (Photo/Spokane Fire Department Media Services)
With radio communication, we need to be disciplined enough to practice perfect on every drill, every call and every time we push the push-to-talk button on a radio. (Photo/Spokane Fire Department Media Services)

Chief Alan Brunacini used to say, “Be leery of those that want command for they have not recognized the responsibility that comes with the title.”

This statement speaks volumes and its meaning becomes crystal clear when you look at new incident commanders (ICs). We have all seen the various personalities, whether volunteer or career officers – there’s the overly confident officer, the fearful officer and the uneasy or agitated officer.

The question now: What type of IC do you want to be?

The key to determining your style is determined by your training, influencers and education. A critical part of this style is how you handle radio communications.  

Radio communication continues to be one of the top 10 contributing factors of line-of-duty deaths (LODDs) throughout America. Take an opportunity to review NIOSH reports over the last 30 years, and you will be astonished that the simple task of communication continues to be a major factor in our fireground safety.

Here, we’ll cover several essential radio skills for new ICs looking to improve their communications on the fireground.

Control your emotions

The first step to perfecting your radio communications sounds simple: Control your emotions. However, controlling to your emotions is not easy and takes practice. We have all been on the fireground where the IC yells out tactical assignments like a drill sergeant.

Here are some steps to manage emotions in a fast-paced situation where you are in charge:

  • Practice controlling your emotions during adrenaline-fueled activities that stress your cardiovascular system and raise your pulse. Once your system is elevated, practice controlling your breathing and communicating clearly and concisely with a measurable objective.
  • Breathe. Practice controlling the cadence and tempo of your breathing.
  • Be physically fit. It is just as important for you to be in shape now as when you were an active firefighter. Your physical fitness will allow you to calm your heart rate and control the adrenaline rush of the incident. 
  • Stay hydrated. I know this one seems crazy, but studies show that we need to be hydrated to perform. Keep water in your command vehicle to rehydrate throughout the incident. Hydrating calms you and allows you to relax.
  • Stay in the command vehicle. I know this is controversial, and others may answer differently when it comes to whether to stay in the vehicle or get out to smell and feel what’s happening. My advice: Stay in the vehicle. Just like the coaching box of an NFL game, the offensive and defensive coordinator take a tactical position high above the field, allowing them to communicate with the field coach. This is the same advantage you gain from staying in the vehicle – achieve tactical location, control your environment and cut down distractions. Staying in the vehicle allows you to have complete view of the incident and provides the best environment to complete radio communications. Additionally, by staying in the vehicle, you remove yourself from the emotions of the incident and you can isolate yourself from distractions. This will calm you and allow you to think and react faster with less adrenaline.

Follow the Echo radio communication model

The National Incident Management System recognizes that the best practice for radio communication is the echo principle, repeating essential parts of the message to the sender. This approach provides clear context communication with immediate feedback in a closed loop system. Echoing takes work and discipline. Echoing seems cumbersome but, in reality, when it is well practiced, it becomes efficient and safe communication model.

One key with the echoing process is unit name or caller IDs. I recommend using last names in this model versus unit ID numbers or tactical assignment names. Using last names provides a higher connection rate with the unit because your firefighters will recognize their last name when under stress or in a hazardous environment. If you study radio traffic from LODDs, in almost every case, in the final moments of the event, the trapped firefighter resorts to using their last name. Face it, for your entire life you have heard your last name yelled by your mom, dad, teacher, coach, etc. You will hear your name faster than something like Portable 1 or Interior 1.

The echo model goes something like this:

  • IC: “Smith, Command”
  • Receiver: “Command, Smith”
  • IC: “Vent the roof”
  • Receiver: “Vent the roof”
  • IC: “Affirmative”

When practiced and perfected, this model will immediately improve your accountability, efficiency and safety on the fireground.

Use common language

NIOSH studies continue to highlight the need for better communication. One way to improve communication is to create common language and a glossary of terms.

Imagine a football team calling a play without a common play or glossary of terms. The team breaks the huddle and advances to the line of scrimmage. As the quarterback scans the playing field, he recognizes a weakness in the defense, and with his teammates in position, he yells, “Omaha! Omaha!” signifying to his teammates to change the play.

The fireground is no different to the football field. The fireground also has positions, coaches and plays – various companies that provide specific skills to help the team accomplish the goal of incident stabilization. Our fireground IC becomes the coach to call the plays and control the actions of the team. 

As such, we must create a common language and playbook of tactical and strategic terms. Creating a common playbook of terms shortens radio communication, allowing for more control of the communication model.

Additional benefits include improved tactical outcomes, speed and efficiency of your crews, and enhanced fireground safety.

Your glossary and playbook should be universal with your automatic-aid and mutual-aid partners. Your plays should not be a secret, share them and practice them with neighbors. Common language with a complete glossary will improve your radio efficiency and effectiveness overnight.

Practice perfect every time

Vince Lombardi, the legendary head coach of the Green Bay Packers, created a career by demanding perfect practice, and that perfect practice mentality created a winning culture. He was meticulous with every position on the team, not letting them slip in their performance.

Again, the fireground is no different than the football field. On the fireground, we have a series of positions that accomplish different integrated assignments to accomplish our strategy.

With radio communication, we need to be disciplined enough to practice perfect on every drill, every call and every time we push the push-to-talk button on a radio.

Practicing perfect radio communication takes dedication. In today’s fire service 80% of our 911 emergencies are a citizen-assist medical call. The redundancy of these calls wears on our communication skills, and we begin taking shortcuts. Don’t get lazy in your communication of these types of calls. Take every opportunity to PRACTICE PERFECT communication on every call and hold your crews accountable to practice perfect on every call. Perfect practice on the easy calls increases performance on the adrenalin-filled calls.

Develop or enhance a communications preplan

All the work you do to improve your personal radio skills should ultimately complement your organization’s radio communication plan. This plan should identify tactical channels, such as operations, water supply, air operations and, for larger incidents, divisions and sectors.

One useful element of a complete communication plan is direction for how to organize and segregate resources. For example, in the rural setting – where water supply is more challenging than simply grabbing a hydrant and consists of multiple water tenders and communication among draft sites and pump operators – it is important to separate those activates onto their own channel so they don’t interrupt or distract the hazard zone communications. Further, once you assign a tactical channel, it is critical that you assign a boss to that channel. That boss will become your point of contact, freeing you to focus on the strategy, tactics and fireground safety.

Practice managing multiple radios and channels. The NIMS command system recommends that your span of control be five or fewer. Utilize the communications plan to manage your span of control.

The fireground command structure in incredibly complex. Take every opportunity to simplify your event by using communications plans that every knows and understands.

Learn to use technology

When I first started in the fire service, our command boards were paper and pencil or white boards and dry-erase markers. We would hang ID tags off the board, and if it was raining, the paper would get soggy and tear or the dry-erase board would get wet, smudging your notes.

Today, we can utilize technology to help us with these endeavors, and I strongly recommend that you invest the time and energy in learning the systems that your organizations have available. Between tablets and laptops, we can utilize crew resource management system, mapping, preplan files and direct communication with dispatch. Many systems also provide air levels and positioning of your firefighters in the hazard zone. Additionally, our radio communications can improve dramatically by utilizing Bluetooth-connected headsets that allow you to better hear radio traffic.

Utilizing new technology might seem challenging at first, but if you take the time and master it, you will never want to run a fireground without it again.

Time to master your skills

Now that you’re in command, it’s time to master your command skills along with your strategies and tactics; all will play a huge role in your command style. But it’s your radio presence and skills that will say more about who you are as an IC. So take the time to develop common terminology, utilize the echo system, enhance the organization’s communications plan, and integrate technology into your process – and don’t forget to practice perfect with your crews to ensure that when you need to be perfect you will be perfect.

Be present!

Editor’s Note: What radio skills would you share with a new IC? Share in the comments below.

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