The importance of radio discipline
Know what’s important to say right now, what can wait until later and what doesn’t need to be said at all
Radio discipline on officer down calls is a topic covered in Police1's "Officer Down! A Police1 Survival Guide." Click here to download this essential resource.
Recordings of police radio traffic from several recent active shooter events allow us to evaluate how communication can break down in a stressful situation. While life-threatening situations like these demand clear and effective communication, the incredible stress of these events almost always has a negative effect on radio discipline and information sharing.
When heartbeats and adrenaline spike as a result of danger, normal radio discipline can break down as officers commit errors like these:
- Failing to wait for a clear frequency before transmitting, thereby blocking others;
- Failing to key the microphone – and wait for a suitable delay – prior to speaking, resulting in a clipped message;
- Releasing the microphone button too early, before the message is complete, resulting in a clipped message;
- Talking on the radio in a voice that lacks clarity, control and composure, making the message unintelligible;
- Keying the microphone by accident, thereby blocking the frequency;
- Hogging precious airtime with messages that lack brevity;
- Failing to identify who you are, or who you’re speaking to;
- Wasting precious airtime with unimportant communications;
- Failing to provide appropriate or necessary details, such as your location;
- Failing to listen to what others are saying, and missing important pieces of information.
It’s bad enough when one officer commits these sins, but when an entire group of them does, it can completely disable the frequency, making it utterly useless.
In order to preserve the capability for effective two-way radio communications, officers should consider and respect the following principles:
1. Listen before you talk
It’s important for you to understand what’s happening before you key the mic, and that begins with listening. If you follow the conversation closely, some of the questions you have will be answered, and you’ll gather critical information that will enhance your understanding of the situation. If you listen to the conversation for a while, you’ll start to develop a feel for the ebb and flow of communications between multiple parties, and will become a better judge of when it’s appropriate for you to jump in. The last thing you want to do is barge in at an inopportune moment, and either block or interrupt a critical communication because you lacked situational awareness.
2. Think before you talk
Some people key the mic, then waste a bunch of airtime as they try to organize and compose their thoughts in a rambling message. Don’t be this person! Think about what you’re going to say, and how you’re going to say it, before you key the mic. Brevity and accuracy are key elements of effective radio communications, so plan before you key that mic.
3. Take a breath
Before you key the mic, take a deep breath and get it together. A hysterical, high-pitched, unintelligible transmission isn’t going to help anyone. Take a breath, calm down, then speak clearly. You can get a lot more help if people understand what you’re saying.
4. Make sure it’s important
Some people just feel the need to talk, even though they don’t have anything helpful to contribute. Others like to make superfluous, routine, administrative calls on frequencies that are already overburdened with more important discussions. This kind of chatter is the cholesterol that will plug up the communication artery and kill the system.
As a police officer, it’s essential you practice “information triage” and figure out what’s important to say right now, what can wait until later and what doesn’t need to be said at all.
For example, if an active shooter situation has kicked off, administrative niceties like “en route” or “on scene” reports are no longer important, so don’t garbage up the frequency with them. Heck, EVERYBODY is on the way, and nobody needs to hear a million “me too” calls block critical traffic. Similarly, nobody needs a play-by-play call of every victim that has an injury in the early stages of an attack – it’s understood that any active shooter event will generate a lot of “walking wounded,” and you don’t need to broadcast the coordinates, injuries and status of each one, while an entry team needs the frequency clear for tactical communications. Know what the priorities are, and what can wait until later.
5. Be aware
You need to have the situational awareness to understand where you fit into the big picture, and not make things worse. If the radio is blowing up with an active shooter situation, is this really a good time for you to initiate and call in a discretionary traffic stop? Or even a stolen vehicle pursuit? If an entry team just went inside after the shooter, is it really important for you to report that you’re shutting down an intersection six blocks away? Figure out who needs the radio the most, and let them have the frequency. Don’t put unnecessary strain on a system that is already overstressed. Prioritize!
6. Eliminate redundancies
Listen up and pay attention so you don’t waste precious airtime with repeat information or requests. The SWAT team or EMS only needs to be requested once – another 10 requests won’t get them there any faster. If you’re late to the party, don’t jam the frequency with a repeat request for a suspect description when there are already two-dozen units on scene looking for him. You can get that info – if you still need it – when you arrive on scene.
7. Include important details
Ensure you include locations, descriptions, direction of travel, weapons observed and other essential elements of information that your fellow officers need to know. “Shots fired” is important, but not helpful if nobody knows where you are. “One down” is important, but missing critical details – one of us, or one of them? The military guideline for a report is SALUTE: Size, Activity, Location, Unit Identification, Time and Equipment. These are the kinds of details that responding officers need to know, so report them if known.
8. Unity of command
An incident scene needs a single commander to take charge. When a handful of officers start issuing orders at the same time, it can lead to confusion and a lack of coordination and efficiency. One voice needs to reign supreme on the radio. If nobody is taking charge, then the first officer who is not needed for an entry team needs to assume command, and hold until relieved.
9. Give specific assignments
Blind requests and orders for “somebody” to do something usually go unfulfilled. Cops tend to be self-directing, and there’s a strong tendency for them to assume that “somebody” means “somebody else” other than them, because they already have a different plan in motion. If a job is important, it needs to be assigned to a specific person or team. If necessary, have dispatch assign the task to a particular unit. A hint: If you’re late to the party, these jobs are probably yours to do.
10. Be a filter
In the early stages of an emergency, there will be a lot of incomplete, incorrect, and conflicting information, especially from witnesses. Instead of simply regurgitating everything you’ve been told, take some action to investigate and verify the information if you can, or at least run it through your “cop filter” to see if it makes sense before you repeat it on the radio. A hysterical witness can be counted on to get the details wrong, so use some discretion and judgment before you throw bad information out over the radio.
11. Turn it off
Nobody can hear you talk if there’s a half dozen sirens going off in the background. Secure these when you arrive on scene to preserve your communication lifeline.
12. Respect the dispatcher
The dispatcher can make or break a situation. Give them the information they need, and don’t burden them with unnecessary or untimely requests, or swamp them with unnecessary information. If your traffic isn’t critical, give them the right of way on the radio. When things get hairy, let them direct the traffic and exert some control over the chaos on the frequency. Most important, listen to them. Don’t make them repeat something because you weren’t paying attention the first time.
Be a professional
I once had a copilot remark that he “could tell” a fellow pilot was a professional by the way he handled himself in our preflight briefing. My response to him was, “We’ll know if you’re right or wrong when we hear him on the radio.”
Emergencies have a way of degrading performance, but a real professional can be relied upon to keep it together on the radio when things are going south. When things are at their worst is when we need a clear communication channel the most, so make sure you’re professional when the mic is in your hand.
God bless you all and be safe out there.