Can you hear me now?

Communicating in the volunteer fire service

CarolinaFireJournal - Wesley Hutchins
Wesley Hutchins
10/14/2010 -

When I began my career in the fire service, lime bags were used to communicate which direction the apparatus turned. If you are nodding your head, you understand the concept of throwing lime bags, and you probably recall where and how to throw the bags so other firefighters responding knew which direction to turn. Talk about turning the corner on communication — I think we have arrived.


If you do a web search on the definition of communication, you will get in the neighborhood of 35 million hits. You read that correctly, 35 million hits! Of those, my favorite definition of communication reads like this: “Any act by which one person gives to or receives from another person information about that person’s needs, desires, perceptions, knowledge, or affective states. Communication may be intentional or unintentional, may involve conventional or unconventional signals” (Scherba, 1992). Response in the volunteer service has experienced tremendous change in communication over the course of the last few years, and the process is constantly evolving.

In the volunteer fire service, response and communication are a learned behavior. With the invention of tone pagers, alphanumeric paging, and advanced communication systems, firefighters soon learn that communication is critical to response and mitigation of an incident. Dispatching of alarms, the relaying of pertinent response-related information from dispatchers to responding apparatus, incident scene communications between companies and dispatchers, unit-to-unit communications on the scene, and routine radio traffic has taken on a new dimension. Bandwidths, trunking systems, and communications interfacing, brings the cycle of communications closer together.

In the volunteer ranks we no longer have to rely on one or two officers having radios; it is now the standard that every officer, each crew, and, in some cases, every firefighter has a communication device. Officers and crews now have communication equipment in their hands and the capability to make decisions based on real-time sequences. This not only allows for automatic and mutual aid response, the officer or crew can make duty assignments and give specific orders well in advance of arriving on-scene.

Don’t get me wrong — advanced radio systems, two-way communication, and the latest technology have not come without growing pains, and advanced communications is not entirely the answer to response. Departments must address the cost factor, particularly when it comes to individual assigned radios and costs associated with technology. Grants, technology, and systems have eased some of these concerns, but we still have problems talking from floor-to-floor in certain incidents and the challenges of response will never change. We also need to consider how we talk on the emergency scene — clear text, simple commands, 10-codes, and even acronyms challenge the best of incident commanders.

Once we feel comfortable on the fire ground and communications is easy, the challenges of large scale events where responders do not have the same capabilities to talk system to system throws us a curve, and once again communication breaks down. Large-scale events may require a communications division or officer to just to get everyone talking on the same channel. When we add multiple agencies responding and trying to get the communications problem solved, or at least talking on the same channel, it quite often implodes.

In the volunteer ranks, a comprehensive set of standard operating procedures (SOPs) for communications should be developed jointly between the fire department and the communications centers that serve the agency in order to address the various issues involved in multichannel operations. Personnel from both communications departments and fire departments should be used to research, develop and write these SOPs.

SOPs and internal departmental guidelines fall right in-line with initiatives supported by the National Volunteer Fire Council (NVFC). In an NVFC white paper on Volunteer Firefighter Training, this emphasis is put on training: “The NVFC is committed to ensuring that volunteer firefighters have an appropriate level of training to safely and effectively carry out the functions of the department(s) that they belong to.” This is even more of a reason that the volunteer fire service needs to clearly and effectively communicate on all levels.

The SOPs and training should emphasize the need for dispatchers to take a proactive role in managing radio communications. Passive monitoring of the radio channel is not enough to prevent congestion and overloading, even more so for volunteer responders. Overloading problems are not limited to dispatch channels, and will occur on fire ground channels if proper radio discipline is not enforced. Firefighter training should specifically address maintaining discipline and control of the radio channel when multiple units wish to communicate at the same time under emergency conditions, as well as proper response to urgent messages from firefighters in distress. Developing procedures and training on multi-company response will not only make communications more effective, it helps to get everyone on the same channel.

After defining the technical and operational requirements of the radio systems, the number of radios needed has to be determined. Volunteer departments have to identify who needs radios. A portable radio for each firefighter provides the highest level of safety. In addition to firefighters, radios for support and other fire department functions should be considered. Additional guidance for volunteer organizations can be found in NFPA 1561 - Standard on Emergency Services Incident Management System:

6.3 Emergency Traffic

6.3.1 — “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.”

No matter how technologically advanced the volunteer ranks become; we still must rely on a certain amount of face-to-face communication. Sure, radios and fire ground communications make the emergency scene productive, but nothing replaces one-on-one exchanges of communication. In all areas of the emergency services, we must train on making communication systems a viable part of our operations. Firefighters must be trained on using radio communications, radios must be maintained, and assessment of equipment is extremely important. How often do we grab a two-way radio and the battery is dead? Firefighters must train for the unexpected; training to handle communications problems and being proficient on firefighter rescue are proactive moves in overall departmental communications plans.

Once we establish these communication parameters, we must consider the users and their behaviors. One of the biggest impacts on fire ground operations is the human factor. Volunteer ranks must consider such things as the way we speak, the organization of reports and information relayed, and how that affects communications. Technical factors have an impact on fire ground communications, and like most technology, users need to know the limitations of the technology and how to use the tool (radio) appropriately. When we talk on the radio, each of us subconsciously performs a process before we speak. Managing this process will provide more effective communications.

In 2008, the United States Fire Administration developed a Voice Radio Communications Guide for the Fire Service (USFA, October 2008). Here are few recommendations from the guide that will help strengthen the communications in your department.

  • Organization — Before speaking, think about what information is being communicated and put the information in a standardized reporting template. For instance, a standard situational report might contain Unit ID, location, conditions, actions and needs. This method forces the user to fill in the blanks, answer all the necessary questions, and filter out unneeded information.
  • Discipline — Often, ICs are overwhelmed by excess information on the radio. Radio discipline on the fire ground will help to determine if information needs to be transmitted on the radio. If face-to-face communications are possible between members of a crew, and the IC does not need the information, don’t get on the radio.
  • Voice level — When speaking into a microphone, use a loud, clear, and controlled voice. When users are excited, the speech often is louder and faster. These transmissions often are unintelligible and require the IC to ask for a rebroadcast of the information, resulting in more radio traffic on the channel.

Managing these human factors will have a positive impact on fire ground communications. Reporting should be complete, necessary, and in a controlled, clear voice. These actions will reduce the amount of repeat transmissions on the fire ground, reducing the amount of time we spend attempting to communicate.

The NVFC plays an invaluable role in supporting all phases of firefighter safety and training. In its training white paper, the NVFC makes this statement: “For a variety of cultural reasons, prospective volunteer firefighters have less time to devote to training than they used to, even as training standards have evolved over the years to include more information and competencies. In order to make widespread adoption of training standards a viable option for a number of volunteer fire departments, training and certification opportunities must be made available locally and online.” The advocacy and information provided by the NVFC assists the volunteer fire service with a wide range of resources aimed at keeping the volunteer fire service moving in a positive direction.

In the volunteer ranks, we should self-evaluate our operations: “What is the current state of your fire communications?” (USFA, October 2008). Communicating in any organization is not easy, and if you were to survey any organization, you would find that communication is the number one concern. In the volunteer section of the American fire service, we sometimes do not look at communications as a large part of planning, preparation and response. There is no substitute for training and preparation. Whether it is face-to-face, over the airwaves, or even relaying information to the citizen, we need to be clear in what we say. “Can you hear me now?”

Wesley Hutchins is the Chief of Walkertown Volunteer Fire Department, NC. Chief Hutchins is a Past President of the North Carolina State Firemen’s Association Executive Board, Piedmont North Carolina Firefighters Association, and Forsyth County Fire Rescue Association. He is a Certified Level III Fire Service Instructor, Fire Officer III, Firefighter II, and EMT.

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