Radio Communications: Straight Talk or Just Chatter

Plan what you want say before you speak

Good professional radio habits often mean the difference between successful outcomes and scenes that deteriorate into chaos. (Wayne Barrall photo)

By Mark Szczepanik

Technology and methods during my 30-plus years of emergency services have changed so much that it is a challenge to keep abreast. I can remember simplex VHF-low radio systems, three-foot mobile antennas, and buying crystals for my scanner. MAST pants, booster reels, and rooftop siren speakers are obsolete, so much so that some of our new folks don’t even know what we’re talking about when we mention them. One thing we do every day that has not been a victim to changing times, however, is radio communications. I’m not referring to the technological aspects (more on that later) but the actual communication aspect of “one person talks, the others listen.”

While this may seem like a simple concept, we all have stories of times when the receiver incorrectly interpreted the message intended by the sender. Several years ago, my department was dispatched to a boat capsized in Lake Erie with a report of people in the water. I was the IC and responded from the opposite end of our district and didn’t have any additional information than that until my assistant chief arrived on scene. She called me on the radio with the simple update of two youths in the water. “Here we go,” I thought. I immediately called for extra resources and began planning in my head for what had the potential to be a prolonged working incident. When I arrived on location, I saw that we did, indeed, have two youths in the water.  They were two teen males about 100 yards offshore in chest deep water in no distress. They were standing and slowly pulling their capsized canoe to shore. Fortunately, it was not the scenario I had anticipated. The youths had made it to shore (with the canoe) under their own power before water rescue arrived. While the update from the assistant chief was accurate, it painted a different picture in my mind, and I didn’t ask any follow-up questions for a better read of the situation. She, in turn, did not clarify when hearing the additional resource request. While I later spoke to her about the importance of giving a thorough scene update with a clear picture, it was incumbent on me to probe further until I had an accurate description of the situation. It’s important to repeat back the message to ensure the message was received as intended. In this case, if I had just asked if they were in distress, I would have had a different perception.

An example of how the interpretation of a single word can change the meaning of an entire message is told by a friend who, at the time, was a new command officer. He was dispatched to fire alarm activation at the local county highway garage. He arrived on location to find nothing showing but was greeted by an employee in the parking lot. He called dispatch to state that he “was on location with a worker.” The efficient dispatcher heard his words and immediately dispatched mutual aid and a rapid intervention team. My friend simply communicated what he saw–“a worker,” referring to the employee. The dispatcher heard the word “worker” and perceived a working fire. Neither was wrong. It was just a totally different interpretation of that one word. Again, if the dispatcher simply repeated back the message to the IC confirming a working fire, the unnecessary dispatch of additional resources would have been avoided.

While these two examples didn’t lead to a negative outcome, they did provide a couple of amusing anecdotes. Imagine if a dispatcher misunderstood the context of a message that was a life or death situation. I remember several years ago an ambulance was on a medical call and its crew was facing a person with a knife. It was a low-priority call, so there was no fire response, and the police department did not routinely respond to EMS calls. When confronted with the knife-wielding patient, one EMT did manage to reach his portable and simply ask for the police. No reason was given, and the dispatcher did not ask. Since a majority of the requests were low priority in this system at the time, police response was delayed by several minutes. Nobody was injured in that case, but clearly, the poor communications here could have led to tragedy.

Be unambiguous when citing the reason for requests. Use plain language, which is a basic tenet of the incident command system. In one system I worked in, the term “Code 1” meant a no lights/siren response. In the next town over, the same radio code meant that there was an officer in trouble. There could not be a more stark contrast between the two meanings of the code and clearly a high potential for confusion or even tragedy.  

Simple and concise transmissions are what we should aim for. Think of the picture gathered by the following exchange:

IC: “Fire Control from Chief 1.”

Dispatch: “Go ahead, Chief 1.”

IC: “We have a two-car MVA with heavy extrication of one vehicle; 4 patients, 2 critical and 2 minor; a small fuel leak on one of the vehicles. Requesting a third ambulance. PD has traffic handled.”

Dispatch: “You’re clear on the update, Chief 1: two-car MVA with heavy extrication of one vehicle and you have 4 patients, 2 critical and 2 minor, a small fuel leak. PD is handling traffic. I will be dispatching a third ambulance.”

In this case, the IC and dispatch are on the same page. The tasks and resource needs are clear and radio communication is smooth. Note: When requesting additional resources, avoid asking for “another” or “additional” types (ambulance, engine, etc). Instead, use the quantity such as a third ambulance or second ladder truck. This keeps things accountable and avoids duplication of equipment if there were already resources deployed that the IC may have been unaware of. 

I’ve always made it my business to read line-of-duty-death reports. I always learn something and try to pass it on. I don’t believe I have ever read one that has not listed some sort of communications failure as a contributing factor. Time and time again, we read about human failures, radio failures, and system failures. After 9/11, huge sums of money were invested into updating and improving radio infrastructure. While new technology is important, it’s meaningless if it doesn’t work or you have poor radio communication habits. Here are just a few ways to improve our radio communications:

  • Ensure you have top-notch radio equipment. Radios should be public safety grade and able to withstand the abuse of our job.
  • Radio systems (towers, repeaters, etc.) should be updated. Work with state and federal agencies to obtain grants if you are still on a 1950s radio system and have budgetary constraints.
  • Integrate radio communications into training. Most do it on Mayday drills and live fire training, but make sure practice goes beyond that. Incorporate radio training into extrication training, water rescue training, and even pump training.
  • Plan what you want say before you speak. Don’t be the person who keys up the mic and forgets why you are there. If that does happen, release the transmit button. It seems simple, but we all have our moments.
  • LISTEN to the message. Often, it’s not just the words but the context, tone of voice, etc. If you are not sure if you have the message right, ask for clarification. Urgent messages should be repeated back.
  • If you are at a fire scene and not sure if your message is being heard correctly, meet face to face. Sometimes you have to get the message across to the IC in this way, especially when the gravity of the situation isn’t being understood.
  • Do not yell on the radio. This almost always leads to chaos, and “louder” on the radio does not mean “clearer.” Your message becomes muffled, which leads to further problems.
  • Listen to the radio during downtime. Hopefully, from what you hear, you’ll adopt good habits and avoid the bad ones.
  • Monitor radio traffic closely en route to the call. Situational awareness begins at dispatch, and you should have a good picture of what’s going on before stepping off the truck.
  • Use common terminology. The terms car, squad, rescue, and bus mean different things in different systems. Patrol car, engine, and ambulance are universally understood.
  • Verbal punctuation can be just as important as written punctuation. Think of phrases like, “Rachel found inspiration in cooking her family and her dog.” Compare that to “Rachel found inspiration in cooking, her family, and her dog.” Speaking too fast on the radio can lead to a similar misinterpretation of the message.

With the exception of the first two, these practices can be started today at no cost. Good professional radio habits often mean the difference between successful outcomes and scenes that deteriorate into chaos. Remember, radio transmissions are being listened to not only by your local scanner enthusiasts but by anyone on scanner apps and Web sites, which are now commonplace. You are not only being recorded at your communications center, but large-scale incidents are often memorialized on these scanner Web sites. Don’t let your radio traffic go viral for the wrong reasons. We’ve all heard the radio transmissions (or have seen videos) of incidents that have gone viral, casting the agency (and by extension our profession) in a poor light. Practicing good common-sense communication habits can set the tone for a successful and smooth incident.

MARK SZCZEPANIK has 33 years of dispatch experience in the private and public safety sectors and is a public safety dispatcher with the town of Hamburg, New York. He is also the past chief and currently a firefighter and EMT with the Lake View (NY) Fire District. 

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