A frequent contributing factor in firefighter casualties is too much radio traffic. This can have a significant impact on situational awareness because it becomes nearly impossible to take in, comprehend, process and remember the volume of information being transmitted over the radio when communications aren't disciplined.
Have Radio, Must Talk
I've had many conversations with fire chiefs who said they regretted issuing a radio to every member. They said the concept was good—give everyone a radio in case they get into trouble they can call for assistance.
However, the strategy backfires when everyone who has a radio feels compelled to talk on it. It's tantamount to a person thinking that because they're carrying an axe, they must chop something.
A radio is a tool to be used for a specific purpose. Unfortunately, most fire departments don't train firefighters on how and when to use a radio.
It shouldn't be assumed that a firefighter will automatically know how and when to talk on a radio. Talking on a radio isn't an intuitive task. Knowing what to say, how to say it and when to say it are skills that must be taught.
Having listened to many recordings of incidents where firefighters were injured or killed, it's painfully evident this still hasn't been taught and, if it has been, the instructions were poor or the radio user has fallen out of practice with best practices.
Radio transmissions can provide critical clues and cues that, when transmitted properly and in a timely way, can be a tremendous asset in developing and maintaining situational awareness. Those demonstrating best practices in radio usage know what to say, how to say it, who to say it to and when to say it.
And, perhaps of equal importance, they know what not to say, how not to say it, who not to say it to and when to stay off the air.
Prioritizing Radio Messages
I recently had a discussion with some firefighters about their radio discipline. Deciding their incident management is hampered from too much radio traffic, they've embarked on a mission to revamp how they use their radios. They've decided radio transmissions fall into one of three categories: Urgent, Necessary and Unnecessary.
For urgent messages, the transmission will start with "Urgent," followed by the message. The department is developing a list of examples of urgent messages and training personnel on why those messages would be considered urgent.
Necessary radio traffic won't have a preemptive word and the department will provide members with a definition of necessary radio traffic and some examples.
Unnecessary radio traffic will be defined and a sample list will be provided to members. Unnecessary radio traffic will no longer be transmitted over the radio. Instead, it will be stated face to face or by mobile-data computer or won't be communicated at all.
Cadence and Key Phrases
The department is also going to adopt a cadence protocol. Cadence is when the same thing is said on the radio in the same order (or sequence) every time.
For example, when giving a progress or update report the crew employs the acronym CAN:
When calling a mayday, the department uses a LUNAR report:
- Location in the building
- Unit designation
- Names of personnel needing assistance
- Air supply remaining
- Resource needs
The department is also going to adopt key phrases that will be used to communicate a broader concept. Personnel will be trained on what the key phrases, mean so when they are used, the meaning for the sender and the receivers is the same.
The fire department is going to conduct audits of recorded radio transmissions to ensure the new procedure is being followed. As with anything new, this procedure entails a paradigm shift for how the department uses radios, but they should expect to show steady progress toward changing habits.
It's important for audits to be conducted on both significant and nonsignificant alarms. The habits developed during the many nonsignificant alarms will become the automatic performance during significant alarms. Ensuring the new procedures are being used consistently across the board is important.
Radio communication is critical to the success of an incident and is vital to developing and maintaining situational awareness. Disciplined communication reduces the possibility of radio-channel overload as well as cognitive overload by those who are listening.
Reducing the amount of unnecessary radio traffic will also reduce the possibility that personnel operating at the scene (including the commander) won't tune out the radio because the volume of chatter is impacting their ability to comprehend other things.
The brain only has a limited capacity to process information, and under stress, it's not hard to overload the brain. Reducing radio traffic to urgent and necessary messages only is a best practice that will improve responder safety.