Tuesday, March 31, 2015

Confusion in the World of Wildland Fire Radio Communication

Wildland firefighter communicating with a radio
On my first day in a fire dispatch center in 1984, I was tasked with monitoring radio traffic while my supervisors attended a meeting. Shortly after my supervisors departed, a resource advisor radioed dispatch. His vehicle had started a fire, or was that “afire”? I wasn’t sure if his vehicle was on fire, and I should notify the rural fire department; or if the desert was on fire, and I needed to send wildland fire engines.

With additional information exchange, I determined that the vehicle’s catalytic converter had started a grass fire, and wildland fire engines were needed as the fire had grown beyond the resource advisor’s capabilities.

My communication problems didn’t stop there. The Bureau was in the midst of transitioning to a new communication model called “clear text.” Local engine operators were still using 10-code communications with one operator giving a very clear “10-8” as he responded to the incident. The next operator radioed that he was “en route.” Luckily, a 10-code reference card on the radio console confirmed both drivers were en route. Confusing verbiage, numerical or crew-specific code talk, or texting can produce unintended communication problems.

There are those in our midst that say the 10-code system was a more concise method of communicating and freed the airwaves for more important information transfer. There are others that contend the 10 code was a safety concern, lacking across-the-board-standardization and more importantly that you had to know the code in order to communicate. Whatever your opinion, the use of “clear text” or common terminology across all jurisdictions is the standard.

Although wildland fire personnel are taught about proper radio communication in wildland fire courses, report after report lists “poor communications” as a causal factor in accidents and fatalities. Poor communications can be anything from frequency overlap, long-winded or unnecessary transmissions, to misinterpretation of radio messages.

Effective, efficient communication skills is something that each wildland firefighter has the ability and responsibility to develop. Whether a leader of one or a leader of organizations, creating a culture of respectful, effective communication is a duty of all wildland firefighters.

Wildland Fire Leadership Challenge - Digging a Little Deeper

  • Discuss with your team communication challenges you are facing. Develop a plan to address your concerns.
  • What is your plan when communication is poor?
  • How has technology advancements helped or hindered fireline communications?

About the Author:
Pam McDonald is a writer/editor for BLM Wildland Fire Training and Workforce Development and member of the NWCG Leadership Subcommittee. The expressions are those of the author.

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