Radio communication was pretty simple. The Chief outside had a radio and everything that needed to be communicated went through him. Maybe one or two others would have a radio if there was a big fire. Today we all carry a radio. In a lot of ways that is good, but it also brings a few new problems to radio communication.
It is a great benefit for everyone on the fire ground to have a radio. There are a lot of situations where you might need to communicate information to the incident commander, and even more likely that the incident commander will have information that everyone needs to hear. Without a radio, we had to rely on word of mouth, and crews inside were out of the loop. We told crews inside of the building conditions were getting bad by blowing the air horn on the engine.
Today we have special tones that go out over the radio, but a lot of departments still use the reliable air horn to evacuate a building. One of the bad things about everyone having a radio is that everyone wants to talk. If you have something important, and by all means talk on the radio, but there is no need to tell everyone that you are in the back of the building and everything is alright. Company officers are the usual ones to communicate for a crew.
Wearing an SCBA mask and talking on the radio is not easy. There are some mics built into face pieces but without those built in mics, you need to do a little practice to find what works. Some firefighters have good results holding the microphone right on the plastic of the face piece. I have had the best results holding the microphone on my throat while I talk. A very good and not very strenuous training session is to wear SCBA and try communicating. Don’t just wear the face piece, you need to be under air for the training just like you will be during the fire.
Talk slowly when you are using the radio. Nothing is worse than someone talking 100 miles an hour. No one can understand that. Another common mistake is starting to talk at the same time you key up the mic, half the message gets missed. Have everyone take a turn talking on the radio during training.
Another thing to keep in mind is having the radio charged. I got tired of every morning having to put the radio back in the rig charger because the guy before me kept it in his pocket and was too lazy to put it back in the charger. I never found a solution to this problem so I just made sure I put it in the charger myself. I guess that guy figured it was more important that he had the radio in his pocket than that it was charged.
We used to have 3 or 4 frequencies, today we can have hundreds. All those frequencies make things confusing. Make sure your common frequencies are easy to find on your radios. Trying to turn those little knobs to one of 15 clicks on each knob is almost impossible while wearing firefighting gloves. Adding extensions to the knobs helps, and just like everything else about radios, try switching frequencies during training evolutions.
Radios for everyone is great, as long as you have good radio procedures. Just like everything else in the fire service, practice like you play. Practice your radio procedures in training and you will be successful on the fire ground.
By John Morse
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