Have you ever been in a meeting or a presentation and suddenly people start talking all at once? This can be very confusing, distracting, and difficult to interpret if you are trying to focus on a job or a conversation. Now, imagine this happening over a closed loop radio. It makes message interpretation almost impossible. The implications for safety are vast, especially if a misinterpreted message is acted upon. Many avoidable accidents have happened because of misinterpreted messages over handheld radios. In this article, we'll look at a series of protocols designed to help hand held radio users communicate efficiently and effectively.

Radio Certification

Whether you are a first time radio user or a seasoned veteran, the following information may help you in becoming a safer and more effective worker with a handheld radio. In many parts of the U.S.A and in Canada radio certification is required for some jobs, especially if you are using the radio as part of an air-to-ground communications platform. These types of jobs may include situations in which you communicate with helicopters or planes in wildfire fighting, or military field operations. This article may not provide you with the certification, but it will help you get prepped to ace a course in radio communications. (For more on safety training options, see Safety Training Eating Up Your Budget?)

Channels for Communication

First, you should get to know the various different types of radios. There are walkie-talkie radios, hand-held radios and other types, so do a little research on the various models and find one that suits your style and needs the best. All radios have various channel options, so you can talk on an alternate channel if one of the channels is in use by another party. This is a critical feature, but it is also one that can make communication confusing.

Many people will continue to talk without ever receiving a reply, and chances are good that a non-reply is due to being on the wrong channel. It is always important to identify your preferred channel with your co-workers so you are able to communicate. It may also be necessary to identify some back-up channels in case unrelated users happen on the same channel or there are too many crews on a single channel to effectively communicate.

In the latter case, zones or regions can be assigned to the worksite and given a specific channel, with all of the channels being centrally monitored to ensure no messages that affect the entire job site are missed due to segregated communication. Changing the channel is as easy as rotating a little switch where the channels are denoted by numbers, so you can easily tell what channel you are on. (Radio communication is only one part of safety during road construction, learn more in Top 10 Safety Tips for Heavy Equipment Operators.)

Protocols for Radio Communication

Once you have figured our your preferred channel, you are ready to send and receive messages. Since many worksites often have more than one worker on a channel, it is important to exercise restraint on having long, drawn-out conversations. "Coffee talk" should be done in person, rather than over the radio. Here are some basic protocol principles for exercising good radio practices:

  • Do not talk over someone else. That means if you hear someone talking, wait until you hear them stop before chiming in.
  • Only respond to a call that is for you. Often people will call using a CallSign. For example, they will report by saying, "RJ to Kris, are you by?" A standard answer would be, "Kris here, go ahead." The idea is that the call has been acknowledged and the message is waiting to be received
  • Be aware that others could listen in. Since many radio channels are open to the public and monitored via scanners and other devices, it is important to never give out confidential or private information since this information can be easily received by third parties.
  • Always check your battery to ensure a good level of energy, and always carry a backup battery. If there is an emergency and your battery has died, it could make the difference between life and death for your co-worker, so always keep a good battery on hand.
  • Check in on a regular schedule. Check in with your co-workers every hour or couple of hours to ensure work is going safe, and the radios are in good working order.
  • Get to know the short language of radio communications. Clarity, simplicity and brevity are the core rules for the language of radio communication. Though some sites have there own language evolved in their industry or particular company, most share a common base. For example, using "over" to tell the listener you are done speaking, "copy" to say you understand, "say again" to get the speaker to repeat and "break, break, break" to silence all conversation on the channel for an emergency.

Safety Thrives on Clear Communication

Radio communication can make communication within a large job site a breeze as it closes the physical gaps and can keep information flowing. On any job site, you want to familiarize yourself with the channel or channels your company uses, make sure your equipment is in working order with back up power, and put in a little extra effort to learn some of the radio language that helps with clarity, simplicity and brevity. Clear communication over radio makes for a safer job site as long as people approach it with respect and don't clog the channel with unnecessary chatter. (For related reading, check out Improving Communication and Response Time.)