Fireground Radio Communications and Firefighter Safety

This page may contain links to non-U.S. government websites. What this means to you »

By J. Curtis Varone

Concerns over radio channel overloading prompted the Providence Fire Department to obtain additional radio channels to supplement the existing single channel. The problem prompting this research was that the dispatch office was not staffed to monitor the use of additional channels. As a result, concerns were raised about the safety of operational personnel if the additional channels were not monitored by dispatchers.

The purpose of this research was to develop a plan to implement the additional channels. The evaluative research method was used. The research questions were:

  1. Is the existing single radio channel used by the Providence Fire Department adequate given the volume of radio traffic that the system is expected to handle?
  2. Are there documented cases of firefighters being killed or injured where the fact that radio channels were too busy with other traffic was found to be a contributing factor?
  3. Are there documented cases of firefighters being killed or injured where the lack of monitoring of the radio channel by dispatch personnel was found to be a contributing factor?
  4. Do most fire departments that use multiple radio channels have dispatchers monitor all channels being used?
  5. What procedures do fire departments that use unmonitored fireground channels use so that critical messages are properly transmitted, received, acknowledged and acted upon?

The literature review found nationally accepted recommendations for fire communication systems and identified cases of communications-related firefighter casualties. Two surveys were conducted: one of fire officers in Providence to document the extent of overloading problems, and the other of various fire departments to obtain information regarding overloading problems and multichannel operations.

The results showed that the single-channel system in Providence was dangerously overloaded. Documented cases of firefighter casualties associated with both radio channel overloading and lack of monitoring by dispatchers were identified in other departments. Most fire departments surveyed required dispatchers to monitor fireground channels. Of the departments that did not have dispatchers monitor fireground channels, a variety of steps were taken to minimize the risk to operational personnel.

Recommendations included implementing a multichannel radio system in Providence; ensuring that all tactical channels be dispatcher monitored whenever in use; providing training for dispatchers and line personnel; protective equipment modifications; development of a portable radio specifically for firefighters; updating NFPA standards to address communications-related safety issues; and additional research into the firefighter safety aspects of radio communications.