Advances in Fireground Radio Communications:

A Clear Advantage for the Modern Firefighter

A missing or uncommunicative company is one of any command chief’s worst on-scene scenarios. Although most scenarios like this are radio malfunction issues, it only takes one significant close-call event to forever change one’s perspective of fireground radio communication.

When companies go interior to search for victims they rely solely on radio communications, unless companies are within earshot of each other. This enforces the importance of having clear and precise radio communications, functioning radios, and the ability to simultaneously operate and relay important transmissions to those on the exterior in command functions and those operating inside at the task level.

Time is of the essence in today’s fires. As research in the modern fire environment has shown, time-to-flashover can be just a few minutes from ignition. This requires advancing firefighters to make rapid and systematic searches with little to no time to waste before placing themselves in the harmful flow path.

Historically, conducting tasks and making radio transmissions relegates the firefighter to being one-handed. This operation requires the individual making the radio transmission to use one of their hands to grab a bunker coat lapel mic while positioning their facepiece voice duct directly against the lapel mic or worse, actually pulling the entire radio out of their bunker coat radio pocket. This is problematic for several reasons, including:

  • The firefighter must stop the operation or task at hand to make the transmission to place the lapel mic against their face, thus:
    • Halting the primary search. If the officer is the one making the transmission, this person will likely halt the entire inside team of their company while bending their head down to their lapel mic on the bunker coat.
    • Dropping a forcible entry tool to grab the radio, thereby halting this important task that will possibly hold-up other companies that need to get inside the fire building.
  • Potential for mishandling and dropping the field radio causing a delay in the radio transmission or the loss of the radio entirely. An inability to locate a lost radio is grounds for evacuating the building as reliable accountability of one’s position on the interior will be lost if operating outside of the purview of another firefighter.
  • Time is of the essence in today’s fires. As research in the modern fire environment has shown, time-to-flashover can be just a few minutes from ignition. This requires advancing firefighters to make rapid and systematic searches with little to no time to waste before placing themselves in the harmful flow path.

Receiving the Message

Moreover, even with the encumbering method of making radio transmissions, ensuring that these transmissions are clear and concise is another problem. Although this problem is often thought of as a radio design and operation problem, it’s often high environmental noise and the SCBA facepiece voice communication limitations that contribute to the issue.

While positioning the lapel or radio mic close to the facepiece voice emitter duct can help improve facepiece voice signal to noise ratio (SNR) during radio transmission, this method cannot overcome loud background noise or resolve voice audio distortion inherent in some SCBA facepiece systems. Such conditions interfere with clear radio voice transmission – garbled transmissions unfortunately become a matter of how much of the voice transmission is understood by those on the receiving end.

Firefighting certification books will tell you to place the radio or lapel mic a certain distance from the side of your facepiece, but this is a haphazard control measure to a problem that is looking for a practical solution.

What is needed and surely desired by any firefighter is a simple means of getting clear and concise communications without having the encumbrance of using that much-needed free hand to be doing something just as important. Furthermore, the benefits of some type of facepiece/radio interface that would allow clearer communications while not having to halt operations would include some of the following:

  • The ability to conduct more rapid primary searches in or near the flow path while making transmission as to location and progress
  • Advancing the hoseline while simultaneously transmitting progress or any type of water problem on the interior that the incident commander cannot see
  • Splitting-up crews on the interior within voice and or visual contact. If the officer can hear or see you, you are accounted for. The ability to hear both the firefighter moving through another room and exactly what they’re saying makes searches that much faster and safer
  • Relaying important information to those operating on the interior such as exits, stairwells, windows, deteriorating conditions, etc. so that even more confidence is instilled in firefighters that they are aware of secondary means of egress paths

Clearing-Up Fireground Radio Transmissions

These are but a few benefits to more productive communications on the fireground. The problem still becomes the fact that there needs to be a means of enhancing near field SCBA voice communications while being able to transmit these communications over the field radio simultaneously.

The EPIC 3 RI and RDI wireless communication systems from Scott Safety enable the firefighter to continue to move and conduct radio communications without having to stop to bend their head down to the lapel mic or reposition the lapel mic or radio against their facepiece.

Although the firefighter still needs to use a hand to key the lapel mic PTT control, the firefighter’s eyes are out front and overhead, looking at fire conditions and where they’re searching or advancing, allowing them to focus on the task at hand.

Instead of a garbled voice transmission from a firefighter bending their head to their shoulder, you hear exactly what is being said, while the firefighter is performing their tasks. This level of communication intelligibility provides peace of mind and a confidence boost for the firefighter and the incident commander on the street.