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Fireground Communications

Mike Lombardo, Commissioner (retired) — Buffalo, NY, Fire Department

FT Comm

 

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Accurate, clear, communication is vital to the positive outcome of an emergency and the safety of members operating at an emergency. Providing accurate and clear communications on the fireground can offer some serious challenges, these challenges can be very dangerous for firefighters and those we are sworn to protect. These challenges can involve equipment as well as procedures and the human interaction with the entire communication process. Some reading this will disagree with certain points in the article, that’s fine, but remember our emergency communication is not the end but the means to help us protect the public and ourselves. 

 

Technology Good & Bad

There is a plethora of equipment at our disposal today that aids us on the fireground in accomplishing our core mission. Certain equipment is a tremendous help and other items can end up being a burden. GPS systems are available on apparatus that can give us detailed routing instructions as well as showing the location of other responding units. These systems can provide accurate response and arrival information as well as information down to hydrant location. When I started as a firefighter information about a dangerous building was passed along (hopefully) by writing the address up on the chalk board at the watch desk in quarters. Today very specific building data can be relayed both verbally via radio as well as written and visual information passed along via mobile data terminals available in many fire department units. This is just a small example of what new technology can provide however all technological advances are not positive. 

When dealing with new technology we need to make sure it works for us. I have mentioned the fireground a couple times now. When we respond to emergencies other than fires most all of our communications equipment is not an issue, it is when we operate on the fireground that it is most critical and often causes us issues. Operating inside a burning building is probably the most difficult and dangerous work environment on the planet Earth. Don’t make it worse with equipment we provide that is not user friendly. 

Is your portable radio firefighter friendly? In Buffalo NY we have radios that contain 16 channels, for firefighters and company officers 4 channels are used. Dispatch 1, Fireground 2, Fireground 3, & Fireground 4 are on channel 1, 2, 3, & 4 and are also located at channel 16, 15, 14, & 13. This way a firefighter can turn the dial in either direction and communicate. The radio also talks to you each time you turn the dial and tells you what you are on, Buffalo Fire Channel 1, Buffalo Fire Channel 2, etc. Make stuff easy, fires are hard enough, I have seen systems where the main channel is “Tac-3” but it is located on Channel 1. Can’t we just rename it Tac-1?

In 2008 the Buffalo Fire Department was involved in the testing process of a radio system that was going to be purchased for the entire State of New York. This State Wide Wireless System (SWWN) did not work very well for us, we had tremendous coverage problems on the Westside of our city as well as other areas. The radios themselves were an issue for me also. They contained a number of banks, zones, and talk groups to be able to provide over 500 individual channels. At a particular meeting that involved members from numerous Western New York public safety departments, as well as representatives of the company supplying the equipment, I expressed my concern regarding a firefighter going off an operating channel in a fire and not being able to find their way back. One company rep told me Commissioner this radio will allow you to communicate with a snow plow driver from Poughkeepsie. I explained that that capability was not important (nothing against Poughkeepsie snow plow drivers) but being able to talk to a trapped firefighter in a basement in Buffalo was. The Vice President of the company then expressed Of course we have to make it idiot proof for the firemen. At that time I became slightly upset and explained that the gentleman should go back to his hotel room turn the heat up all the way climb under his bed blindfolded with real big gloves on and operate his *&^%$#@ laptop. That would be maybe 1/100th% as difficult as how we operate in a fire. Firefighters are not idiots, as stated before we just operate in some of the most hellacious conditions on Earth. Many radios we send our crews into fires with are simply computers with antennas attached. When you are burning or suffocating the ease or difficulty of your radio operation should not be a concern. The SWWN system was not approved by us in the Buffalo Fire Department and consequently was cancelled by the State of New York.

What information is important for you to receive from dispatch? Location? Type of call? Who is going? Look at the image of an MDT screen below.

Comm 2 MDT1

The address is the 16th line on the screen and the call type is even further. Who is assigned is on a later screen, and at two in the morning the print could be a bit bigger. We get accustomed to whatever is provided to us but we really should demand that the system works for us. 
Now look at another example:

Comm 2 MDT2

The call type, location and units assigned are pretty well highlighted and simple to understand. Again make stuff work for us don’t let the tail wag the dog! The human factor also comes into play. I never liked the term Structure Fire. The term is OK but don’t you think that wasn’t the term the caller gave. They probably said the house, or garage, or apartment, or store, or nuclear plant is on fire. I could go on and on. Regardless, tell us!

In this picture we see a 10-foot by 10-foot newsstand as well as a 5-story, 40-unit, apartment building, they are both structures. If you are responding wouldn’t you like to know which one?

Comm 3 Tenx10

 

Dispatch Protocols

We touched on dispatch issues already but another common thing we see is different responses by building occupancy. I will often ask classes I teach what their department sends to a fire. They will often relay that they send different responses to different occupancies. As a common example two engines, one ladder and one chief will respond to a residential fire while a response of four engines two ladders a heavy rescue and two chiefs will respond to a commercial occupancy. Get upset with me if you will but I think this is flawed. I would send the larger response to all reported building (structure) fires. Compare the following pictures:

Comm 4 ChurchsComm 5 Victor

The commercial may get the large response while closed at 3am while the smaller response will go to the single family dwelling at 3am. This may be extreme but not uncommon, and the buildings themselves aren’t the only factor for me. Over 80% of Americans who die in fires, as well as the same percentage of firefighters lost operating on the fireground, die in ones and twos in our homes. These residential fires are really where we as firefighters can have the most positive impact. Send the larger response, if you have it, they can always be returned.

 

Communicating and Identifying the Building

Homeland Security Presidential Directive 5 (HSPD-5) states that all emergency response organizations use a single, comprehensive national incident management system. Part and parcel to this National Incident Management System (NIMS) is the use of plain language by emergency responders. Let’s all remember what it said PLAIN LANGUAGE! 

 

Identifying the Fire Building and Exposures

The horizontal identification of a fire building and its exposures is decided by the fire department. Many SOP’s say that the address side of the building will be side “A.” I think a better SOP is the IC Identifies side “A” and communicates to all. The default can be to the address side of the building. In other words a street with thirty homes on it the address side of those houses will obviously be side “A.” Where we get in trouble is when the entrance of a building is not on the street but rather in a parking lot or courtyard. I know of one department that strictly adheres to the address side being side “A.” One major street in their district has addresses that face the ocean, consequently on every response firefighters have to remember they are entering the “C” side of the building and must adjust from there. This is making things more difficult than they have to be. Even a simple variation to a building entrance can cause confusion on the fireground.

Comm 6 TxCorner

A building such as that above with simply an angled entrance could potentially be an issue. If a first arriving unit starts to operate in the building from the street on the right while later arriving units operate in the same entrance but from the street on the left we could have crews thinking two different sides are side “A.” This may not be an issue until a trapped firefighter calls for help from the “B/C” corner and that is two different places to crews if the sides of the building were not clearly indicated originally. 

Comm 7 sides

I have been calling sides “A” “B” “C” etc. We, however, do not use those designations in the Buffalo Fire Department, nor do many of the departments in Western New York. Our system was adopted from the FDNY and uses numerical designations, i.e. side 1 2 3 4. I really don’t care what system you use as long as it works and is understood by your members and the departments that you operate with. 

I will use the below diagram as an example. It involves a fire in the Laundromat that extended to exposures on both sides as well as to the next building housing the pet store and gym. So how would you identify everything? The six stores in the small strip mall are all under one roof, in the New York system that would make the Bamboo restaurant the “02” exposure and the 7-eleven the “04” exposure. The “0” is due to the occupancies being under one roof. The Nail Salon would be the “02A,” the Gun Store being the “02B,” and the Bank being the “02C.” If the fire extends further, as it did in reality, the Pet Store is the “2” exposure, again, because it is not under the same roof. In classes I ask students to identify various items, we all seem to agree that the parking lot is the “A” or “1” side of the building. But using strict NIMS of “A” “B” “C” etc. is where things get cloudy at best. People have told me that the occupancies to the left are “B” “B1” “B2” etc. and any combination you can imagine. When asked what the Pet Store is we sometimes get blank stares or it’s the exposure. Regardless, there does not seem to be clear consensus on what we should call these. If the system you use works and is known by all great but, just in case, if you are sent into the Nail Salon as a mutual aid company and you are trapped by a collapse make sure you read that sign up above before you enter. When you call for help tell them that your trapped in the Nail Salon along with whatever system designation you use, if all else fails the Chief should at least be able to read! Townhouses and row houses can offer the same confusion especially if you are responding in as a later unit. You may not be sure what the original fire building was so along with exposure designation remember and use the address of the occupancy you are operating in. I spent quite a bit on this subject but that is because I really don’t think as a fire service that we have a good handle on building/exposure identification. This was a fire in a six-store strip mall and a building next to it. How well would your system and your firefighters do with a fire in a 165-store mall? 

Comm 8 custom

A simple single family dwelling like the one above can cause confusion on the radio and disorientation on the interior!

The vertical identification of buildings presents different issues. Before we get to some of those I thought I would upset you again. Why do we have to change the name of things, I have called the 2nd floor the 2nd floor since I learned to talk. Is it really plain language to call it division 2? I recently was teaching a hands-on class at an acquired structure. It was a 2 1/2-story brick building that was a corner building on an incline going from back to front. This created a walk out from the basement of the rear of the building. The Chief at the drill at one point assigned an engine company the task to stretch a line to the rear of Division 1. The crew promptly stretched into the basement. The chief said, no, the first floor. I inquired why the chief did not say that in the first place. Many have told me that the crew should have known that they went to the “basement division.” My question: isn’t it simpler and shorter to just say basement, attic, first floor,etc.?

Back to vertical identification, I stated that horizontal identification of a building is up to the fire department. The vertical identification is really up to the building. This becomes critical at high-rise buildings. Let me explain; let’s say as incident commander you are looking at a building with 12 distinct floors. When crews go in they look at the directory or elevator panel and see the floor designation is 1 thru 12, great. What happens when the 12-story building has designations that say Ground, Mezzanine, 1-10? We may want to call the 5th floor from the ground the 5th floor but if the building designation says 3rd floor we have to go with that. Civilians and firefighters alike, if they are in trouble or trapped, are going to use designations that are present in the building, not what we want to call them. Stairwells offer the same issue. You certainly can assign one stairwell to be the attack stairs and one to be the egress stairs but this has to be in conjunction with what the building stair designations are, i.e. North, South, Center, A, B, etc.

 

Communicating

Let’s talk about our actual communication as we arrive. I always liked to report my arrival with the address i.e. Engine 17 is at 102 S. James. This way the dispatcher can correct me if it was actually N. James or 1022 etc. Give a simple clear short report. I used a report that pretty much mirrored my initial Size-up as a company officer. The Size-up I used was BELOW: Building, Extent and location of fire, Life, Occupancy, Water. Consequently my report on arrival would be Engine 17 at 102 S. James 2 1/2-story frame 25’ x 60’ occupied dwelling fire on the first floor rear extending to the 2nd stretching a 1 3/4-inch, we have a hydrant. This doesn’t take long and gives other responding units a pretty good picture. Some variables would be to not give building dimensions, 25’ x 60’ etc., if your common buildings are standard sizes that crews are familiar with. In many departments the company officer will either go into a Fast Attack mode retaining command yet still accompany the hose line into the building, or will pass command to a later arriving unit or chief officer. In much of America it is difficult and dangerous for a company officer to stay outside if there is only a 3- or 4-person crew assigned to that first arriving engine. Be accurate as well as honest, it isn’t always easy to do. 

Comm 9 BFDtrkComm 10 Defens

Take a look at the pictures above, the building on the right is fully involved and the one on the left obviously is not, try to give that concise but accurate picture. 

 

Interior Reports

Simple communication is difficult in our work environment. A couple things that may aid you are to keep that portable radio under your coat on a radio strap. This protects it from water to some degree and makes it less likely to accidently go off channel. More importantly we have found in LODD situations that the weakest link in our communications system is the lapel mike cord. They have been found to fail at very low and survivable (us) temperatures. Having your radio under your coat will provide some protection for the mike cord. The issue you can run into with a radio strap under your coat versus a radio pocket is when you operate with a very complex radio system where changing channels is common and difficult. It can be nearly impossible to change Zones, Banks, and channels when your radio is worn this way. Another issue that can affect our communication is voice amplifiers. They are quite common on SCBA face pieces; although they are helpful when talking face to face in the interior they play havoc with radio communication especially digital systems. 

 

Locator Phrase

Providing interior reports to command is important and a big part of an officer’s job. Before we get to our little white lies I will touch on one other procedure that is helpful on the fireground. That is the use of a locator phrase. We pushed in the Buffalo Fire Department for probably 10 years for members to provide a locator phrase each time they talk on the radio. We did not change folk’s identity, engine 5 was still engine 5 or rescue 1 was still rescue 1. What we did request, and it did not occur overnight was that crews gave their identity and location. Truck 11 3rd floor to command, or Engine 22 basement to command. This locator phrase did a number of things, it provided a great amount of accountability. An engine company may be assigned the task of taking a line to the third floor to attack a fire, with a locator phrase it will help the IC keep track of resources and assignments, will provide further clarity if the assignment changes. For instance, Engine 6 2nd floor to command let’s the IC know that the engine has not arrived at the assigned location. The biggest benefit to a locator phrase is that if all goes bad at least the last time we had communication with units we knew where they were. In a major collapse or other catastrophic event this information can be critical.

 

Honesty and accuracy

As I said being honest and accurate are not always easy. Saying that the primary is clear on the fire floor yet you haven’t made the fire room yet is not accurate. If you discover 2 dead kids in that room after giving a clear report many chiefs might want to have a chat with you after the fire. More than one company officer (guilty) has told the IC that a couple minutes and we got this chief after being ordered out of a fire building, only to be surprised to see two floors of fire upon exiting the building. Try to anticipate what your report should be. If the chief calls the first in engine there does not need to be a long discussion. Battalion to engine 17. Engine 17 1st floor rear to command, Chief I got two rooms in the rear we are just getting water on it now. As a chief officer that kind of report made me very happy, I knew that conditions would be improving rapidly that the engine had located the fire and had the capability to handle the fire in front of them and also our back-up line could now be deployed to the upper floor to cut off any potential extension. 

So I am getting ahead of myself a bit. Let’s talk about our reports and plain language. We seem to want to sound very technical and all we do is muddle and confuse. Here is a true example of a radio transmission that I listened to:

Command to operations verify with fire attack division 3 their situation status and obtain a CAN report.

My transmission if I was the IC of that incident would be: Engine 17 how you making out in the attic.

I thought it said we should go away from 10-codes and go to PLAIN LANGUAGE!!! We should not replace codes with a language that is a new code. Just talk, it is ok to not have all the terms and phrases down just communicate your message and make sure you listen for messages yourself. More than once when things were very serious as an IC I would call a company and use an officers name, I know that is blasphemy to many but it is amazing how well it gets peoples’ attention. 

Kevin back down from the attic. It’s amazing how well you will hear and probably pay attention to that statement when it is attached to your name. 

Comm 11 ChiefAnother example of clear communication is face-to-face communication on the fireground. It certainly isn’t something that you have to do constantly but there are situations that lend themselves to face-to-face messages. Sometimes it is as simple as relaying a task that is a bit complicated and you don’t want to tie up the radio, i.e. telling a truck company where you need some opening up done in a specific section of the building. Another is relaying a message regarding a very dangerous situation and you want to make sure that the message is clearly understood. These can all be done on the radio of course, and many times you have no choice, but to put your hand on a shoulder and have some eye contact can impart much more than a simple radio transmission can. Passing command is also a time where face-to-face communication is helpful. An extensive amount of information needs to go from one commander who is giving command to another either higher level or when being relieved. Here is an example of the information to be passed from Chief to Chief at a fire.

  • Location & extent of fire
  • Operational Mode
  • Objectives 
  • Actions – Hose-lines, number, location
  • Primary search status
  • Accountability- where are they operating
  • Available units
  • Hazards concerns

 

Emergency Messages

The last item that we will discuss is emergency traffic. This could easily be an article or book by itself so I will just touch on the subject. I want to preface this by saying that I have had the very sad experience of being at fires where 10 firefighters have been killed, 5 in one incident 2 in another and 3 single FF LODD incidents. Calling a Mayday and reacting to a Mayday is a tough situation for all involved. In my opinion this is an area that as a fire service we have gotten better. When I started in the fire service 37 years ago you wouldn’t think of calling a mayday for yourself, I can find my way out of this basement, I’ve made 4 laps but I will figure it out seemed to be the common theme at the time. Today we do a pretty good job of teaching young firefighters to call for help. We never want to be good at this but obviously we do need to train to be proficient God forbid it happens to us. One facet of emergency traffic operations that seems to spark debate is whether to move operations to different channels during a Mayday event. In Buffalo during a Mayday one of our Division chiefs who was IC ordered the Mayday to remain on the current channel along with the Battalion Chief as well as 2 Engines the FAST (Firefighter Assistance and Search Team) Truck and the Rescue and all other units operating were to go to a different channel. This worked very well however I have heard dissenting arguments of all units staying on the original operating channel, this is something that departments should discuss decide on and train for. There are multiple mnemonics out there for use in Mayday situations. I have taught and used some of these, however after being on scene and involved in 10 LODD’s I find simpler is better. One mnemonic LUNAR has been around for quite a while. 

  • L — LAST KNOWN LOCATION
  • U — UNIT
  • N — NAME
  • A — ASSIGNMENT
  • R — RADIO EQUIPPED

This mnemonic was initially used to alert the IC that a member was missing. Besides the ability to contact the missing member the R (Radio) was to employ feedback-assisted rescue. This was where radios were turned off and two radios were put together and keyed to produce feedback in hopes of hearing and locating the downed missing firefighter. This was before the days of PASS alarms obviously. Today some have changed the R to Resources needed and others have changed the R to Remaining air. Another newer mnemonic that is being taught is GRAB LIVES.

  • G — gauge - air remaining 
  • R — radio - equipped
  • A — activate - PASS
  • B — breathe – control breathing
  • L — low – stay low
  • I — illuminate – use a light to mark your location 
  • V — volume – make noise
  • E — exit – search for an exit
  • S — shield – shield yourself if out of air 

I guess these are fine to teach folks but in a true emergency I really don’t think they work. If you are trained well in LUNAR and all of your Firefighters are and you all have worked on this until it is muscle memory that is great. But if not and if you, your friend, or someone you are responsible for is burning to death, all of these mnemonics are most likely nonsense. If in that moment of sheer terror if all else fails try to remember simply WHO, WHAT, WHEREWho is in trouble or missing, what is wrong, where you are think you are or the last place you saw them.

 

Summary

This article has discussed a wide range of material as it relates to fireground communications. Try to stick to true plain language and just talk and listen. And also from firefighters to bosses demand that our equipment works and works for us!

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