Emergency Communications

Emergency Communications

Numerous wildland firefighter investigations involving fatalities have identified communications as a significant contributing factor.  While a need for better equipment is often cited, Safety Matters feels that there is an additional factor that must be addressed. 

The wildland firefighting community does not have a formally established procedure for critical emergency communications. Other fields, such as law enforcement, structure fire and aviation have developed protocols designed to help them effectively, efficiently and safely manage critical emergency communications. A single word, such as “mayday” will trigger the implementation of a set of protocols that allows for an immediate assessment of the emergency. A determination is then made of which procedures will be implemented to respond appropriately to the emergency.

The wildland firefighting environment is one where continual reassessment and adjustment to a changing environment is necessary. As a result, experienced individuals tend to approach changing conditions in a calm and confident manner. This works well until an emergency occurs. The lack of an established protocol has led to situations where individuals remain calm or appear calm until it is too late. In the case of the Cramer Fire, the helitack crewmembers calmly and repeatedly inquired as to when the helicopter would return to pick them up. The crewmembers remained calm until they were over run by the fire. Communications on the Esperanza Fire did not allow for the proper and timely reporting of the distress of the engine crew.

Currently, if information of an emergency situation or potential emergency needs to be transmitted, the protocol is to communicate directly with the affected firefighters either by radio or voice. In many cases, there appears to be no follow-up to ensure that the message has been received. This is a high-risk approach.  For example, if notification of an imminent radical weather change is transmitted, there is presently no requirement that all firefighters in the affected area acknowledge receipt of the message.  Firefighters not receiving the message are likely to continue implementing their assigned task without benefit of knowing about the approaching weather change.

Safety Matters feels that it is time to develop an emergency communication protocol for the wildland fire community. There needs to be a formalized “Mayday” protocol. This protocol should ensure that the channels are cleared of all radio traffic until emergency information is broadcast and receipt is acknowledged, or in the event of an emergency on the fireline radio traffic should cease until the extent of the emergency can be assessed. Everyone on the incident should clearly understand that there is an emergency, and that is the top priority. Until the situation is resolved, radio traffic should either be moved to other channels or cease all together. It’s time to join the ranks of aviation and other emergency services.

5 thoughts on “Emergency Communications

  1. I am at a loss for an idea on how to fix this problem. I do think that all radio communication should cease on all channels in an emergency situation, but on the other hand we can not just stop work on other parts of the line because there likely could be other critical situations in progress at the same time. Also, it is not uncommon for someone to miss the emergency transmission because they are not scanning the right channels or were walked on because the frequencies are to congested. Which brings up a point I have mentioned before, many fire fighters do not have sufficient radio training. They are unfamiliar with how they work, and don’t know about things like tones, and narrowband frequencies. Also we need to do more frequent radio checks through out the day to establish and maintain good communications. Many crews use the cbs or a crew channel to communicate with each other which has good and bad points. It does cut down on radio traffic and clears the airways for more important chatter which on some fire is a huge plus, on the other hand it keeps surrounding resources out of the loop which is never good. Im not sure I have ever been on a fire where communication wasn’t a problem in some way or another.

  2. Teresa,

    Thank you for your comment and I apologize for not responding sooner. VFDs , but not seasonal ffs were omitted as their equipment and training standards can vary widely. Our attempt was to illustrate the difference in safety records with structural and wildland ffs given their equipment and training standards are regulated by NFPA abnd NWCG. By reducing the number of variabloes we hoope to ask why was there such a differenc in fatality rates.

  3. Caleb Hamm, LODD 7/7/11 Mineral Wells, TX, 337 Fire
    “Communications” of ANY type could well have saved my son’s life.

    That simple phrase “man down” would have started a search for him. No one can tell me for sure how long he was left in the ravine, where he died. The so-called “investigation” by the BLM can be proven false, and they know I can prove their timeline is false.

    His crew on site used their own cell phones, and communicated within themselves so no one would know he was missing. Just one word out on the radio, and maybe, just maybe, my son would be alive today. We will never know, will we?

    One of the biggest hurdles, I believe, is not equipment, isn’t new ideas, isn’t new technology. It is the simple idea of taking care of each other. Never leaving anyone by themselves, as my son was, even for one moment. He was left in the “green area” after stating he felt unwell. He stumbled around, fell into a ravine, and was found who knows how much later.

    Lynnette Hamm, proud mother of Caleb Nathanael Hamm

    • Thank you for fighting for the truth of what happened to your son. Communication problems are nothing new, but we certainly need more professional protocol, established protocol that is taught and learned as standard procedure, so that response can be efficient and effective. Your efforts on behalf of your son are to be admired and respected.

  4. Teresa and Dan:

    This is one of the issues I worked on as an Emergency Manager dealing with communications between multiple resources on wildland fires. One of the ways I provided a fix was to have multiple cross-band repeaters UHF-VHF and using the National Interoperability Field Operations Guide (NIFOG) common use channels. By doing this all resources on a large wildland fire knew to check-in first and get their assignment and they would get radio frequencies for the incident. We normally used UTAC and VTAC channels to split the fire up into divisions or work it on one set and command use another set. A remote portable telescoping tower was setup with the required antennas. This set up had a reach of over 15 miles in any direction from the mobile communications unit. This could be expanded to add a single emergency channel to call out “may-day.” Also, in this portable communications vehicle a State Wide Radio system digital mobile radio was used to talk with State resources on their various channels. This all provided a means to have full communications ability.

    As for a protocol, a written protocol was completed for the concept of operations and training began for all the external resources. It required working with the radio shops to program in the required channels in all resources radios VHF or UHF. The NIFOG has all the federal common use channels as well. Then showing the resources how to use the radios and frequencies began. Fires covering 20,000 to 40,000 acres with as many as 44 departments and 280 personnel proved it worked. In addition an aviation channel was added to the command vehicle to talk to SEATS pilots for water and foam drops directly.

    This type of model could work for development of a “may-day” communications protocol. It all followed the NIMS concepts and principles and the ICS command system. The key was a separate channel was utilized for emergencies and was monitored the whole incident. In addition, that radio technician had direct communication with SEATS resources.

    The urban fire service has a Rapid Intervention Crew (RIC) protocol on scene which reacts to may-day calls or a firefighter down. This is not feasible in the wildland fire setting, but aerial suppression (water and foam) not the retardant currently used could be a solution. I am not saying the solutions I developed are a fix all, but it gives you an idea how communications interoperability can be leveraged to your advantage. New radio technology is seriously needed in my opinion. The old radios used are wore out and they get abused on the fireline from the service and conditions they must endure. Just a thought that might work.

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