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Rules of the Radio

Ethan Vizitei

Ever since its creation, the portable radio has been the fireman’s friend. From traffic control to aggressive fire suppression, our hand-held radios keep us in contact with our brothers and aware of what’s going on throughout the scene. As a relative newcomer to the field, I still have clearly in my memory the feeling of what is was like to key up my first mic and know that my voice was being transmitted all over the city. It’s a pretty cool sensation, as well as an incredibly useful tool, but because people my age aren’t used to this form of communication, there are a few thoughts that you should have in your head when you’re using one.

A radio is a great tool, but its design should be taken into account. It’s a one-to-many medium (I talk, everybody hears it) and it’s a one-at-a-time thing. Unlike texting from my cell phone, I can’t just deliver a message to the person I want to receive it, and we can’t have multiple messages flying around at the same time. Add in all the ambient noise that’s usually present on the fire scene and you know there is some etiquette you’ll have to take into account to make this thing work.

Most firefighters get this advice as part of their basic training, but it doesn’t hurt to refresh every once in a while, so we’re going to review the rules of the radio:

Don’t Yell

This is usually number one on the list. Everybody has done it, so don’t take it too hard if you forget from time to time, but self-discipline is important here. One of the chiefs at my department tells a great story about driving an ambulance out of a riot when somebody managed to chuck a full soda bottle onto his windshield, shattering on impact. He remembers very clearly saying “Dispatch, this is medic 55, clear of the scene transporting one, requesting additional law enforcement for crowd control”. The dispatcher only heard “DISPATCH…….MEDIC……..TRANSPORTING……LAW-ENFORCEMENT……!!!!!!” Not only does it make your message hard to understand – which can be dangerous when you need help right now! – everybody just heard that panic in your voice and they’re starting to get worried too. If your radio is close to your mouth, you will be plenty loud just by speaking normally and everyone will have a better chance of understanding what you need.

Keep It Simple

You’re responding to a fire. The first engine arrives and you hear over the radio

“Engine 55 is on the scene … we have a two-story residential structure with flames coming from a second-story window on the 4 side of the 4-1 corner … heavy black smoke in the area … the resident has deployed a garden hose from the exterior trying to protect a shed that’s an exposure off that corner … smoke from the eaves so lets call two more tankers in, we’ll be taking our 200” cross-lay through the front door to make an interior attack up the stairs and to the right, and there’s a hydrant about 150" down the road here past the first bend in the road so the next due engine can start water supply operations."

Hmmm … all good information, but we probably just wasted 60 seconds of airtime. What if other units had important traffic? Was all that really necessary? Here’s an edited version:

“Engine 55 is on the scene … we have a two-story residential structure with flames showing on the second story, one exposure endangered, dispatch two more tankers. Engine 55 will perform an interior attack, have second due engine connect to the hydrant 150” west of the incident".

Are we really missing anything important from the first one? It’s arguable that we are, but I think that everybody incoming still has enough information to do their jobs safely, and that message got out in half the time. Short messages are good; easy to understand, efficient to transmit. Do it.

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