This post originally appeared on 13 November 2018. I was contacted by the RFS and advised that the archived Air Operations Manual (2003) that I quoted has been replaced with NSW and ACT Aviation Standard Operating Procedures. You can access a copy of those Standard Operating Procedures here.
The RFS also made comment on matters raised. The RFS response is below.
Following the RFS response is my edited post. I have left the original text but deleted out of date material with
strikethrough text. I have done this to keep the historical version and to allow readers to see if and how my position has changed. I want to assure readers that I am giving my opinions. Whilst I want my opinion to reflect current practice, if I simply rewrote this post in response to the RFS information there may be a perception or suggestion that I had changed conclusions to suit the RFS. By retaining the original text people can see what I wrote before, and after, the RFS response and form their own view on any changes. I might add that the RFS material does not significantly change my original conclusions.
The RFS requires aircraft involved in aerial firefighting to be equipped with RFS agency radios. They also require the aircraft to be able to communicate with the ground crews using either RFS agency radios or airband radio. How communication with aircraft is to be managed will vary with each fire and available resources.
There is nothing in the Civil Aviation Safety regulations that says it is illegal to install non-airband radios in aircraft or for pilots to communicate with ground commanders using non-airband radios. There are obligations on pilots to maintain communication, using airband radio, with other aircraft in their vicinity and air traffic control within controlled airspace.
The RFS requirements do not necessarily, and cannot, compel a pilot to operate an aircraft contrary to aviation regulations or in a way that poses a threat to aircraft safety. It may be that a proposed communication plan for a particular fire might create a conflict between the RFS operational requirements and aviation regulations – eg if a pilot could not listen to both aviation and RFS radio at the same time. Whether the RFS requirements would cause a breach of the aviation regulations is what we lawyers would call a question of fact – that is it can’t be identified from reading the regulations and the RFS SOPs. Rather it will depend on the communication plan at that fire, the capacity of a particular aircraft etc.
Where a pilot considers that he or she cannot safely operate if he or she follows the RFS communication plan for that fire then he or she must raise that with the IMT/State Air Desk/Air Attack Supervisor and may, ultimately, decline to fly as part of the RFS response if the safety concerns cannot be addressed to the pilot’s satisfaction.
The RFS position
In response to my initial post the RFS contacted me. Their representative provided this response.
The current Inter Agency Aviation SOPs is attached. Procedure 5.5 relates to communication and states:
This SOP details the requirements that should be adhered to by aircrew and Agency personnel to safely coordinate and communicate during Agency operations.
Ø CASA requires all Agency personnel operating VHF air band radios to be qualified in their operation.
Ø It is essential that incidents have a suitable communications plan in place to ensure effective mission tasking and flight following operations.
Ø The pilot of the aircraft shall at all times have first call on the communications systems within the aircraft. The pilot is in command of the aircraft, and the use of communications equipment within the aircraft should be with the approval of the pilot at all times.
Ø The use of the words “Mayday Mayday Mayday” or “Pan Pan, Pan Pan, Pan Pan” shall indicate to all other users that a life threatening emergency exists or is likely to develop. All other communication shall cease until the situation is managed and life is protected. Other users may be requested to provide communications to assist with the emergency. All other users shall maintain a listening watch only.
Communications with the Fire Ground
Ø The AAS should establish and maintain communications with appropriate ground crews for the duration of the operation.
Ø Communications from the fire ground should always be directed to the AAS unless bombing aircraft are allocated in direct support of ground operations.
Ø Communications between bombing aircraft and the incident ground may occur when an aircraft is tasked in direct support of ground crews and the AAS has handed control of that aircraft to the ground crews for the duration of that task.
In relation to the requirement to have Agency radios in tactical aircraft I [that is the RFS representative that wrote to me] checked with the RFS aviation team who tell me that:
- This is consistent with requirements of all other States, Territories, and Jurisdictions that engage aerial firefighting aircraft
- This is consistent with requirements of the National Aerial Firefighting Centre (NAFC) – its included in its contractual arrangements
- The requirements for Agency Radios in aircraft have also been the subject of discussion in Industry Reference Group meetings with the Australian Helicopter Industry Association (AHIA) and the Aerial Application Association of Australia (AAAA). Both the AHIA and the AAAA support the requirement for Agency radios in aircraft contracted for aerial firefighting purposes. Notwithstanding this, it was also noted that the pilot in command always retains the ability to temporarily turn off Agency radios to focus on other priorities during periods of high workload in the cockpit.
- Agency radios in tactical aircraft is a common practice across many Emergency Services including Police, Ambulance and Surf Lifesaving.
- Many tactical aircraft have mobile phones connected into the aircraft avionics system. It is hard to imagine much difference between a pilot taking a phone call in relation to a tasking whilst they are flying and talking on an Agency radio.
Communications between the NSW RFS and tactical aircraft:
- The NSW RFS has been allocated a number of airband frequencies for the purpose of aerial firefighting operations.
- The airband frequencies are allocated to assist with air to air communications and on occasion air to ground communications.
- Where possible, the NSW RFS will allocate a qualified Aviation Radio Operator (ARO) to undertake flight following for tactical aircraft assigned to an incident.
- Where there are 3 or more aircraft, a dedicated Air Attack Supervisor (AAS) may be tasked to oversee the integration of air operations with ground crews consistent with the Incident Controllers intent. The AAS may coordinate flight following.
- Flight following may occur on an airband frequency or on a RFS tactical radio channel
- To meet CASA Regulations, the NSW RFS has sought an exemption to allow personnel who have completed an ARO training course to communicate over the VHF airband frequencies. This does not mean they must communicate over the airband radio, it simply means they have an exemption to do so if air to air or air to ground communications for an incident is determined to be best achieved via an airband frequency in accordance with the incident communications plan.
- Often an aerial firefighitng aircraft is supporting ground crews at an incident that neither have access to an airband radio nor have approval to transmit on one. It is however vitally important that the aerial firefighting resources are in contact with ground crews for the following reasons:
- It is vital to the safety of the ground crew that they are aware of where aircraft are operating overhead an incident
- It is also important that the aerial firefighting effort is complimenting the strategy and tactics determined by the Incident Controller on the ground
- There have been occasions where aircraft are working directly against ground crews by bombing back burns or areas the Incident Controller is trying to let burn out
The relevant combat agency is responsible for the management of the incident ground. Whilst a pilot fly the aircraft in a manner that complies with the relevant aviation regulations they must also ensure that their aerial firefighting activities are undertaken with the approval of the Incident Controller in a way that is consistent with the IC’s strategy and tactics.
Aerial firefighting assets not communicating with incident management personnel on an agency radio and working independently to ground crews represent a significant safety risk to those ground crews and where their actions are not consistent with the IC’s intent and strategy they it may also lead to a significant waste of public money given the costs associated with aerial firefighting assets.
The original post (edited to take into account the RFS SOPs and advice)
I have been asked to comment on a requirement by the NSW Rural Fire Service that aircraft contracted for aerial firefighting have installed, and listen to, RFS radios as well as the normal airband radios required by the Civil Aviation Safety Authority (CASA). This is of particular concern where the aircraft is operated by single pilot without the assistance of an Air Observer (that is ‘An experienced fire officer qualified in the airborne observation, analysis and reporting of fire behaviour). My correspondent asks whether the installation and use of RFS radio is inconsistent with the Civil Aviation Regulations?
As Smith and Middleton say, the ‘issues concerning aerial firefighting in Australia are complex…’ I am not an expert in aviation law nor the technical details of aerial firefighting or radio technology. I have been provided with some documents which I refer to. The documents I have been given are:
- A copy of the article by Phil Hurst, ‘Human Factors – mandatory for bureaucrats? (2009) Australian Aviation 78.
- Rural Fire Service SOP 5.1.3-1 Mobile Radio Equipment (v 3.0, 17 June 2013).
- Authorisation issued by PS Langford, Director Transport Australia allowing ‘aerial firefighting operations in accordance with the conditions and parameters approved for the conduct of aerial agricultural operations.’ This document (reference 74/775) is undated but there is a handwritten note that says ‘1982’. I assume it was issued in 1982.
- Peter Smith and Jason Middleton, Aerial Firefighting in Australia: The administrative framework Journal Article with unknown publication status.
Australian Communications and Media Authority
The Australian Communications and Media Authority (ACMA) is responsible for licensing radio equipment and allocating frequency. The ACMA website says that aircraft are licensed ‘to authorise radiocommunications equipment operating on board’ an aircraft. The terms of the licence are technical but I understand that it allows a radio on an aircraft provided it is operating at prescribed frequencies in particular, 118 MHz to 137 MHz.
Section 7 provides that a radio operator must be ‘qualified to operate the station in accordance with the Civil Aviation Act 1988 or any civil aviation instrument’.
Section 9 allows an operator to use the aviation radio to communicate with other aircraft, an ‘aeronautical station’ (eg an airport air traffic control facility) or an ‘aeronautical mobile station’ (eg a forward command post equipped with airband radio). The licence provides that the frequency for firefighting operations is 119.1MHz.
One might infer that this means that any other radio is not permitted, but that does not appear to be the intention. To return to the ACMA website it says:
Aircraft usage of other radiocommunications services such as fixed, land mobile, maritime mobile and outpost radio is no longer covered under an aircraft licence. If aircraft stations wish to use other than aeronautical or aeronautical-mobile satellite frequencies, a separate licence for the required service is needed.
In other words, the use of other radios is not prohibited, it is just not authorised by the aircraft licence. If the aircraft is fitted with RFS radios, that would need to be consistent with terms and conditions of the RFS licence. Given that RFS vehicles are fitted with RFS radios I will infer that it is consistent with the licence to fit a radio to an aircraft.
Civil Aviation Safety Authority
Part 8 of the Civil Aviation Regulations 1988 (Cth) deals with radiocommunications equipment in aircraft. Regulation 82(1) says:
An Australian aircraft … as CASA directs, shall be equipped with such radiocommunication systems as CASA approves to ensure the safety of air navigation.
That means that an aircraft must be equipped with approved radiocommunication equipment, but it does not say the aircraft “shall only be equipped with such radiocommunication systems…”
Regulation 83(1) says:
A person commits an offence if:
(a) the person transmits on a radio frequency of a kind used for the purpose of ensuring the safety of air navigation; and
(b) the person is not qualified to transmit on the radio frequency.
CASA has issued some exemptions from this regulation for the purposes of firefighting. A ‘member of staff’ of the RFS is exempt from regulation 83(1) provided the member has completed RFS aviation radiotelecommunications training. Clause 4 of the exemption says:
(c) The member or staff must only use the aviation bandwidth VHF AM frequencies allocated to the NSW RFS by Airservices Australia and the Australian Communications and Media Authority for use during firefighting activities;
(d) the member or staff must only use the allocated aviation bandwidth VHF AM frequencies for tactical aircraft-to-aircraft and air-to-ground communications when undertaking firefighting operations.
The application of cl 4(c) and (d) is ambiguous.
- On one view they mean that the communication must be on aviation bandwidth, and only on aviation bandwidth.
- On the other hand, because it is an exemption from r 83 they are only relevant when using ‘a radio frequency of a kind used for the purpose of ensuring the safety of air navigation’. On that interpretation, the requirement to use ‘only use the aviation bandwidth VHF AM frequencies allocated to the NSW RFS’ or to ‘only use the allocated aviation bandwidth VHF AM frequencies for tactical aircraft-to-aircraft and air-to-ground communications when undertaking firefighting operations’ means that the operator can use only those and no other airband frequencies but it says nothing about using other radios and non-airband frequencies.
I would infer the second interpretation is the relevant interpretation. The exemption allows an RFS radio operator to use 119.1MHz and such other frequencies that have been allocated to the RFS, but no other frequencies within the range 118 MHz to 137 MHz. It says nothing about the use of agency radios.
RFS Air Operations Manual Regulation 215 of the Civil Aviation Regulation 1988 (Cth) says:
An operator shall provide an operations manual for the use and guidance of the operations personnel of the operator.
The operator must ensure that the operations manual contains such information, procedures and instructions with respect to the flight operations of all types of aircraft operated by the operator as are necessary to ensure the safe conduct of the flight operations (other than information, procedures or instructions that are set out in other documents required to be carried in the aircraft in pursuance of these Regulations). Smith and Middleton say:
NSW Acts and legislation concerning rural fire mitigation do not appear to mention aviation specifically, so the question of conflict between state and federal acts and legislation remains ambiguous. NSW RFS documentation makes scant reference to CASA accreditation for any of its aerial firefighting participant roles (except pilots). NSW RFS does not appear to have an AOC, a Chief Pilot or CASA approved Operations Manual, yet the NSW RFS Air Operations Manual and Cockpit Handbook give guidance as to control and operation of aircraft. Questions emerge over possible anomalies between Commonwealth and State regulations and guidelines as follows: … What is the status of authority of NSW RFS manuals (Air Operations Manual and Cockpit Handbook)?  It’s not clear when the Smith and Middleton document was written and I’m not sure if the “NSW RFS Air Operations Manual and Cockpit Handbook” still exist. There is, however, an archived (2003) version available from the National Library of Australia.  This document is an RFS internal document and does not purport to be an ‘operations manual’ within the meaning of the Civil Aviation Regulation 1988 (Cth). The Air Operations Manual says this about radio communications (emphasis in original):
Aviation operations will utilise a variety of communications means including the Strategic Network, GRN and PMR networks, Agency networks, Fire Ground radio and dedicated VHF Air band frequencies. 
All aircraft hired by NSW Rural Fire Service are required to be equipped with at least one air band radio. Contracted aircraft will also have a NSW Rural Fire Service GRN/PMR radio. Increasing numbers of casual operators are fitting NSW Rural Fire Service radios…
Aviation communications shall not be used to direct how a pilot operates the aircraft. The pilot is at all times in command of the aircraft.
The area of operation will determine the VHF Air band frequencies used. Districts and IMTs must contact State Operations for frequency assignment. A copy of NSW Rural Fire Service Aeronautical Frequencies is enclosed at Appendix 1.
The pilot of the aircraft will at all times have first call on the communications systems within the aircraft. The pilot is by law, in command of the aircraft at all times and the use of communications equipment within the aircraft shall be with the approval of the pilot at all times.
The normal users of aviation communications will be Pilots, Air Attack Supervisors, Air Observers, Aircraft Officers and Air Base Managers and support staff at an air base.
Operation of aviation communication systems shall at all times comply with the requirements of CASA regulation and orders. 
Contract aircraft are fitted with NSW Rural Fire Service and Agency radios. 
A variety of communications means will be utilised to ensure the safety and efficiency of fire detection flights:
– Strategic Network. The Strategic network will be the primary means of NSW Rural Fire Service communications with aircraft. (As a consequence aircraft which have this means available will be preferred). Air observers will be responsible for identification and selection of the most suitable channel. In some circumstances, aircraft operating in one region would access the strategic network of a neighbouring region.
– District PMR channels. In some circumstances, it may be necessary to access district channels to ensure continuity of communications.
– GRN network. Within the GRN footprint, (as extended by the height of the aircraft), communications can be achieved on NSW Rural Fire Service operations channels.
– Aviation VHF/HF. The pilot will be responsible for maintenance of statutory communications.
– Mobile telephone. GSM, CDMA and satellite phones. Plans should not rely on the certainty of telephone coverage, which should only be used as a last resort.
– Use of any communications equipment must be authorised by the Pilot.
Attack aircraft will increasingly have the necessary radios to communicate with ground crews in an emergency or when aircraft are allocated in direct support of ground crews. However, communications from ground crews will normally be directed to the AAS, as it will be unusual for bombing aircraft to be listening on ground frequencies.
NSW Rural Fire Service aircrew and pilots will often be in a good position to observe fire behaviour and developing situations. Aircrew are trained to report their observations and should do so in the most efficient manner and in accordance with procedures outlined in the daily briefing. In an emergency, aircrew may communicate directly with vehicles and crews on the fireground, using any appropriate means. However, aircrew must not act as airborne fire commanders .  The RFS Air Operations Manual does not suggest that the RFS can direct a pilot to do anything that, in the pilot’s view, puts the safety of the aircraft at risk, or that RFS is acting as an air traffic controller. The RFS manual explains how the RFS will manage allocating tasks to the chartered aircraft. It does not usurp the pilot-in-commands responsibility for aircraft safety or override (as indeed it cannot) any CASA obligations.
RFS SOP 5.1.3-1 Mobile Radio Equipment
Paragraph 2.8 says:
Icom aviation band radios will be used for communicating with aircraft in both mobile and portable/handheld applications.
That implies that RFS communication with aircraft will be on airband radio and in light of the CASA and ACMA authorities that would have to be on the frequencies allocated to the RFS for that purpose.
Using any other radio (eg RFS agency radio) may be inconsistent with this direction, but that does not make it unlawful.
The general rule is that one is allowed to do anything unless the law says you can’t. You cannot find publications to say what you can do, rather you look for publications that say what you cannot do. The challenge then is to find ‘any CASA regulation, document or exemption that prohibits the use of agency radio communication systems for aircraft to aircraft or aircraft to ground communications during aerial firefighting operations.’
In my opinion, the documents and authorities discussed above, do not make it unlawful to use agency radios for air-to-air or air-to-ground communication. Arguably cl 4 of the CASA EX40/16 – Exemption — use of radiocommunication systems in firefighting operations (New South Wales Rural Fire Service) (1 March 2016) does prohibit communication other than on airband VHF but on balance I don’t think that’s the correct interpretation of that document. I think it says that an RFS radio operator may use airband radio, but only on the airband frequencies allocated to the RFS for that purpose.
My answer is that there is nothing in these documents to say it is illegal to install and use agency radios on aircraft.
Whether it is a good idea to use non-airband RFS radio on the aircraft, particularly where there is a single pilot and no air observer is another matter. Hurst notes the:
…tender that requires operators to fit and monitor five radios as well as a mobile phone while on duty – completely ignoring the research that indicates the significant contribution of human factors and especially distraction in flight safety.
The allocation of specific frequencies to the RFS and ‘for tactical aircraft-to-aircraft and air-to-ground communications when undertaking firefighting operations’ along with an exemption to allow trained RFS operators to communicate on the airband radio suggests that both ACMA and CASA have considered the issue and anticipate that communication with firefighting aircraft will be via airband radio.
The 2003 version of the RFS Air Operations Manual says that it is the role of the Air Attack Supervisor to ‘maintain air-to-ground communications and liaise with ground crews’ and ‘maintain communications with all aircraft over the fireground’.  If that is the case it is the Air Attack Supervisor and not every pilot that should be liaising with ground firefighters and the IMT. The Air Attack Supervisor can liaise with the IMT and then communicate directly with the pilots on the dedicated airband frequency.
The Aviation SOP says that where there is an Air Attack Supervisor (AAS) then:
- The AAS should establish and maintain communications with appropriate ground crews for the duration of the operation.
- Communications from the fire ground should always be directed to the AAS unless bombing aircraft are allocated in direct support of ground operations.
- Communications between bombing aircraft and the incident ground may occur when an aircraft is tasked in direct support of ground crews and the AAS has handed control of that aircraft to the ground crews for the duration of that task.
Given that ACMA has allocated frequency for aerial firefighting operations, CASA allows trained RFS operators to use that allocated airband frequency, RFS SOP 5.1.3-1 says that communication with aircraft should be on airband radios
and the 2003 Air Operations Manual says that it is the role of the Air Attack Supervisor to ‘maintain communications with all aircraft over the fireground’ ‘Communications from the fire ground should always be directed to the AAS unless bombing aircraft are allocated in direct support of ground operations’ it begs the question of why the RFS wants other radios installed, particularly if that allows people not trained in aviation communication to communicate with the aircraft in ways that are inconsistent with the published policies just listed. Even where communication is required to the ‘incident ground’ that could be done via VHF airband if there is a trained operator assigned to assist the ground commander. The Air Operations Manual (2003) explains some benefits that the RFS considers with the use of RFS radio. It allows aircraft ‘to communicate with ground crews in an emergency or when aircraft are allocated in direct support of ground crews’ and to report observations of the fireground and in ‘an emergency … communicate directly with vehicles and crews on the fireground… 
Clear communication with an aircraft is essential for air safety. Air Services Australia issues safety bulletins on the appropriate use of radios. The safety bulletin Sydney Surface Movement Radiotelephony (RTF) Congestion says (emphasis added):
… good radio etiquette can help reduce confusion and delays, and improve the overall level of safety.
The diagram [omitted here] shows, in simplified terms, the Pilot/Controller Communication loop. This loop can have many barriers introduced which affect the flow and understanding of the information. These barriers include:
- Pilot/Controller workload
- Equipment limitations
- Similar sounding callsigns
- Expectation bias
To assist in closing the communication loop, there are a range of considerations for all parties including:
- Use standard phraseology whenever possible to prevent misunderstandings
- Keep transmissions clear and concise
- Know what you want to say before transmitting
- Always listen out before broadcasting
- Don’t transmit if another aircraft is about to transmit a readback or awaiting a reply from the controller after a clearance request.
- Speak up if you think there is any possibility that a transmission has been directed to or answered by the wrong station…
It does not take much imagination to consider the burden it would put on a single pilot if he or she is required to monitor the fireground communication and to determine what communication is directed to him or her, and at that same time communicate with other aircraft and airband radio stations. Even if the pilot is asked to monitor the fire ground radio for ‘situational awareness’ whilst firefighters are instructed not to make direct contact with the pilot the radio ‘chatter’ will be ambiguous and add to pilot workload.
Whilst the airspace above the fireground is not the ground at Sydney airport it is likely to be congested and dangerous. Just as at Sydney airport, ‘good radio etiquette [is likely to] help reduce confusion and delays and improve the overall level of safety’. There will be many barriers to communication above a fireground including pilot workload, similar sounding callsigns, fatigue, expectation bias, distractions and pressure. The advice to use standard terminology, to not transmit over others etc will still be relevant but unlikely to be observed over fireground radios operated by people untrained in aircraft radio communications. Fireground radio will not have the discipline and etiquette expected of airband communication, is likely to carry with it a risk of ‘confusion and delays’ and reduce ‘the overall level of safety’.
(My original) Conclusion
Subject to all the limitations set out at the start of this post, I do not think it is unlawful for aircraft to be fitted with non-airband agency radios nor is it unlawful for the RFS to require the installation of those radios as a term of their contract with aerial firefighters.
Whether it is a good idea is another matter. Using RFS radios appears to me to be inconsistent with the intent, even though not strictly prohibited by, the:
- Radiocommunications (Aircraft and Aeronautical Mobile Stations) Class Licence 2016 (Cth);
- CASA EX40/16 – Exemption — use of radiocommunication systems in firefighting operations (New South Wales Rural Fire Service) (1 March 2016); and
- RFS SOP 5.1.3-1 Mobile Radio Equipment [2.8].
CASA, ACMA and RFS SOP 5.1.3-1 all anticipate that communication with aircraft will be via dedicated air band frequencies and only those who have completed training in the use of aviation radiocommunication systems will communicate with aircraft. The Air Operations Manual anticipates that only the Air Attack Supervisor will liaise with aircraft involved in aerial firefighting. Installing agency radios appears to be a way to increase the number of people who, with no appropriate training in aircraft communication, will be able to communicate directly with the aircraft with the necessary increase in pilot workload that must entail.
At the end of the day, however, as the
Air Operations Manual Inter Agency Aviation SOP notes, the pilot remains in command and has the final say – ‘ Use of any communications equipment must be authorised by the Pilot’. ‘The pilot is in command of the aircraft, and the use of communications equipment within the aircraft should be with the approval of the pilot at all times’. A single pilot, without the assistance of an air observer, could determine that he or she will not use the RFS radio during intense operations.
Discussion of the RFS reponse
The obligation to install RFS radios is a matter of contractual obligations. The obligations to comply with CASA requirements is a legal requirement, it follows that if there is a conflict then the pilots obligations to comply with CASA requirements will be paramount.
I do note that the RFS response says “The requirements for Agency Radios in aircraft have also been the subject of discussion in Industry Reference Group meetings with the Australian Helicopter Industry Association (AHIA) and the Aerial Application Association of Australia (AAAA).” It does not say that it has been discussed with CASA, Air Services Australia or the Australian Transport Safety Bureau (ATSB) to ensure that those agencies (or any of them) are satisfied that aviation safety is not being compromised.
The Aviation team also say ‘To meet CASA Regulations, the NSW RFS has sought an exemption to allow personnel who have completed an ARO training course to communicate over the VHF airband frequencies.’ That exemption has been granted – CASA EX40/16 – Exemption — use of radiocommunication systems in firefighting operations (New South Wales Rural Fire Service) (1 March 2016). That exemption refers to ‘staff’ of the RFS but the term staff can extend to volunteers (Miriam Webster online dictionary – “an organization staffed by volunteers”; Cambridge Online dictionary – ‘to be or provide the people who work for an organization: Many charity shops in Britain are staffed by/with volunteers.’)
There is nothing in the SOP that says pilots are being asked to monitor general fireground radio traffic. It may well be that there is a dedicated radio channel to allow the ground commander to communicate with the pilot for the purposes of coordinating the firefighting effort. It’s hard to see what difference it makes if that communication is on agency radio rather than airband other than other aircraft operating in the vicinity cannot hear the agency radio.
I do note that RFS reponse suggests that the use of non-airband radio should be limited and ‘Where possible, the NSW RFS will allocate a qualified Aviation Radio Operator (ARO) to undertake flight following for tactical aircraft assigned to an incident.’
.Conclusion – restated
The response from the RFS clarifies and updates many issues. I note that this is a blog about law. The fact that ‘everyone does it’ does not answer the question of whether installing agency radios is lawful under CASA rules. My opinion on the law is unchanged. I remain of the opinion that I do not think it is unlawful for aircraft to be fitted with non-airband agency radios nor is it unlawful for the RFS to require the installation of those radios as a term of their contract with aerial firefighters.
Whether it is a good idea is another matter. The response by the RFS goes a long way to explain why they want the radios and why they think its a good idea. These issues are all about risk management. I’m neither a pilot nor a firefighter so I can’t draw a meaningful conclusion on where the risk/benefit balance falls. That is a matter upon which minds, and circumstances, may differ.
It remains the case that it appears that using RFS radios appears to be inconsistent with the intent, even though not strictly prohibited by, the:
- Radiocommunications (Aircraft and Aeronautical Mobile Stations) Class Licence 2016 (Cth);
- CASA EX40/16 – Exemption — use of radiocommunication systems in firefighting operations (New South Wales Rural Fire Service) (1 March 2016); and
- RFS SOP 5.1.3-1 Mobile Radio Equipment [2.8].
 NSW Rural Fire Service Air Operations Manual (2003), p.1
 https://www.acma.gov.au/theACMA/aircraft-licences-guidelines (accessed 8 November 2018).
 Radiocommunications (Aircraft and Aeronautical Mobile Stations) Class Licence 2016 (Cth) https://www.legislation.gov.au/Details/F2018C00282 accessed 8 November 2018).
 Ibid s 6(b)(i); See also http://www.airservicesaustralia.com/services/frequency-assignment/ (accessed 8 November 2018).
 CASA EX40/16 – Exemption — use of radiocommunication systems in firefighting operations (New South Wales Rural Fire Service) (1 March 2016) https://www.legislation.gov.au/Details/F2016L00228.
 For details of other frequencies use by the RFS see http://scanradionsw.blogspot.com/2012/08/nsw-busfire-frequencies.html (accessed 13 November 2018); see also Appendix 1 of the NSW Rural Fire Service Air Operations Manual (2003).
 Above n. 3.
 Peter Smith and Jason Middleton, Aerial Firefighting in Australia: The administrative framework Journal Article with unknown publication status, p. 12.
 NSW Rural Fire Service Air Operations Manual (2003), p. 21.
 Ibid, p. 22.
 Ibid, p. 26.
 Ibid p. 39.
 Phil Hurst, ‘Human Factors – mandatory for bureaucrats? (2009) Australian Aviation p. 78, 78.
 Above n 3.
 Above n. 5.
 Above n 10, p. 3.
 Ibid p. 39.
 See https://outnback.casa.gov.au/episode-3/golden-rules-radio-calls
 The importance of correct radio calls and readbacks (7 November 2014) http://www.airservicesaustralia.com/wp-content/uploads/Safety-Bulletin-oct-20-The-importance-of-correct-radio-calls-and-readbacks.pdf; Sydney Surface Movement Radiotelephony (RTF) Congestion (23 March 2013) http://www.airservicesaustralia.com/wp-content/uploads/22-March-2013-Sydney-Surface-Movement-Radiotelephony-RTF-Congestion.pdf.
Michael it was the case that the radios to be fitted to aircraft contracted to the NSWRFS would be listed in the contract.
I must comment as a private person, not a representative of the RFS. I must also speak as someone who has been absent from RFS Aviation operations for some years, however I believe that you have a reasonable grasp of the situation and intent.
The RFS has limited budgets and resources. It is not always possible to have everything in place in a rapidly developing situation. So it’s about having options, not requiring pilots to monitor 5 radios at once.
SOPs are standard procedures, not ironclad law. They apply in normal situations, not those in which lack of resources make them unworkable.
If one aircraft is all that is required, then it makes operational sense for it to have comms with an appropriate person (singular) on the ground. If there are multiple aircraft , then it equally makes sense that those aircraft use a discrete aviation frequency to coordinate and ensure safe operations, while one person (typically the AAS, who is not piloting an aircraft) handles coordination with those on the ground, using another radio.
That is reducing the load on pilots, not increasing it. It is also about ensuring the safety of firefighters on the ground and making effective use of the aircraft…. all of which are valid considerations.
As I said, I have not operated in RFS Aviation for some years, so I am both rusty and not familiar with more recent developments, but that is how I was trained.
Former RFS AAS and licensed Flight Radio Operator.
The correspondent who originally raised this matter has come back to me with some further material. My correspondent draws my attention to Civil Aviation Regulations 1988 (Cth) rr 166C and 243. Regulation 166C says
Regulation 243 says
It is a criminal offence not to meet these obligations. Nothing in the RFS SOPs or contractual requirements can authorise a pilot to do that which is prohibited by these regulations.
My correspondent says:
We are now getting into technical areas that require a pilot or an expert in avionics, not a lawyer to answer.
My understanding is that the RFS require aircraft to be fitted with an RFS agency radio. Regulation 82(1) says that an aircraft, if directed by CASA, must be fitted with approved radiocommunications (which for brevity’s sake I’ll call an ‘airband radio’). To meet both the CASA and RFS requirements an aircraft would be fitted with not less than 2 radios – airband and RFS.
Now I’m no radio expert but I can’t see how the RFS requirement would oblige a pilot to ‘switch to and operates another radio’ at the cost of the airband radio – that is surely both could be on at the same time? Depending on the radio traffic that may or may not be manageable.
The RFS procedures do not require the pilot to be listening to all the fire ground chatter. It would I infer be possible to allocate a single RFS frequency to the aircraft so that the only person speaking to the aircraft from the ground was the local commander. The pilot is not required to listen to a channel with all the foreground radio chatter. Equally if there are multiple aircraft operating then they may all be communicating with an air attack supervisor who in turn is doing the ground liaison.
I don’t see how the issue would be solved by requiring the ground commander to have an airband radio and use an airband frequency – the pilot would still have to monitor two channels if one was being used for ground communication and the other for air separation. And if it was the same channel that would increase radio traffic that may be irrelevant for pilots on other tasks.
I note that the SOP says ‘It is essential that incidents have a suitable communications plan…’ That should be drawn up in consultation with the pilots and would need to take into account the location of the fire (is it in or near controlled airspace?), the number of aircraft to be involved, the available airband and PMR channels etc. What is the best way to manage communication will be different with each fire.
I note that SOP provided by the RFS says:
If a pilot believed that the operational or management demands put the aircraft at risk or meant that he or she could not comply with CASA rules then they can veto those demands. Presumably he or she would raise the concerns with the State Air Desk or local authorities. Ultimately the pilot can refuse to fly if he or she thinks the situation is too dangerous.
Assuming that both the airband and RFS radio can be own at the same time I fail to see how the RFS requirements would cause a pilot to be in breach of either rr 116C or 243. Equally I don’t understand how it would be any more, or less, of a breach to use airband channels.
It may be that the communication plan at a particular fire would require pilots to breach the aviation regulations or create an unnecessary risk to aircraft safety but (remembering that I am not a pilot) that does not seem axiomatic (that is it is not the case that compliance with the published SOP must have that effect). Rather any conclusion that the demands on the pilots would require them to breach a relevant regulation or expose the aircraft to risk would depend on the actual circumstances at a particular fire and the communication and aviation plans that are in place.
Again, I do not speak for the RFS in this matter.
That said, it is normal for pilots to monitor more than one frequency, and is often done, so you are correct on that.
The RFS also has the option of applying for a Temporary Restricted Airspace, with the Civil Aviation Safety Authority. That should result in all aircraft operating in that vicinity being notified of RFS activity in the area, and being required to contact RFS Aircraft on the designated frequency prior to entering that airspace.
Regards….. Peter (Former AAS)
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