Many of us do not have the luxury of running our own dispatch center. A large number of fire departments in the United States are "bundled" into a regional or a mutual aid system that handles the dispatching of emergency calls to many communities. Regardless of how and why, be it low call volume or the costs associated with running your own dispatch center... the process of how we communicate beyond the radios microphone has unique challenges for many of us. This week's article is Part 2 of our Firefighter and Command Safety Series.
Today we are going to offer some insight on how some areas are handling the process of monitoring a firefighter's (EA) or Emergency Activation. Most radios on the market offer the firefighter the ability to press a button to send a distress signal. These signals typically transmit back to a dispatcher. Often times the regionalized dispatch center covers a broad area of communities. To cover the distances, they often use a "repeater system" to increase the signal strength, so the communication can span many, many miles or overcome challenges that may include great distances, non-flat terrain and unique topography. If you operate in these areas, you quickly become familiar with "blackout areas" in your jurisdiction. The average 5 watt portable radio often times will not reach the nearest repeater to make the connection. It can be frustrating for emergency responders. Fire Officers and Command Staff will often resort to the increased power of their 100 watt mobile radio to communicate back to dispatch. I have worked for some organizations that applied mobile repeater technology on their fire apparatus so the 5 watt portable could be boosted from the scene.
One challenge that we all face is will your (EA) Emergency Activation signal hit a tower and transmit that critical "distress signal" back to dispatch? We suggest if you have radios that offer this safety feature, that you test the (EA) transmission throughout your response district. The time to learn that your (EA) will not work shouldn't be at your next Mayday! We have all seen challenges with this feature and sometimes the powers to be will simply turn off or not program the (EA) feature because they know it will not transmit back to dispatch. Imagine explaining to your firefighter's spouse or loved ones that, "Well we knew the radios didn't work so we just turned that feature off". Probably not the best option for providing a safe working environment for our personnel.
The next consideration Incident Commanders should have; even if your regional mutual aid dispatch center is configured with a repeater system and can get our mayday distress signal back to the dispatcher's console is; will they be able to acknowledge it? That sounds silly, but lets look at this from a relaistic manner. Many area systems are set up with the technology to transmit the dispatchers communication over the repeater on the "primary dispatch" channel. Most if not all of the tactical channels are not set up on the repeater system. It is simply too expensive to provide repeater technology for 3 - 4 even 5 channels. Therefore command broadcasts his or her situational reports over the "primary dispatch" frequency while mitigating the fireground on a non-repeater tactical channel. If your radios are programmed to send the (EA) Emergency Distress signal over the primary dispatch channel (repeater frequency) will the down firefighter be heard (or) can the frequency itself handle the firefighter mayday, while still dispatching other communities within the overall system (or) better yet can the LUNAR or CAN report be obtained by the dispatcher while other fire and EMS units are signing on responding to your incident? The answer is maybe. Most Mayday Command and Control models require the IC to upgrade the alarm assignment when a mayday is transmitted. This will bring additional companies to the scene to assist with the rapidly escalating incident. How is the dispatcher going to dispatch additional alarm assignments and maintain radio communication with the mayday firefighter on the same frequency? One liability we found during testing was; if the dispatcher was communicating at the same time as an (EA) transmission was sent, the firefighters (EA) signal can be covered and not heard by dispatch. Some dispatch technology is available to "stack" transmissions and it is possible for the (EA) signal to be stacked and once the frequency is clear the connection will occur. This doesn't replay the radio transmission but rather it sends the radio's identifier information to the console with an alert. When seconds count and a firefighter's life is on the line, are all of these liabilites best for firefighter safety?
So this Part 2 article will feature an alternative option for local jurisdictional monitoring of a firefighters (EA) emergency distress signals. When we teach our FETC Services - Mayday Management for Incident Command program, we always pose this question to the group "Who's responsible for monitoring the fire ground? The reality is INCIDENT COMMAND is responsible. Even if you own and operate your own dispatch center, the incident commander is still ultimately responsible for everyone working at his or her fire. With that said, we must embrace technology that has been developed to assist you with "on scene" monitoring of the firefighter distress signal.
The example given will be with radios that I am currently working with. We are using the Motorola XTS 2500i portable radio. In the State of New Hampshire, our government was able to assist emergency responding agencies with an interoperability radio project that was grant funded a few years ago. My department was fortunate enough to secure a radio for every firefighter. These were assigned to each of us individually and they were programmed with the firefighters name as the radio identifier. (see picture above) This plays an important role in identifying the firefighter who declares a mayday via the (EA) button. My radio will read EMERGENCY GREENWOOD. In other communities fire chief's secured enough radios for every riding position on their apparatus. These radio identifiers may read a serial number (or) the unit / riding position of a specific apparatus. Example: 87E1 FF-1. While teaching our class, we always review the Accountability System and then ask our students how are they going to identify the firefighter if he or she presses their (EA) button on 87E1 FF1? Our recommendation to assure we know who is using that radio is to assign each radio a "radio accountability tag" identifying the radio's unit and riding assignment. When the firefighter boards the responding apparatus, he or she would remove the radio's tag and clip it to their personal accountability tag. Now we know who is physically using the radio from any given apparatus assignment.
Channel Considerations: But what channel should we use? Well speaking for a regionalized system with a primary dispatch repeater frequency, maybe we should look at having the (EA) Emergency Activation transmit the firefighter distress signal on a dedicated tactical channel that will be monitored by the Incident Commander. That being said, it reduces the chances of having a transmission missed on a busy frequency, it sets up the command post to dedicate a radio that can be set to non-scanning so the volume may be set loud. When the (EA) happens, this will be more likely heard and not missed by any of the previous comcerns.
Options for Better Technology and Ergonomics: Fire departments should look into all options available to them for the (EA) Activation Button. We are now seeing better technology and options for firefighters. The first generation saw the (EA) buttons located on the main body of the radio. In photo to the right, we are showing you the first generation lapel radio microphone (right) and the latest version lapel microphone with remote (EA) button feature and a volume (+) (-) controls (left) This option works well with some of the latest studies stating we must protect our radio with the coat from the increased temperatures that can damage the radio in today's hostile work environments.
Increasing the Fireground Monitoring - In our class our next step is to introduce that the Incident Commander needs to monitor (EA) Emergency Activations. By dedicating a 100 watt mobile radio (in the command post) he or she can listen and acknowledge emergency activations. This basically eliminates the need to fund a major project to overcome the distance, terrain and/or topography. The incident commander is ultimately responsible for maintaining all responder safety. This also reduces the chances of the 5 watt portable transmission from being missed. If we can communicate on a fire ground tactical channel, then we should be able to monitor the fire ground for a Firefighter Mayday.
The next step to increase firefighter safety is to introduce our two person Incident Safety Officer model. (see and read our previous article for more information) The radios we assign to the Safety Officer should be programmed with the latest technology available that includes the (EA) Receiver Software package which essentially turns the Safety Officer's portable radio into a "receiver identification console". Now when a firefighter gets into trouble and presses his or her (EA) button, the Incident Commander and the Safety Officer's will not only hear the audible alert feature but they will see the firefighter's identification on the display screen. This concept provides the incident commander with two additional "on scene" personnel who are now monitoring for maydays. We just tripled the fire ground safety margin...
The last part of this equation is to have the RIT or RIC team on standby monitor for the same signals. By doing so, the fireground is now 4 times greater protected than the previous system. The "host" or "home team" needs to program a few radios with this receiver software upgrade. And if they pre-label the designated radios for Safety and RIT, then this will assure the radios which are given out have the proper software and personnel who are monitoring.
This is just a short excerpt from our Mayday Management for Incident Command program, if you would like to discuss this more or to schedule a training program for your personnel feel free to email us. Remember technology is available in many different brands and models of mobile and portable radios today. Some of which also fit into many local, state and federal grant projects. It requires the leadership of your department to research and obtain the tools and equipment required for our personnel's safety and future success.
Take Care and Stay Safe!
Billy Greenwood, FETC Services
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