The portable radio is the single-most versatile piece of equipment that a firefighter or officer can carry into a hazardous situation.
Why do I believe that? Because portable radios are the primary means for:
For all of the above types of communication to work, however, it is imperative that all portable radios on the scene are in good working order and that all personnel are skilled and practiced in their operation.
Know your hardware
Your life may one day depend upon knowing which button or knob on your portable radio to use — and you might only have one chance to get it right. Using the incredible capabilities of today's portable radios is a critical skill, and like any other skill, if you don't use it, you lose it.
Practice often using your radio's different features while wearing firefighting gloves, especially with those features that you don't routinely use. If that day comes when you really need a particular feature of your radio, chances are you'll be in a firefight, so prepare.
Maintain the radio and its battery according to the manufacturer's recommendations. All of the major radio manufacturers have gone to great lengths to produce operating manuals and supporting media. Take advantage of these to build your body of knowledge about your radio.
Follow the manufacturer's recommendations for charging the batteries. Label the batteries and keep a battery log; in the log, track each battery's life cycle. Replace a battery when it no longer holds a charge for the recommended length of time.
Carbon particles from smoke, dirty water, sheetrock dust and other fireground goo can quickly compromise radio functions. Compressed air cleaners, like those used to clean computer keyboards and other electronic equipment, are great for keeping microphone and speaker ports clear of debris.
Pay particular attention to contact points for remote microphones and clean according to the manufacturer's recommendations. An ordinary pencil eraser is a good tool for removing corrosion safely, so keep those contacts shiny for maximum performance.
Remember Murphy's Law. If something can go wrong, it will go wrong and usually at the most inopportune time. Carefully review and practice troubleshooting guidance provided by the manufacturer. Your ability to work through a radio malfunction on scene may be critical to your safety and that of others.
Basic radio practices
Learn and master the following components of radio communication under non-stressful conditions. Doing so will greatly enhance your portable radio communication, especially when the heat is on.
These skills can improve your radio transmissions quality, but what about the communication that comes your way? All of that noise pollution can certainly diminish your ability to hear the information that others are trying to get to you via your radio.
The introduction of the remote microphone for portable radios, or collar mic, has greatly helped to overcome this challenge, but we lose that advantage when we don't keep the remote mic in close proximity to our ear.
Another useful adjunct is a set of foam earplugs; these can reduce the level of high-frequency noise from engines, power saws, operating hose lines, etc., and enable radio communications to be more clearly understood.
I found this to be true as a command officer. After I'd declared the incident under control, I would leave the noise-controlled environment of my command vehicle to do some managing by walking around. My earplugs enabled me to clearly hear all radio traffic coming over my remote mic that was clipped to the collar of my turnout coat.
Yet, technical issues can arise. You need to recognize technical problems and take corrective action to improve communications. Do not tolerate an inoperable radio when you are in the hazard area. If you cannot communicate with the incident commander, it's an accountability and safety issue. Get it fixed or get out.
The optimal position for a portable radio transmission is at head height with the antenna in a vertical position. Not exactly the position you may find yourself when involved in fire combat operations, right?
Place your radio in the radio pocket of your turnout coat while you're crawling along the floor and this is what you have. What's the problem? The radio's antenna is far from its optimal transmitting position and some of the transmitted energy is absorbed by your body.
The result is a poor radiation pattern and a reduction in range of the radio. One solution is to move to a position where you can sit up and get the radio closer to its optimal transmitting position.
Many users do not use a radio pocket or radio case. While this certainly puts the radio in a slightly better transmitting position, it also exposes the radio to heat, smoke, water and particulates. Left unprotected, the radio may fail to operate when you most need it.
Radio cases with shoulder straps provide little protection and are an entanglement hazard when worn on the exterior of turnouts.
Good radio communications are critical for safe, efficient and effective operations on the emergency scene. How many times has poor incident communications been cited as a significant factor in NIOSH investigations of firefighter fatalities on the fireground?
Follow the advice I've provided here and I firmly believe that you'll have taken significant steps to minimize poor communication, and in turn, set up you and your team for fireground success.
About the author
Battalion Chief Robert Avsec (Ret.) served with the Chesterfield (Va.) Fire & EMS Department for 26 years. He was an active instructor for fire, EMS, and hazardous materials courses at the local, state, and federal levels, which included more than 10 years with the National Fire Academy. Chief Avsec earned his bachelor of science degree from the University of Cincinnati and his master of science degree in executive fire service leadership from Grand Canyon University. He is a 2001 graduate of the National Fire Academy's Executive Fire Officer Program. Since his retirement in 2007, he has continued to be a life-long learner working in both the private and public sectors to further develop his "management sciences mechanic" credentials. He makes his home in Alexandria, Virginia. Contact Robert at