The use of radios in the IDLH environment


CarolinaFireJournal - Tim Wojcik
Tim Wojcik
07/25/2010 -

In 2009, Executive Fire Officer Paul Melfi published the following statement, “Giving a firefighter a portable radio is an investment in saving lives. But you must also provide proper training, policies for radio operations, and equipment maintenance. Personnel must know all the intricacies of the portable radio in addition to being able to operate it, maintain it, and ensure that it is ready for use at all times.”

While many departments do have a Radio Operations SOG (Standard Operating Guideline), many do not have an SOG that covers the use/assignment of radios by firefighters in the IDLH environment. So, what does the NFPA have to say about this? Good Question.

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NFPA 1561 states that “communication systems should follow a standardized method of transmitting emergency messages and notifications of imminent hazards to all levels of the command structure at emergency scenes. This would include those performing tactical functions in the IDLH environment.” It is common practice in most services that at least one member of each interior team have a radio set to the fireground channel, but is that enough?

NFPA 1201 states that fire departments must provide a reliable communications system. NFPA 1201 also specifically states that chiefs and line officers shall have radios assigned to them while they are on duty. Notice that the standard does not differentiate between paid and volunteer staff. Is your department compliant?

While this standard does stop short of recommending that all interior personnel have a radio, NFPA 1561 states: “To enable responders to be notified of an emergency condition or situation when they are assigned to an area designated as immediately dangerous to life or health (IDLH), at least one responder on each crew or company shall be equipped with a portable radio, and each responder on the crew or company shall be equipped with either a portable radio or another means of electronic communication.”

Did you hear that? EACH RESPONDER shall be equipped with either a portable radio or another means of electronic communication.

Now, I ask again, is your department compliant? While a department issued pager may meet this requirement, it seems to be implied that the NFPA is very close to recommending that all firefighters in the IDLH have a means of two way communication.

After studying several line of duty death incidents, Routley (an investigator for the USFA) published in 1994 that, ‘“It is extremely important [for an incident commander] to maintain communications with all units on the fireground, particularly units assigned to interior positions....”

Please note the use of the term “units” and not teams, indicating that individuals should be able to maintain communications with the IC. Likewise, if members of a team became separated, they would be individual units, thus requiring their own radios.

In 1996, J. Curtis Varnoe published an applied research project for his Executive Fire Officer program on the subject of “Fireground Radio Communications and Firefighter Safety.” In his final presentation, he concluded that in several cases where communications problems were cited as a contributing factor in line of duty deaths, there were civilians with scanners who heard calls for help that were missed by those on the fireground. One could summarize that an increase in the number of radios not only increases the number of firefighters who can call for help, but also increases the number of people on the fireground who could HEAR a call for help.

Solutions for improving firefighter safety

Why PASS Devices May Not Be Enough

In July 2009, the National Institute of Safety and Technology (along with the Department of Homeland Security, FEMA and the USFA) published a report entitled “PASS Sound Muffle Tests Using A Structural Firefighter Protective Ensemble Method.” This report concluded that “PASS alarm sound levels can be muffled by personnel wearing typical firefighting ensembles when oriented in the test positions specified in NFPA 1982. Additionally, the data demonstrates that PASS alarm sound levels may be reduced by simply changing the unobstructed orientation of the PASS device. The findings suggest that the loss in PASS device amplitude due to orientation and muffling has the potential for reducing sound levels to a point that may make it more difficult for rescue personnel to locate an incapacitated firefighter.”

This study also presented information that indicates that PASS devices meeting NFPA 1982 (2002) (the standard that most of our packs currently meet) were often difficult or impossible to hear under the conditions of fireground  background noise (fans, pumps, etc).

That was a wordy statement, but the bottom line is that it is very possible that our PASS devices will never be heard, even under NORMAL operating conditions.

The International Association of Fire Chiefs addressed this issue in 2005 with several position statements (alerts). An additional finding was that PASS devices meeting NFPA 1982 (2002) were known to fail under high heat situations such as those that might be found during a firefighter mayday. In February of 2007, MSNBC concluded the following: “Tests by federal and independent labs show that some PASS alarms can fail to perform as intended if they get too hot or wet — a serious problem for people who rush into burning buildings with water hoses. Federal investigative reports reviewed by MSNBC.com show that 15 firefighters have died since 1998 in fires where a PASS, or Personal Alert Safety System, devices either didn’t sound or was so quiet that rescuers weren’t given a chance to find the firefighter quickly.”

PASS devices are a wonderful tool for improving firefighter safety, but it could be concluded that alone they don’t do near enough to keep us safe.

Why one radio may not be enough

A quick search of NIOSH investigative reviews quickly shows that one of the main contributing factors to firefighter LODD incidents involves a firefighter becoming separated from his or her team. Obviously if a team gets cut off from one another, having only one radio can delay (or prohibit) the issuance of a mayday. Assuming that the firefighter with radio can issue a mayday, he or she may not know the location of other missing firefighters or the firefighter with the radio could become incapacitated. It is conceivable that the only firefighter with a radio may not even be aware that a member of his team is in a mayday situation.

Having only one radio also means that if an evacuation order is given, other firefighters may be 100 percent dependent upon the radio carrier to hear and relay the message.

Another consideration here is the National Institute of Safety and Technology report issued in August of 2006 entitled “Testing of Portable Radios in a Fire Fighting Environment.” This report stated that while most radios will withstand normal firefighting conditions while encased in a radio pocket, the lapel mic and associated cord will fail much sooner. Radio components and lapel mics were shown to fail in extended temperature conditions of 320 degrees Fahrenheit or less. In a mayday situation, it is conceivable that radios will fail while firefighters are still surviving in the IDLH environment. If there is only one radio with the crew, the chances of total radio failure during a mayday situation may be significant. If the firefighter with the radio is the one who “goes down” in the IDLH environment, these chances increase.

Pitfalls to increasing the number of radios on the fireground

Increase in Radio Traffic

If the number of radios on the fireground increases, there is an increased potential for radio traffic. This would have to be managed with strict radio discipline SOGs and practices. Another management tool would be to allow these fireground radios to only be programmed with fireground channels although several reports, NFPA and NIOSH statements seem to indicate that there is a high life safety value to allowing firefighters in the IDLH access to a “repeated” channel in the event of a mayday situation.

Potential solutions

If your department sees fit to increase the number of radios carried by interior teams, there are few different possible options for deployment. I have used numbers from my department just as examples. Your numbers obviously will vary, and depending on your staffing, different options may work better for different departments.

By SOG, it could be established that the radios assigned to stations or apparatus be issued to all firefighters entering an IDLH environment. It would be the responsibility of the IC or Safety Officer (along with the individual firefighters) to ensure compliance. As crews leave the IDLH, they would have to pass their radios off to crews replacing them. Consideration should be given to formally establishing that all members of RIT teams have radios at all times. This could be accomplished by allocating radios to the RIT bags. This type of arrangement is fairly typical and is the norm for many departments. The problem is that it also not strictly enforced in many departments and you have five guys on the outside (or in rehab) with radios and not enough radios on the inside. Under this type of arrangement, all firefighters should be empowered to refuse to enter an IDLH without a radio.

Each firefighter with a mask could be issued a radio. Just for the sake of putting numbers into this solution, consider the following. In my county, there are approximately 370 masks issued to firefighters. This solution would require the purchase of approximately 250 radios (through budgeted or grant funding) in order to allow each firefighter with a mask to have a radio issued to them. Without grant funding this may not be immediately feasible for most departments, although it potentially could be phased in over several budget cycles. With tighter regulations now in place (requirements for Firefighter I prior to being authorized to enter a structural IDLH environment), this number might actually be significantly lower and thus more feasible.

Each SCBA could be paired with a radio. Again, in the interest of putting numbers into the example, in my county there are approximately 253 SCBAs on apparatus. The purchase of 125-150 radios (through budgeted or grant funding) would be required for a radio to be paired with each SCBA, thus ensuring a radio for each person in the IDLH environment and the RIT teams. This too could be implemented over several budget cycles and for smaller departments, this could actually be immediately feasible.

A variation of the above options might be for your department to subsidize the purchase of radios by individual firefighters who are authorized to perform in an IDLH environment. SOGs could be set in place to govern radio programming and radio use by individuals. Some departments have gone as far as to state that if a firefighter leaves the department, the radio remains the property of the department (now you have more radios!).

There is a lot to digest here, and the possible solutions are endless and would have to meet the needs of your department. At the end of the day however, the evidence clearly shows that current PASS device technology is not enough to keep us safe on the inside. There are also significant downsides to having just one radio on the inside. Keep in mind that, in the end, firefighter safety is the ultimate goal.

Melfi said it best, and I think he gives us a great starting point for a standard: “Giving a firefighter a portable radio is an investment in saving lives. But you must also provide proper training, policies for radio operations and equipment maintenance. Personnel must know all the intricacies of the portable radio in addition to being able to operate it, maintain it and ensure that it is ready for use at all times.”

There are many arguments on both sides of the radio issue, but (even without any changes) can you say that your department is providing the proper training, policies and maintenance for your radios? Do ALL (paid and volunteer) members of your staff know the ins and outs of operating and maintaining your radios? If the answer to either of those questions is “no”, you know what needs to be done. What are you waiting for?

Tim Wojcik works as an educator for the Palmetto Health/University of South Carolina School of Medicine Simulation Center in Columbia, SC. With 20 years of public safety experience behind him, Wojcik’s major focus is the use of high tech/high fidelity simulation to train pre-hospital providers. He continues to serve as a Firefighter/Paramedic with the Lexington County (SC) Department of Public Safety. For more information visit http://tripod.com.
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