Life as a Radio Operator in the Communications Unit

landscape, person, trees
Virginia McDaniel on Forked Mountain in the Ouachita Mountains in Arkansas. Photo by Brian Frisby.

Communications, Taskforce Leader Peterson,” blurts the radio.

“Communications, go ahead Taskforce Leader Peterson,” I say.

I would like to report a vehicle rollover on Highway 73. Please clear the airway for emergency traffic only.”

The Communications Unit bursts into action. Someone alerts critical members of Type 1 Incident Command Team that we have an Incident Within an Incident (IWI) – any emergency that happens during the main incident, which is the wildfire.

The USDA Forest Service addresses wildfires and other major natural disasters with the Incident Command System — a flexible framework that makes it possible for multiple federal and state agencies to work together, along with volunteers and private organizations. The largest and most complex incidents use a Type 1 Incident Command Team whereas smaller ones use Type 2 or 3 Teams.

Within minutes the Medical Leader and Safety Officer arrive in the “radio room” of the Communications trailer. The wildfire’s Incident Commander and others stand by listening.

Communications Unit personnel write notes on the location and nature of the IWI, patient care, and how patients will be transported to the hospital. Other communications personnel jot down the information they hear on the radio. Soon, ambulances are on their way. The patients are in stable condition.

This IWI went very smoothly, with clear communications and patients on the way to the hospital in under an hour. A successful IWI is all about getting the information to right people (e.g., information about the patient gets to the Medical Leader; Fireline medical personnel know the location of the IWI) and making sure the patient is packaged up and loaded in an ambulance or helicopter. At this point we open regular communications back up, and the day goes on.

In a larger incident, such as the Archie Creek Wildfire in Oregon, the Communications Unit is made up of four positions: Radio Operator (RADO), Incident Communications Center Manager, Incident Communications Technician, and Communication Unit Leader. On large incidents there can be up to 12 – 14 people in the Unit including 6 RADOs if there is 24 hour coverage. On smaller incidents, a RADO may be called up as a single resource to sit on a mountain top to act as a human repeater between areas that have bad radio coverage, as was my role on the Forked Mountain Wildfire.

The job of the RADO is to monitor radio traffic day and night and relay information between the firefighters on the fireline and the Incident Command Post – especially in the case of emergencies. The Communications Unit is a critical component of firefighter safety. Communications is one of the LCES, or Lookouts, Communication, Escape Routes and Safety Zones. Without these elements in place, firefighters are not supposed to build firelines, extinguish flames, or engage with the fire in any other way.

McDaniel was a RADO during the Forked Mountain Fire, and served as a ‘human repeater’ – she helped relay radio communications in an area with poor coverage. USFS photo by Virginia McDaniel.

I have been a Radio Operator on four incidents over the last four years. Life as a RADO is not always thrilling. While there is usually a flurry of radio traffic in the morning when crews are headed out to the fireline and in the evening when they report back to camp, radio traffic is sparse during the day. There are occasional supply orders that require a General Message be sent to Supply or Ground Transport.

RADOs are also in charge of checking in and out Bendix King radios, cloning radios, and signing people’s de-mobilization sheets. But in truth the hours can be long, and even longer if you are on nightshift. Compared to what could be happening, however, slow and steady in the Communications world is a good thing.

Going out on a large wildfire requires a completely different pace and skillset than my regular job of collecting fuel and vegetation data – although that often relates to fire – and telling people about it through presentations and articles. During both, however, I am part of something bigger than myself and trying to contribute to what the first leader of the Forest Service, Gifford Pinchot, would call the greater good.

Editors’ Note: Virginia McDaniel is an SRS forestry technician who conducts research in the Ouachita Mountains of Arkansas. She also serves as a fire effects monitor, squad boss, and Type 3 burn boss during wildfires and prescribed burns in Arkansas and across the country. McDaniel is on the board of the Arkansas Native Plant Society and has written about native plants and pollinators, in addition to many scholarly works.

Learn more about McDaniel’s research on wildfire in the Ouachita Mountains. 

For more information, email Virginia McDaniel at virginia.l.mcdaniel@usda.gov.

Access the latest publications by SRS scientists. 

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