Firefighter Communication and Safety

Recent NIOSH Fire Fighter Fatality Investigation and Prevention Program (FFFIPP) reports have shown that communication failures are a key contributing factor to firefighter deaths. Factors related to a lack of training, equipment issues, and ineffective procedures have contributed to these deaths.

Communication failures are predictable and preventable. Fire departments and municipalities should make sure firefighters and dispatchers complete and have ongoing training to use their radios effectively.

Image of handheld communicators

Understanding Communication Failures

It is important that everyone using a radio is familiar with frequent communication failures. Understanding how communication failures occur, can lead to developing and implementing effective preventative measures. Firefighter communication failures generally fall into five main categories. They include:

  1. Personnel:
    • A lack of professional development needed to develop the necessary KSA
      • Education provides Knowledge,
      • Training develops Skill, and
      • Experience leads to Ability
    • Examples include not developing the necessary KSAs on how to properly operate the radio equipment and effectively communicate on the fireground.
  1. Equipment:
    • The wrong equipment for the job, or a poor design which leads to failures or ineffective operations.
    • Examples include radio component failures from heat exposure, the volume knob rotating freely causing the volume to drop too low to hear, or the channel knob rotating freely placing the radio on the wrong channel.
  1. Policy & Procedure:
    • A lack of, or an ineffective policy or procedure.
    • Examples include no formal written requirements for training and competency confirmation, a lack of effective operational procedures, or a lack of clear guidance on inspection and maintenance.
  1. Environment:
    • The extreme conditions beyond what the equipment can handle.
    • Examples include high temperatures that can melt gear, low temperatures that can decrease battery capacity, and too much water exposure that can result in electronic malfunctions.
  1. Leadership & Management:
    • The failure to address an issue in one of the other four categories.
    • Examples include not taking proactive measures to identify communication problems, not addressing a well-known and documented problem, and not setting an example for everyone to follow.

A Critical Example – Emergency Activation Button (EAB)

Numerous FFFIPP investigations identify issues related to operating the EAB. Effectively using the EAB can mean the difference between life or death for a firefighter in distress.

Fire departments and municipalities should make sure all firefighters and dispatchers understand what the EAB is and how it functions when activated.[i]

Firefighters should activate the EAB button on their radio anytime that they are in distress and need assistance. Activating the EAB:

  • Notifies everyone on the fireground, and with dispatch, that a firefighter needs emergency assistance. This guarantees everyone is notified even if the firefighter is not able to key their mic and speak.
  • Provides the firefighter with priority transmissions on the radio system. This guarantees that critical radio transmissions are heard over other transmissions.

Investigations have revealed issues and failures relating to the use of the EAB.  For more EAB information read: The Importance of Understanding and Training on the Portable Radio Emergency Alert Button (EAB) during a Mayday.

Addressing Communication Failures – Developing a National Consensus Standard

NIOSH FFFIPP investigations identified communication failures that include ineffective command communicationsii , ineffective fireground communicationiii, and unheard mayday calls.iv Those findings served as a catalyst to develop a National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) standard 1802 – Two-Way, Portable RF Voice Communications Devices for Use by Emergency Services Personnel in the Hazard Zone. This NFPA standard seeks to reduce portable radio failures through improvements including improved environmental performance, better control functions, and additional safety features. This standard should significantly reduce or eliminate communication failures, greatly improving firefighter safety.

Fire departments and municipalities should make sure all firefighters and dispatchers understand how to effectively use their radio equipment. Educate your team about communication failures. Look at all five categories of communication failures for improvement opportunities to help keep your team safe.