Communication breakdowns

Making Emergency Scene Communication Training and Discipline Mandatory for Safety’s Sake

CarolinaFireJournal - Joe Mancos
Joe Mancos NREMT-P
10/14/2010 -

In almost every after action report I have ever read involving a major incident, one of the things that has been pointed out as a challenge or point for improvement. is on scene communications. As an industry, we have scrutinized almost every angle to this problem to include equipment, maintenance, SOGs (standard operating guidelines) and training. Has your department, system or squad developed an SOG or SOP (standard operating procedure) on proper radio use and etiquette? Does your department have a standardized “Mayday” policy or protocol? If you have an SOG or protocol in place, have you been trained, other than the customary, “Here is the protocol, read it, know it and sign here”?


Basic Communications Training

After development of the SOG, training needs to be provided on the proper use of the equipment and the policy. Each radio manufacturer does things a little different as far as shape, size, operation and location of function controls. Each communication system functions a little different due to different factors such as simplex vs. duplex, VHF vs. UHF vs. 800 MHz, analog vs. digital or any other variation. Everyone who could be operating a radio needs to be trained on its basic operation and how to use the features. Learning the functions of some of the new technology on the fly can be confusing at best to some who are not “radio savvy.” A point to remember is that a portable radio can be a responder’s life line, so it should be treated as any other piece of safety equipment in your arsenal of gear. The fire ground or rescue scene is not the place to learn how to operate your radio.

Radio Discipline

Radio discipline can be defined as adherence to a code, SOG, or set of rules for use (either formal or informal). In an article about improving radio discipline on the fireground, Ken Frederick and Mike Tuominen, from the National Interagency Fire Center, stated that radio discipline falls into three general areas. They are listed below and we will expand on their three points as they relate to radio traffic on any fire or rescue scene.

Avoidance of offensive, derogatory or disrespectful language in radio transmissions.

This type of behavior should not be tolerated or encouraged. This not only shows a lack of discipline but a lack of professionalism, and in my opinion, has no place in Fire, Rescue or EMS.

Avoidance of radio use that reflects panic, anger or other behaviors associated with a loss of professional composure.

Loosing your composure not only sends you into a panic or rage but tends to affect everyone around you as well. You can not make effective life and death decisions while under the grips of panic or anger. Remember the old adage, “Men and steel both loose their strength when they loose their temper.”

Avoidance of pointless traffic in radio transmissions-communication that is irrelevant or marginally relevant to the task at hand.

Pointless chatter on the fire ground can distract the crews and the IC from the task at hand. Even more serious, it can cover unheard calls for help or a Mayday. Keeping traffic to a minimum can keep the crews involved in what they are actually doing, and not talking on the radio, as well as keeping us ever vigilant for a call for help.

Tactical Channel Assignments

Each responder should be trained on the policies regarding radio frequencies, talk groups or “channels.” This sounds so simple, but one would be amazed at how many times tactical traffic is heard on a channel assigned for traffic between the IC and the communication center. This is can be a serious safety issue. In a report concerning the July 1, 1988 fatal fire at Hackensack Ford in New Jersey, “lack of effective communications on both the fireground and between the fireground commanders and headquarters” was cited as a “major contributing factor” in the death of five firefighters. (Demers 1988)

One of the facts that sticks out in my mind reading the report is that there was only one channel being used, for dispatch of apparatus and fireground communications. Crews working on the scene of a working fire, in the “hot zone” of a rescue or hazmat incident, should not have to compete with command or dispatch traffic, or vice versa due to lack of channels, radio discipline or training. Likewise, we should be aware that in many areas the availability of frequencies is limited and only one tactical channel may be assigned. This leaves room for error in that crews may cover each other with normal fire ground tactical traffic. Care must be exercised to listen to traffic before pressing the push to talk button. (Engage brain before pushing button).

There are other issues that can be identified due to lack of radio discipline, but most can fit into the three listed above. Keeping to the basic rules can help avoid much of the confusion and overabundance of radio traffic found with fire/rescue ground communications.

MAY DAY Policies

The subject of Mayday or “man down” polices warrants its own lengthy discussion, but for the purposes of this article we will limit it to the communication aspect.

The need for Mayday polices is well established in our modern fire service, but there are still departments out there that either do not have a policy or if they do have one, they do not train to it. A proper Mayday policy addresses a basic communication plan for an already chaotic scene. This policy needs to be known by not only the IC, but everyone on scene and in the communication center.

Some policies I have seen include adding an additional alarm to include additional tactical resources such as rescue, truck, engine and EMS companies, as well as additional administration to help the IC maintain control of the scene. One rule that should never be broken is that any Mayday or emergency traffic takes priority on any talk group or channel and once Mayday is declared, a clear channel is required with no exceptions.

In the event of a “Mayday” the policies need to be implemented quickly and precisely leaving little room for error. Training and consistency are the keys to making this happen. Training should take place on a local and regional level in places where multiple departments respond together on a regular basis. Training should also take place in the communication center so telecommunicators will also react appropriately and in a timely manner to save precious minutes.

Consistency takes place by implementing policies on the same levels and this should be a policy where local “politics” between agencies has no influence. No two fire or rescue departments are alike, but agencies responding together need to be versed on proper procedures for this type of emergency to save valuable time and to avoid confusion.

Our advances in communication in the fire, rescue and EMS communities in the past several years are mind boggling. Our equipment is better and more advanced than ever, but, we as an industry have work to do to train our troops to make good decisions concerning on scene communications that will not only make our scenes run smoother, but to help ensure that we do everything we can to be sure “Everyone Goes Home.”

Joe Mancos has over 20 years in Emergency Services. He is the Assistant EMS Chief and Quality / Education Coordinator for Moore County Public Safety in NC. He is a member of the Moore Co. Special Operation Team, A Captain with Pinebluff Fire and volunteers with Aberdeen Rescue. Mancos is an EMS, Fire and Rescue instructor. He serves as an Area 5 Director for the NC Assoc. of Rescue & EMS. Along with Tommy McNeill, he is a cofounder of M&M Fire and Rescue Training Services. He can be reached at [email protected].

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