Both the NIOSH report and the Worcester FD Board Of Inquiry (BOI) report concerning the December 1999 fire in Worcester Massachusetts noted that radio difficulties played a role in the tragedy. I think the BOI said it best - "Communication on the fireground is at best difficult. Although face-to-face communication is best and encouraged, radios are often the only practical means of communicating vital information. [Suggestion] - Improve the methods and resources by which fireground information is communicated".
In my humble opinion, this means - in general terms -
1. Agencies must use standardized formats for their messages. The standardized formats must indicate to listeners when a user has finished transmitting his message.
2. Radio users must practice their radio skills. Just as the use of airpaks, hoses, pumps, vehicles, (guns for the police), and ladders are practiced on a regular basis - the same must be done with radio equipment.
3. There is a major need for a self-analysis of all public safety radio communications. Many public safety agencies have not changed the basis of their radio communications procedures in over 50 years. The technology marches on, but the users are stuck in neutral.
4. It is fine and well to have grandiose incident organizational schemes. However - these schemes are bound to fail if they are not analyzed in light of modern wireless communications systems, and modern concepts of inter-communications among stressed human beings.
More specifically -
A. Agencies must develop and practice precise radio procedures to account for all members when a dangerous situation unfolds.
B. Indepth research must be conducted to rid public safety radio systems of failures due to doubling.
C. All dispatchers must have the capability to receive and transmit at the same time ("full duplex" operation).
D. Nationwide standards must be developed to address the suitability of radio communications within basements, elevators, large buildings, and other common "dead spots".
E. Every public safety worker must be trained to understand how a repeater operates; the difference between direct and repeaterized channels; the proper procedures of counteracting dead spots; and the methods used to control feedback and other unwanted noise conditions.
F. Public safety organizations must encourage more of their members to become amateur radio operators. More amateur radio operators must be hired into the dispatch and administrative staffs.
G. Safety and command officers must know how to use direction finding equipment in order to find trapped colleagues.
H. A thorough analysis must be conducted of the effects of radio and verbal messages upon the users of the incident command schemes. Many agencies seem to be capable of using only 1 tactical radio channel at any one incident, regardless of the size of the incident.
It may appear that the NIOSH and BOI reports did a thorough job of analyzing the radio aspects of this terrible tragedy that killed 6 firefighters. I am not so sure of this. Were messages lost due to congestion on the control channel of the trunked radio system? Were other messages lost due to broken antennas or water-logged components on portable radios? Were programming errors committed by radio technicians which resulted in needless busy signals? (There is at least one instance in the radio transcript where the dispatcher received a busy signal (at 1916 hours)- how is this possible?)
Did situations occur when portable radios could not be used due to their size, weight, or configuration? Did the design of speaker attachments contribute to jamming the airwaves? Did the design of emergency alarm buttons cause problems? Were there basic incompatibilities between radios and personal protective equipment?
The radio transcript of the fireground radio traffic covered from 1813 hours to 1957 hours. During this 104 minute period, 96 open mike + 71 busy signal + 60 push to talk indications were recorded. All of this contributed to a very confused and ineffective use of radio technology. This may seem to be a harsh statement, but consider this. Hoses did not burst, SCBA did not fail, bunker coats did not crumble, flashlights did not go dim, ladders did not collapse, nozzles did not jam, pumps did not crack. The basic fire equipment and the basic tactics used by the Worcester Fire Department were not at issue at this fire. The radio system and its usage WAS at issue. In a major way.
I sincerely hope that this article can serve as a blueprint for undertaking improvements to public safety radio systems.
Peter Szerlag - May 2001