Can You Hear Me Now?

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Hey all. This post was actually inspired by one that my buddy Jason Jefferies wrote for Fire Service Warrior he titled, The Most Important 6 Inches. And like Jason, I’ll just say get your minds out of the gutter. If you haven’t read his article shoot on over to FSW and give it a read, it’s well worth it and I’ll still be here when you get back. So, this post is going to focus on arguably our second-most important tool on the emergency scene; the portable radio. Some of you just yawned and got ready to find another page to go to but hang in there, I’m not going to be talking narrow banding or the pros and cons of trunking systems or anything like that. Hopefully you might pick something up from this article.

I’m a stickler about my portable. I’m very fortunate in that my department actually issues each member their own. So every day I know what condition it is in, when the battery was changed last, any particular issues the radio may have and an overall “feel” for the tool. I realize I’m fortunate. I know there are departments out there that cannot afford this luxury and may not even be able to provide enough portables per riding position on the rigs. I think that is truly unfortunate and dangerous but it is a topic for another post.

At the beginning of my shift my radio is one of the first things I check. I carry mine in a radio strap so I start there. I make sure that the strap is in decent condition, that nothing looks like it is going to fail or is worn too badly. If it needs a bit of cleaning I’ll clean it up real quick-like. Then I check the outside of the radio for obvious damage. Hopefully I would have known about this during the last shift had something happened severe enough to actually crack the case or something, but you never know. I pay special attention to the cord connecting the radio body to the remote microphone, this is especially susceptible to damage in our line of work. Finally I check the remote mic. Again, if a little cleaning up is needed I do it real quick. Then I actually turn the radio on to check the battery status and to see what channel it is set to. My department does not have a set standard for when to replace the battery, it’s left up to each individual to use their brains. Our battery life indicators have 4 bars on them, I personally will start a shift with 3 bars showing. If it goes to 2 during the shift I will switch the battery out. Obviously, anything less than the 3 bars showing initially gets switched out immediately. I always double-check to make sure the radio is set to our main dispatch frequency also. Being detailed out to other stations is quite common and you never know who (or you) might have forgotten a radio and borrowed yours and left it on a fireground or training frequency the shift before. It’s just a good idea to check.

Ok, so that was pretty basic, I know. For those of you that are still reading, thank you for hanging in there. The next thing I’d like to discuss is how the radio is carried. Honestly, I don’t really care. It’s up to you. It’s however you’re comfortable and can operate the tool but here are three parameters that, in my opinion MUST be met in whatever method you choose to carry your radio. 1) Radio traffic must be able to be heard. 2) The radio switches and buttons must be able to be operated. And 3) The radio must actually be on.

The first point doesn’t necessarily have anything to do with volume, although I’m sure we all know co-workers who think that it does. What I mean by carrying the radio in a fashion that radio traffic can be heard is carrying it in a way that the speaker is somewhere near your ears. Not clipped to your belt. Not stuffed in your back pocket facing backwards. Not stuffed in your front pocket. Actually somewhere near your ear-holes so that the information being broadcast over the speaker actually has half a chance at making it into the computer in your skull and being decoded into useful data. If you do that you might find you don’t need the volume cranked to 11 just to be able to hear. This is why I personally like the radio strap. Throw it on and the mic is at my left shoulder every time, close to my ear.

Second point, being able to operate the tool. I’ve seen some interesting methods of carrying radios over the years, mostly related to our bunker gear. Obviously the radio pocket is probably the most popular method, and that’s fine, as long as you can get the radio out to change channels or the volume or activate your emergency button. The thing I dislike about the radio pocket is that it a almost necessitates the use of two hands to operate the radio. You can pull the flap open with one hand just fine, but with structural firefighting gloves on you aren’t going to get two fingers into the pocket to turn the knobs to change channels or the volume. Which means you have to pull the radio out of the pocket and hold it with one hand while you perform those actions with the other. It just seems cumbersome to me and slows things down. I’ve seen guys use the belt-clip to clip the radio to either the belt strap or the chest strap on the SCBA. I’ve seen that go both ways. I’ve seen it work ok and I’ve seen the radios get the ever-loving snot beat out of them too being exposed like that. Plus, with both the radio pocket and the belt-clip method, the coiled remote mic wire is left exposed to become an entanglement hazard to any burned out mattress spring, drop-ceiling grid or just about anything else that is looking to reach out and get us. At least with the belt-clip method the knobs and buttons are exposed and able to be operated with one hand and by feel only, that’s on the plus side. Again, I prefer an extra long radio strap worn under my bunker coat that allows the radio to hang just under the lower edge of the coat, exposed for operation of all the controls, with the remote mic cord running up underneath the coat removing the entanglement hazard, out the top of my coat to a retractable lanyard system secured to the storm flap of my coat at my left ear. Again, I’m just giving you my thought process on why I came to this system as the best solution for me personally. I’m not trying (too much) to sell you on it. But I do want you to give some serious thought to how you have your rig set up at work and maybe make some changes if need be.

Ok, third point. The thing actually has to be on. I can’t tell you how often this doesn’t happen. Whether it be intentional or unintentional numerous radios are left off during both training and actual incidents constantly. NIOSH reports are filled with incidents of firefighters being injured and killed with their radios being off. Near-miss reports are filled with the same. Yet I constantly hear, “There’s a radio every 5 feet, I don’t need mine on.”, or “I hate carrying that @$#& thing.” If you don’t turn it on, or worse yet, if you don’t have it, the tool can not help you. I would hate to think that a firefighter found themselves in trouble, had just that little bit of panic set in, and were talking into a microphone that was off the entire time they were trying to call a mayday because they forgot to turn the radio on in the heat of the moment, pun intended. It doesn’t even need to be a structure fire where it can help you out. What about EMS runs? Ever had your partner go back to the rig for something and you suddenly remember you need something else? Or the situation changes and you need another piece of equipment? I guarantee he or shed is not going to be happy if they get all the way back up to the fourth floor just to find out they have to turn around and go back down again. How about a personal safety stand-point? Same scenario. You’re on an EMS run and something bad happens and you don’t have a radio. God forbid but something has happened to the rest of your crew and you don’t have a way to communicate. Or it’s just you and your partner and he or she went to the rig to get the aforementioned piece of equipment and suddenly the calm and agreeable psych patient turns on you and you’re fighting by yourself with no means to call for help? Ego and machismo aside, wouldn’t it be better to be able to key the mic and at least be able to alert someone that something was wrong? Carry the thing, turn it on, turn it down.

The last thing I’ll say about our portables is; LISTEN TO THEM! Just because the traffic isn’t directly to you doesn’t mean it doesn’t have to do with you. Make sense? Example; You are Truck 1 assigned to throw ground ladders to the C-side of the building on a 2-story residential fire. As you are completing this task Engine 2, who is making the attack on the bedroom fire on the second floor, requests ventilation on the B-side near the B-C corner. You hear this, radio command you are in a position to roll a ladder and complete this task, badda-boom badda-bing Engine makes the room, fire out, everyone’s happy. Same scenario but because you are not listening to the radio traffic and because the message does not begin with “Truck 1” you don’t pay attention to whoever is yapping on the radio. Command has to wait for another Truck to come up from staging, make it to the B-C corner, vent the window between dirty looks at your guys, who are all now standing around doing nothing because your assignment of laddering the C-side is complete, the fire has moved into the adjoining bedroom because of the delay and is moving into the attic. Nice job ace. Missed radio traffic is a huge pet peeve of mine. And I’m not talking about missed radio traffic that is directly to a unit, I’m talking about general emergency scene traffic that contains information that provides clues or basis for judgement to everyone operating that people routinely miss because they are focused on what is going on two inches in front of them or because they only pay attention to the radio transmissions that begin with their unit numbers. Drives me nuts.

Your radio is as much a tool as an ax, Halligan or your SCBA. You need to be familiar with its operation and “feel”. The only way you will get that is by using it and practicing with it. It doesn’t have to be anything fancy. Something as simple as closing your eyes and counting channels as you turn the knob is  a quick drill you can do yourself without anyone else even knowing you’re doing it. Go out and try different methods of wearing your radio with both your station uniform and your bunker gear. Find out what is going to work best for you. Don’t just assume that since there is a “radio” pocket and a tab sewn on your coat that it’s the best place for you to carry the radio. After all, you know what happens when you assume, right?

Until next time,

Be safe!


7 comments on “Can You Hear Me Now?

  1. Jonah is gonna love this one! He’s a radio guy! Good strong work Bro!


  2. I love my radio strap. I have actually had a physical reaction when I left it at another house. I was so used to reaching for my left shoulder to transmit and in practicing MAYDAYs that I actually felt naked (not a good feeling at work) without it. I hear you brother, keep turning up the volume.


  3. Great post. I’m glad to hear you promote the “whatever works for you” method. Radio straps are still relatively uncommon in my corner of the country and I’ve heard the occasional, “what do you need that for? Your coat has a radio pocket.”. The pocket is fine if you prefer that method, but I don’t for various reasons, mostly involving non-fire calls. It’s all about customizing your setup to what works best for you and being sure that you are intimately familiar with that setup, so that there’s no thought required to find things when the situation turns sour.

    On a side note, our new remote mics incorporate a volume control, channel selector, and “emergency button”, so no matter where the radio body is carried you still have almost all of its functions at your fingertips.


  4. Shannon Kobe says:

    common sense info here; so use it..and if you don’t then suffer with the results. Radio watch as it is called in the military requires listening in….in my 26 years as a line firefighter/nozzleman/medic I used all of my “listening skills” including turning on and tuning in to the radio if a task force or alert was broadcast….then by listening in I was able to build a mental image of what was going on and who was dispatched. Got pretty good at anticipation. It all came back when late one nite a tap out came in for other halls…my capt had retired and we were radio watch in the alarm room listening in and looking at the t.v. Sure enough a major alert and dispatch….not for us….thinking that it was only a matter of time I went and woke up the capt. and said we were going to get dispatched…..he was well shall we say….really happy about the inter rupt shun…and let me know it … off to have a break in the washroom and then back to the Cappy Room and the bunk….ten minutes later we were out and doing the run into a three alarm….No time for anything….6 hours later we were sent back to quarters for shift change….as he climbed out of the rig….and hung his coat on the door post he turned to me and said thanks for getting me up… bladder would not have made it…….the moral of the story here is….well yes I did get an atta boy on evaluation….but….”Listen to a Radio that is Turned On” tactical considerations are vital and having a mental picture of the fireground and the rigs, understanding how your fire company works with others in support, defensive and offensive operations and full entry comes from understanding the ground you will fight on. This is the same for the military as it is for firefighterveterans who are engaged in the fight. Review the lessons offered here. Practical and tactical. Thanks for a great post.
    Shannon H. Pennington
    North American Firefighter Veteran Network


  5. GaryLane says:

    Sorry…totally self promoting here… But i thought this was a great write up Chris. Here is a link to some thoughts i have on it. Nice job. Keep it up!


    • Gary, thanks for reading and commenting. No need to apologize at all. I had somehow missed that particular article. I’m glad you brought it to my attention and I got a chance to go back and read it. Excellent points made as usual. It all just comes down to coming up with a system that works for you and getting to know your equipment. But you need to put some thought into it. Don’t just take i for granted.


  6. DaveOC says:

    And on a related note……………just because you have a radio, don’t feel the need to talk into it. WAY too many guys these days appear to be trying to talk a fire out.
    I can generally tell from the amount of radio traffic at a fire, how it’s going to go. Very little traffic generally means people are working, lot’s of traffic means……………..


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