National Wildfire Coordinating Group

NWCG Standards for Communications Unit Operations in Response to COVID-19

2 radio technicians working on cloning radios.NWCG Standards for Communications Unit Operations in Response to the Coronavirus Disease (COVID-19) were developed by the NWCG Equipment and Technology Committee (ETC). These standards are directed to all interagency Incident Management Teams (IMTs), Logistics Section Chiefs, and contractors. These standards are intended to ensure safe and effective national interagency wildland fire operations during national coronavirus response efforts.

These standards were issued via NWCG Memorandum 20-007, NWCG Standards for Communications Unit Operations in Response to the Coronavirus Disease (COVID-19).  They may be updated as appropriate and necessary to respond to evolving situations and work conditions.

Communications Unit Pre-Order

The Logistics Section Chief (LSC) and/or Communications Unit Leader (COML) should review and update the Incident Management Team’s (IMT) pre- order (or mobilization order) with the resources listed below that are based on the incident situation to accommodate minimum COVID-19 social-distancing requirements:

Minimum Incident Support Personnel:

  • (1) COML
  • (1) Incident Communications Center Manager (INCM)
  • (2) Incident Communications Technician (COMT)
  • (2) Radio Operator (RADO)

COMT and RADO staffing should be evaluated and increased as fire complexity increases.

Communication Trailers, Yurts, or Rooms:

  • (1) communications trailer and (1) yurt; or
  • (2) yurts (one for radio operations and one for COML/COMTs); or
  • (2) rooms (one for radio operations and one for COML/COMTs).

Note: RADOs cannot work off site due to the interactions with IMT, especially Medical and Safety Officers during an incident within an incident (IWI).

Rooms should be large enough to accommodate a sufficient number of workstations spaced at least six feet apart.Ensure controlled entry.

NFES #4390 – Starter System

Network in a Box (NIB):

Order an NIB if needed to support data infrastructure and remote connectivity to spike camps and other remote locations.

  • Equipment includes:
    • (12) Network Switches (one to support each network segment)
    • (6) Wireless Access Points
    • (1) Long Range Radio Kit with 4 receiver kits
  • Network Connectivity – If available at incident or each location:
    • T1, DSL, Cable Modem availability
    • Satellite Systems
      • 1 Type 1 configuration (10 x 5 Data Plan minimum)
      • (2) Type 3 configurations (spike camps with 5 x 2 Data Plan each, minimum)
  • (15) Voice-Over IP (VOIP) telephone lines [(20) handsets provided with VOIP service]
  • (5) Landline (POTS) to support FAX lines (if not supported by NIB)
  • Video conferencing solution to support remote briefings (TBD)
  • Unified Wireless Network for Incident Command Post (ICP) and spike camps
  • Network segmented for independent security and bandwidth management (Finance, Publication Information, GIS, etc.)

Cellular Support from AT&T (FIRSTNET) and/or Verizon Wireless (VZW) Satellite Service (as needed)

Operational Best Practices

Communications Units must follow the recommended equipment disinfecting procedures provided by NIFC for all radio equipment being assigned or deployed at an incident, to include  any equipment being returned to the cache.

  • Distribution of communications equipment should follow current COVID-19 protocols.
    • All personnel should wear personal protective equipment (PPE) as recommended by the CDC while handling and issuing radio equipment.
    • COML and INCM should ensure an appropriate and adequate quantity of COVID-19 related PPE for unit’s personnel.
      • Cleaning wipes or suitable disinfectant solution, gloves, and hand sanitizer
      • Plexiglass shields or individual face shields are suggested at cloning or radio issuing areas (for indoor work areas)
  • The date each kit is sealed must be written on the external kit container (box) in the provided bumper-type sticker or on a note or comment on the shipping label.  Both are preferred due to the importance of the date in protecting personnel managing returned kits.

The Communications Unit should update plans and actions as needed for safe and effective performance of duties in a COVID-19 environment. All Communication Unit personnel should be included in plans and action (including remote camp and/or alternate work locations).

  • The following functions should be on site at the incident [in ICP, spike camps, and at all remote (or alternate) work locations] and must follow the COVID-19 Daily Screening Checks:
    • COML, INCM, Incident Tech Support Specialist (ITSS), COMT, and RADO,
  • Communication support vendors should follow the IMT COVID-19 action plan:
    • Telephone, cellular, and satellite vendors should follow all guidelines and IMT procedures when deployed to an incident or while working on IMT-managed locations.
    • Once set up and configured, support staff can be remotely located off site.
  • Personnel – Incoming communications personnel should receive incident-specific training on COVID-19 protocols.

Daily Temperature Checks and Symptom Monitoring:

All personnel on duty will follow the COVID-19 mitigation procedures and guidance implemented by the IMT.

Radio Operations:

  • The person using the radio equipment should disinfect the radio equipment periodically throughout the day and when changing shifts.
  • The communications facility should be limited to essential personnel only to promote the module-as-one concept.
  • Personnel outside the Communications Unit (other module/s) should wear a face covering when entering the Communication Unit location.
  • Communications equipment and common surfaces should be disinfected a minimum of three times during daylight hours and twice in dark hours. The disinfecting efforts should be reported in the unit’s daily Activity Log (ICS 214).
  • Information can be shared with other units/modules via voice (telephone or radio) to minimize personal contact.  The exception is during an IWI when additional IMT personnel gather at Communications (face coverings will be worn).
  • COML may allow personnel to eat at workstations to meet COVID-19 requirements.

Network Deployment and Management:

  • COML and ITSS should determine the best solution for network configuration and equipment based on the current incident situation.
  • IMTs should provide network capabilities to meet incident requirements as quickly as possible using resources available at the location.
  • An NIB may be used for enhanced network capabilities and functionality both on site at remote locations (spike camps, staging areas, etc.). Note: This practice will identify the minimum requirements to reduce the IT equipment that will be replaced upon transitions with other IMTs.
  • The COML and ITSS should provide network connectivity to remote IMT personnel working virtually or in remote locations.

PACE Plan:

IMTs may implement the following Primary, Alternate, Contingency, Emergency (PACE) plan for both voice and data communications.

  • Voice Communications:
    • Primary for Operations:  VHF Radio [Command (CMD) Net]
    • Alternate for Operations:  landline telephone / VOIP / cellular voice
    • Contingency for Operations:  satellite phones
    • Emergency for Operations:  any communication method/equipment that works for the situation
  • Data Communications:
    • Primary:  local telephone or internet service provider (ISP). Network topology and capacity dependent on location of the incident.
    • Alternate:  cellular data service (AT&T / VZW)
    • Contingency:  satellite systems
    • Emergency:  any communication method/equipment that works for the situation

Radio Cloning Procedures:

The following cloning procedure can provide efficient radio information to modules outside the communication unit (including spike camps and other remote locations with groups of people):

  • COML/COMT provides radio code plug/clone to be shared
  • COML/COMT establishes a cloning procedure based on equipment and location for the cloning activities; activities will be recorded on Activity Log (ICS 214).
    • COMT should establish disinfecting areas for radio users.
    • At operational briefings, COML/LSC should brief radio users that one representative from each module should be cloned by Communications Unit, then subsequently share the radio code plug/program with the module.
    • Cloning procedure:
      1. COMT puts on gloves and face covering.
      2. COMT clones radio (COMT is only person that handles cloning cable and cloner).
      3. COMT wipes down customer radio with appropriate disinfecting solution or wipes and returns the radio.
      4. COMT wipes down cloner, cable, and gloves.
      5. Move on to the next radio.
    • Module representatives, single resources, and cooperators will maintain social distancing as they line up for service.
    • As practical, cloning areas should be set up outdoors in well-ventilated areas with enough space for social distancing.

Cache Radio Assignment:

  • COMT should establish the process to initially assign radios from a newly opened kit. Once the cache box is opened, it should be considered contaminated and disinfected daily.
  • Handle kit radios as contaminated. When a kit radio is cloned: perform radio disinfection procedures.
  • When radios are returned, they should be disinfected (using the same procedure as cloning) and returned to the kit.
  • COMT should establish a list of equipment to be sent back to cache. Record the date the kit is sealed on the kit external sticker or on the outside of kit container.

Vendor-Assigned Communications Equipment:

COMT/ITSS should establish a process to assign, disinfect, and transfer incident equipment, including decontamination procedures to return equipment.

Battery Process:

  • Radio batteries (AA) should be distributed by the Supply Unit – all other batteries can be located and managed by the Communications Unit.
  • Batteries may be disposed of by the user.
  • COML should work with Supply Unit Leader (SPUL) to establish battery recycle process and disposal containers/locations.

Communication Repeater Deployment:

The COML/COMT should identify the best practice to deploy resources (equipment and personnel) based on incident priorities.

  • Radio kits should be treated as if they are contaminated.
  • COMT should not work alone when traveling to and from a repeater site; personnel from the unit should be used, if possible.
  • Air transport (helicopter) of equipment and/or personnel should be coordinated and approved by Air Operations Branch Director (AOBD).
  • All radio kit equipment returned should be disinfected by the user (or COMT).
  • All communication kits should be sealed by COMT (or designee) and waybill provided for shipment.


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