Fire Engineering Training Community

Where firefighters come to talk training

I am looking for some input from around the country on your Fire Departments fire ground communications. Specificaly, does everyone in an IDLH atmosphere carry portable radios or just one member per team? Secondly, due you use one radio channel or do you have seperate Dispatch and fire ground channels? Third does your dispatch center monitor all of your fire ground communications?

I am trying to put together a report on the pros and cons of everyone having portable radios and if someone does need to call a "MAYDAY" who will here it.

If you could let me know along with the size and type of fire department you are part of it would be a great help.

Be safe out there.


Views: 1276

Reply to This

Replies to This Discussion

EVERY Firefighter should have a radio, not every firefighter should talk on the radio. We die, get injured and lost on a task level.
Be Safe
Every firefighter should have a radio. Consider it like a PASS device only better. Not only can you use it to tell people you're in trouble, but also what kind of trouble you are in, where you are (or think you are or were) and who you were with. At our department we use ops channels. They are assigned at the time of the call and all reponding units go to the ops channel when they leave the station. The nature of the call goes out over all channels, but after that everything is limited to the ops channels. Our dispatchers do monitor all the channels through their computer and through their headset. This system has worked out very well for us. We are a career department of 230 running 6 Engines, 4 Ladders (2 of which are quints), 4 ALS Ambulances, an ARFF station and a Marine division.

I work for South Kitsap Fire Rescue. We are a combination department with 75 career firefighters. Not sure the number of volunteer suppression. We cover 150 square miles with 7 career staffed stations with a firefighter and a Lt. cross staffing an Engine and an EMS unit. Dispatch is carried out on Fire 1. all other radio traffic including EMS calls run on Fire 2. If we are dispatched to a significant incident such as a fire or rescue we are assigned to either Fire 3, 4, or 5. These all of these frequencies are recorded and monitored by dispatch. We also have what we call ground frequencies. I believe we have 4 of them. which can be used for support functions on the scene like water supply.

At a structure fire we recieve 9 career firefighters for a first alarm. Sometimes we will get a few volunteers or sometimes we will get none. All career firefighters are required to have a radio. and the volunteers typically are assigned to a career company as a third and do not have a radio. We do have 3 volunteer battalion chiefs who do have radios and are typically assigned the Saftey officer role.

Chris - I work in rural America where you want to see screwed up come to my county. Where Fire Departments are going paid with one guy on duty, where Lieutenants are being made because they have a "P" card, where dispatch doesn't answer when you call them, because the radio is turned down. Surprising yeah , changing most definitely!

Okay, now you got the point how screwed up the entire county where i work is............ Everyone has a radio and everyone has a radio with an emergency button for a 'MAYDAY" call. This goes out to everyone on the scene, the IC, and Dispatch. It is an open mic for 30 seconds so you do not have to push any buttons and it is long enough to announce your LUNAR traffic. When this is acknowledged , the mic is opened for another 15 seconds so the IC can talk to you. Everyone is trained to shut up and move to another channel.

I fell through a h*** January 2007 in a three story house and if I didn't have a radio to let my partner know, I may not be here to day. I hope this helps and if you need know know about rural america and firefighting look me up!

Todd McKee

First a little background on radio frequencies in Illinois. The state of Illinois has a statewide mutual aid organization called MABAS (Mutual Aid Box Alarm System). Through MABAS, automatic and mutual aid responses are pre-determined for each type of incident; fire, tech rescue, haz-mat, EMS etc….. Each department develops their “Box Cards” predetermining the response for these various incidents based on their needs and local resources. The Box Cards are generally completed through a 5-11 or fifth alarm. Day to day automatic aid agreements are very commonplace in the Chicago metro area as well. I can provide additional information about MABAS if anyone would like to learn more.

MABAS has designated two state-wide radio frequencies for mutual aid purposes and several fireground frequencies. The mutual aid frequencies are identified as IFERN (Interagency Fire Emergency Radio Network). The normal fireground frequencies are identified as Red, White and Blue fireground. There are also Gold, Black and Grey fireground frequencies available.

My department is an “inner-ring” suburb of Chicago. O’Hare International Airport lies at our southern border. We are a paid department and charter members of MABAS Division One. Like almost all of the Chicago area (including Chicago), we are a fully integrated fire/EMS agency since the early 1970’s. Every Firefighter hired since then has been a Firefighter/Paramedic. The reason I mention this is that ambulances in this area are staffed with Firefighter/Paramedics. We work a 24/48 shift with 31 per shift out of three stations running three engines, two tower ladders, four ambulances and a Battalion Chief. Last year we ran about 8,000 calls.

Our calls are dispatched on our local dispatch frequency and routine EMS and single company calls are handled on that freq. Fire calls are handled on one of the fireground frequencies, usually Red unless Red is already busy. The Battalion Chief monitors Red fireground while enroute to the call and if it is not busy with another call, he directs all companies to switch to that channel upon his arrival. We wait until the IC arrives to make the switch to fireground because of the nature of fireground frequencies being low wattage and designed for a small geographic area. We found that if the initial companies switch before the Battalion Chief arrives, the second companies and the Battalion Chief may not hear the initial companies on fireground. So for safety purposes, the IC calls for a switch upon his arrival. Our multi-agency comm. center monitors the fireground frequency.

Regarding radios, every riding position is provided with a radio, all members on an emergency scene are equipped with a radio.

In our experience using fireground frequencies, has improved on-scene communication greatly. There is no interference from dispatching calls and the normal radio traffic on that channel. Additionally, fireground is a low wattage, point-to-point frequency. This means that the radio signal does not have to go to a repeater or receiver.

Our RIT/Mayday policy calls for the IC to direct all companies operating on the scene to switch to a different fireground channel upon the declaration of a mayday. The effected members or company remains on the original fireground channel along with the RIT and RIT Officer. We don’t want the mayday members to have to switch frequencies. This allows RIT to communicate directly with the mayday members without having to deal with all the other radio traffic.

Hope this helps, let me know if I can help further.

I work for a 105 member career department near Cleveland. We have 25 firefighters on duty at all times and every riding position has a radio and members are required to have them at all times. We actually have very few problems with excessive radio traffic during emergencies. In fact, we probably don't communicate enough at times, such as reporting bench marks, completed assignments etc.

Our radios also have identifiers in them that shows the radio number of the radio transmitting. These numbers are assigned by company number and riding position and they follow the same format for every apparatus. The first number is the company number and the second is the riding position. For example: radio 21 is the CO of engine 2, 22 is the engine operator so forth.

Until recently we operated on only one channel but a couple of factors came into play. First our run volume is around 13,000 responses per year (we do operate 4 Medic units), so radio traffic is becoming more of a factor. It seems when we do get a working incident, everything else breaks loose as well. The other and perhaps more important factor was switching to a digital system.

Digital really threw us a number of challenges in terms of clarity, feedback etc. After much experimenting we decided to follow the IAFC reccomendations and use digital for dispatch purposes but we now switch to a fire ground channel that is analog for fire incidents. This required us to install repeaters on all engine and ladder trucks. We did this so our "line of sight" analog can reach back to our communication center and they can monitor fire ground radio traffic. Its pretty simple, the first due company switches their repeater on upon arrival. We can only have one repeater on at a time as it creates more problems.

One drawback during a Mayday is that our emergency PIN button on the radios only work on the digital signal. A member can call a Mayday on the fireground channel that can be heard by the IC and the comm center. But if they need to activate their emergency button, they must switch to our dispatch channel. To simplify things, our radios were revamped. The dial that switched channels has fire dispatch on the first and last position on the dial. The fire ground channel is the second and next to last position on the dial. If you want to talk to fire dispatch directly or to activate the emergency alert and you don't know which channel you are on, you simply turn the dial fully to either end of the dial and it is dispatch. One more turn is fire ground.

We are still a work in progress and there was much concern from our members about the system when the changes first came out. But our radio communication committee and our Union safety committee (of which I'm a member) explained that there are not many other options but to have digital and analog and that we are following national reccomendations.
It is not a perfect system, but as with all things, with training and patience, it can work until there are improvements in the digital technology.

Hope this helps. Its a little lengthy but I did want to address the digital issue and how it affected us.

Stay safe Brother,

Bryan Downie
I am a POC on a combination department that serves 75% municipal and 25% rural populations. We have charging ports for portable radios for every riding position on Engine 1, and two ports for Ladder 1 and Engine 2. I say charging ports instead of radios because it seems that when needed, the radios are dead. We don't have shoreline power to all the rigs, so the radios don't get charged unless they are in the truck while it is know, like when you are on scene and need the radios. Even when they work, people forget to grab them. I agree that not everyone should talk on the radios, but it would be nice to use them when needed. Sorry, I needed to vent.

We use a separate fireground, and dispatch channels. The county will soon be putting in service a trunked system. I am looking forward to this. My previous department, in another county, had a trunking system, and it was a great tool on the firegound. There was nothing worse than being inside on a working fire, and not being able to transmit a PAR, or a situation report, because someone at a water fill site needed to transmit that they were filling tankers, and were ready for more, on the one fireground frequency. (Don't get me wrong. It is nice to know if there is a new fill site open, but when I'm on the inside, I really don't care about water unless I don't have enough.)

Other than water, there is no greater tool for safety on the fireground than a radio, on the right channel, in the hands of a fireman who knows how to use it. Information is power.
I can honestly say that I don't have a lot of information on how they are setting the system up. From what I am told, it will be very similar to what some counties around us are using. Four fireground channels with 3 zones each. Four EMS channels with 3 zones each. In my last department, we were assigned a firegroup by dispatch. How we set the zones up was up to the IC.

We are using conventional channels at this time. We opperate on a UHF system. Channel 1 is county dispatch channel. Channel 3 is county fireground. Channel 4 is an optional fireground channel. When we are on scene, we are on 3. Everyone no matter if they are in IDLH, or filling scba bottles, or handing out water in rehab, everyone is on 3.

I agree that there is never enough money. Chief came back from a meeting about the radios, and he didn't seem too pleased about the hardware. He thought it was already junk, and these were the new units. He did say that we can set up our own radios, and use our own talk channels. I know it won't be perfect from the start, but maybe this will force us to train with the radios themselves, it will be a huge help.

I hope this helps.
There are 32 replys to part of your question in the tactical building blocks group. Everyone should have a radio not everyone should talk on it.
Our Department, when fully staffed, has 7 paid firefighters on duty, working 3 shifts. We are in a geographically separated part of Madison County, MT. Our natural access is through Gallatin County. Our district is approx 22 sq miles of Forest and W/UI.

All persons on duty have BK radios and the Scott EZ Radiocom II system that connects to the BA face piece. Everyone working in IDLH has their radio on; only the Crew Leader will talk unless there is Emergency or Mayday traffic.

Our county runs with a "check-in and assignment" channel and an operations channel, as a minimum. IC can assign channels for water supply, divisions, etc., as he sees fit. Dispatch will talk with the IC on the operations channel that he has claimed until he demobs everyone else and terminates IC. Dispatch will then open that channel for other incidents
My name is John. Iam a member of the F.D.N.Y. In my department all members are radio equipped. This in its self poses a problem due to the amount of radio traffic at alarms. The Battalion Chiefs and the Deputy Chiefs rigs are both equipped with a handhand recording device. This device only records radio transmissions once they are on scene and in range of the transmissions.the one feature on our radios that we do have is and emergency aleart button. When it is pressed it alearts a distinct tone amoung all radios and boosts the wattage of the transmitting radio from 2 1/2 watts to 5 watts.(this really is not as good as it sounds, there are still many problems with our radios ). Now to the radio channels normally we are all on channel 1 only on multiple alarms do we swich channels (And only if told to do so by the incident commander) Our radios are able to operate on 16 channels with 16 as the dedicated emergency channel.(this channel is not monitored so you only switch to this channel if told to by the I.C. after you give a mayday) hope this helps you out if you have any other questions feel free to e mail me at D1RC
Chris, a volunteer department of 250. We have a disptach channel and a fireground. The fireground is NOT one of the same channels used in the disptach, which is a repeater. The dispatcher can hear the fireground MOST of the time. We have a receiver for fireground at two locations in the district, north and south, to aid in the reception back to the dispatch. However when inside certain buildings the portables do not make it back to dispatch, just outside to the command post. There are 5-6 portables on each truck, assigned by seat or task. A typical response would give every member a radio. On those occassions where more manpower responds, the team or task leader has the radio. All have ID and its the command posts responsibilty to monitor for maydays or emergency traffic. Typically the incident commander communicates with the interior crews, while an aide monitors and communicates with disptach.

Reply to Discussion


Policy Page


The login above DOES NOT provide access to Fire Engineering magazine archives. Please go here for our archives.


Our contributors' posts are not vetted by the Fire Engineering technical board, and reflect the views and opinions of the individual authors. Anyone is welcome to participate.

For vetted content, please go to

We are excited to have you participate in our discussions and interactive forums. Before you begin posting, please take a moment to read our community policy page.  

Be Alert for Spam
We actively monitor the community for spam, however some does slip through. Please use common sense and caution when clicking links. If you suspect you've been hit by spam, e-mail

FE Podcasts

Check out the most recent episode and schedule of


© 2024   Created by fireeng.   Powered by

Badges  |  Report an Issue  |  Terms of Service