Principles and Practices for Emergency Communications

To familiarize the emergency responder with the operation of communications equipment used for the transfer of information via electronic equipment.

There has long been a recognized need for reliable communications in the field of emergency services. There are four basic areas of communications:

  1. Communications between the public and emergency services.
  2. Communications within emergency services under emergency and non-emergency conditions.
  3. Communications between emergency services units (fire; rescue; law enforcement).
  4. Communications between emergency units and other agencies (utilities; D.O.T.).

In early America volunteer firemen were summoned by the ringing of bells, shouting and by word of mouth. The fire chief's emblem of crossed trumpets is a symbol of early communication on the fire ground. In our county the siren mounted atop the fire station was the predominate means of notification. This method provided no information other than to inform the volunteers that they were needed. They left their homes, businesses or fields and went to their station. They did not know what was on fire or where it was. Once arriving at the station they were usually met by someone, probably the local policeman, and told of the fire location. They then boarded the fire truck and proceeded to the given location. There was no further communication. They could not call back for better direction, water point location, additional assistance or for any other reason. When their mission was complete they simply returned to their station. There was no one to call and advise, just return to base. This lack of communication was even more apparent when you consider the lack of providers to cover our county. Prior to the early l950's there were only about six fire depts. in the county, located in the towns, and no rescue squads. The first rescue squad, Johnston County Civil Defense Rescue Squad, was formed in l956 and did rescue only. The first transport vehicle, a converted l950 station wagon did not come into play until about l959. Area funeral homes were the dominant transport providers of that time. Radio communications as we know today was non-existent. (Consider how you would function today without a radio, pager or cell phone).

System Elements:
Referring to the four basic elements mentioned earlier we begin with:

  1. Communications Between the public and the Emergency Services Agency. These calls usually are received via the public telephone and are usually to report a need for service. Today these calls generally are received via the 911 emergency phone number. Administrative calls and non-emergency calls, to or from, the public should be handled on an administrative line, NOT on the 911 emergency line.

  2. Communications Within Emergency Services. This may also be of emergency or non-emergency nature. It also may or may not involve a dispatcher. Means may be via telephone or radio, either base units, mobile or hand held. Emergency traffic would involve a dispatcher broadcast of an emergency incident, traffic between responding units & tactical communications between the incident commander and fire/rescue personnel on the scene. Broadcast of weather conditions (unless threatening), meetings and etc. are non-emergency and should be announced only when it will not interfere with emergency traffic.

  3. Communications Among Emergency Services. This may simply be local area traffic between neighboring departments for mutual-aid and other emergency/non-emergency conversation similar to Communications within Emergency Services.

  4. Communications Between The Emergency Services Units And Other Agencies. The benefits of a good communications system allow for the passing of information to other public safety oriented agencies. Some of these are law enforcement, public works, D.O.T. and utility companies. Although this may not now be accomplished directly from the local emergency units it often can be done from the dispatch center. When other agencies are involved, clear concise terminology should be used. A D.O.T. worker or wrecker driver may not be familiar with l0-code lingo.

Communications Systems:
A good communications system consists of several means of information/data transmission. The most basic is the telephone. The public telephone system is the most widespread and available means of communication. It is available in the home, business, school, automobile and portable hand-held units. Telephones are universal and frequently the emergency contact number, 911, is readily available. It is the goal for 911 to someday also be universal. The telephone can be both a primary and backup in a communications system. Through the use of telephone lines data is transmitted from computerized dispatch via modems to printers and/or display screens. Mobil data terminals and AVL are now available in some jurisdictions. This is now a consideration and under study for our county.

Within our system the two-way radio is the primary means with which information is transmitted. From the dispatch, to the responder, to vehicles and base units the two-way radio is essential to implementation and maintaining our communications network. Two-way radio allows critical spoken word to be transmitted and received between two or more parties instantly.

The advent of the personal pager gave to the volunteer both more freedom and assurance of call notification. Individuals now can roam throughout their service area and even beyond and still receive their emergency alert or in some cases messages of a routine nature.

Whenever radios are involved, the Federal Communications Commission is involved as the licensing agency. Base stations are required to have an F.C.C. license. Mobil & portables are licensed under the base station license. It is unlawful to operate a radio transceiver without an approved F.C.C. license. Radios are assigned a frequency of operation based on the type of service.UHF (Ultra High Frequency), VHF (Very High Frequency).Our newest frequency range, "800" mhz. has recently been acquired by the county and is now the primary operating frequency.

Communications Center:
The Johnston County Emergency Communications Center serves as the communications hub. From there an array of communications situations can occur. 911 calls from the public may be handled by the centers personnel or they may be channeled off to another agency for processing. All 911 calls placed in Johnston County are received at this communications center. Calls for fire or rescue are handled by the communications center. Law enforcement calls for the seven PD's are also handled. Calls for the Sheriff are rolled over to that respective department for dispatch. The communications center also works with the Emergency Management, Highway Patrol, Red Cross and county utilities on an as need basis.

Responder Notification:
From the communications center all of the emergency responders can be notified. This is usually, and best accomplished, by pager activation. In some situations the general alarm siren is used, however pagers are more predominant and reliable. Pagers allow for instantaneous notification via the spoken word. Scanners are also used in the communications system. Radio traffic is not private and through the use of scanners people other than emergency responders often here your conversation.

Although not a direct means of communication, the CAD (Computer Assisted Dispatch), is a major part of any good communications center. The CAD is a record keeping system which allows for the status & location of particular department or individual units. It enables the dispatcher to immediately know if a call requires a 2nd duty crew or is an initial call. This is true when dispatches originate with the communications center. Calls that are initiated by local PD's are now also being entered into the CAD for record keeping. The CAD system provides time information for the units and incident numbers for fire calls. It also provides a comments field for any pertinent information that the dispatcher deems necessary to enter into the record.

911 Screen:
The telephone companies (CenturyLink and Intrado) provide us within primary incoming 911 phone lines. The lines, upon being answered, display on a computer screen the telephone number of the caller, indicate residence or business, name of person phone is listed to, house and apt. number, street or road name and community name. The date & time the call was received is also displayed. In addition the ESN is shown detailing the primary responders for Law Enforcement, Fire & Rescue. This information must be verified with the caller and is literally a life saver for dispatchers.

The radio and telephone traffic in the communications center is recorded. This is done on a recorder and provides a record of all conversation. Backup recordings are routinely kept for 30 days and then deleted. Any incident of a volatile or high exposure nature can be pulled and kept indefinitely.

Backup Center:
An extension of the main communications center is a back-up center located in a different location. From there we can do everything that can be done and the main center.

Operational Readiness:
To ensure consistent operational readiness the communications center is usually staffed with six to seven 911 dispatchers and two or three Sheriff's Dept. dispatchers. The call volumes of over 400 administrative telephone calls, 410 911 calls and 370 fire/rescue/law dispatches per 24-hour period dictate this coverage. The Sheriff's department will dispatch around 235 calls per day.  In order that the communications center can always transmit, an emergency power system is in place. The consoles and telephone system are supported by UPS power and a building emergency generator. In addition an emergency generator is in place for automatic cut over at the radio tower site.

The thought of having to talk on the radio causes panic to some people. They become nervous and clam up. To others it is an opportunity to good to pass up. They stretch a comment into a conversation. When talking on the radio one should remember to speak into the mic in a clear tone. Identify your unit number and/or dept. Do not use slang, jargon or profanity. Use l0 codes or plain English and always convey a courteous transmission. Do not attempt to begin your conversation until you are sure the air way is clear of other traffic. Conversations over the radio should be directly related to an emergency incident or dept. business. Last weeks hunting, fishing or golf game is non-related and therefore non-essential for discussion over the air.

Phonetic Alphabet and Military Time:
The phonetic alphabet is frequently used. The communication alphabet is different from the military alphabet. For instance we use ADAM instead of ALPHA, BOY instead of BRAVO. The communications alphabet is as follows:

A ADAM       H HENRY       O OCEAN       V VICTOR

B BOY          I IDA            P PAUL         W WILLIAM

C CHARLES  J JOHN          Q QUEEN       X X-RAY

D DAVID      K KING         R ROBERT     Y YOUNG


F FRANK       M MARY         T TOM


Times are given in military format.
0100 = l:00 a.m.; 1800 = 6:00 p.m., etc.