Radios for Firefighters Who Hate PowerPoint

Old poster from US Army on radio operations training.

Old poster from US Army on radio operations training.

By FF Brad Hoffman, Connecticut

The dreaded radio operations drill. We have all sat through endless powerpoint slides with pictures of radios and sample communications in quotation marks that struggles to hold our attention. So it may be surprising that one of the best classes I’ve ever taken covered basic radio use, but with a twist.

radio hanging with jacket.jpeg

“Hey you, it’s me” is the best radio concept I’ve ever been taught.

- FF Brad Hoffman

While attending Firefighter II at a small regional fire school in Connecticut, our instructors found a great way to deliver engaging radio operations training. Instead of hours in the classroom to cover radio usage and fireground communication, we headed out to the training grounds. Paired up in groups of two, we were handed a radio and a blindfold. One teammate was assigned the radio and instructed to head to the third story of the training tower. The other teammate was blindfolded and led to a checkerboard maze of cut carpet squares. We were assigned a distinct call sign and instructed to use radio communications to walk our teammate through the maze. If the blindfolded teammate’s foot touched anywhere outside the carpet square, you failed and had to start over.

While this was challenging enough, the real trouble started when the lesson kicked in. Without prior knowledge, our instructors started two teams at the same time, on the same channel. Within minutes everyone began to truly understand the importance of call signs (“hey you, it’s me”) and how concise transmissions can translate to lives saved. The instructors would throw out random traffic, artificial maydays, and sly instructions that, if followed without hearing your call sign, would lead to failure.

This drill has become one of my go-to training exercises when working with new firefighters or our active junior cadet program. High quality radio communications are one of our best friends on the fire ground. Radio operations training - where firefighters actually practice speaking over the radio with additional traffic - is critical to your department. Poor communications can wreak havoc on a scene and lead to deadly mistakes. Not only does this drill reinforce those critical basic radio competencies, it is a ton of fun!

Brad Hoffman is a firefighter and former lieutenant in Tolland County, Connecticut. He was also a cadet advisor for his department’s junior firefighting program.

Disclaimer: You must always consider your own personal safety and department policies.