Creating Effective Fireground Communication

Issue 8 and Volume 9.

No discussion of the human experience would be complete without a segment on the basic interaction that occurs between two or more firefighters—communication. When firefighters interact, communication is often the root of everything that goes right or wrong. This is especially true on the incident scene. In our last installment, it was noted that leaders who possess good communication skills make organizations successful both at the incident and inside the department. This installment will build on that premise and illustrate the critical role communication plays in every aspect of the fire service.

Forms & Components

Communication takes many forms, but can be categorized into four major types: verbal, non-verbal, written and visual.1 From simple, direct fireground statements (“Engine 1 will be in the offensive strategy”) to complex manuals of standard operating procedures, the spoken and written word along with visual cues can drive the body to leap into action, or retire to the quietest place in the station to analyze the latest written policy.

Firefighters are continuously surrounded by communication in all forms: the opening hiss of the alarm speakers, checking and cross-checking dispatch information in the cab, the commanding voice of the first arriving officer, or the thick, dark smoke pushing around the front door with a sticker stating “Oxygen in use.” Linked like a chain, good communication results in fires being extinguished swiftly, risks being managed professionally and everyone in the communication chain understanding motives for orders, action plans and goals. But when the chain is kinked or broken, the “failure to communicate” noted by the chain gang boss in the film Cool Hand Luke sends people and events spiraling into catastrophe.

Regardless of form, there are several universal components to the communication process. In all cases, there is a sender and receiver. Between the sender and receiver is a space. That space may be as close as nose to nose, or as far apart as the Houston Space Center’s mission control and the far side of the moon. The sender uses a medium to transfer the message, be it verbal, non-nonverbal, written or visual. The space is where the medium transfers the communication from the sender to the receiver, and where the receiver sends any follow up. If you disrupt the space with barriers such as distracting noise, distance, different languages, or the inability to see the other party, opportunities for miscommunication take hold of the process and people may approach the situation inappropriately. How many of us have ordered take-out food for the station, only to return with something different than what was requested? An innocent occurrence of miscommunication like this may result in a quick laugh or apology, but at the other end of the spectrum, miscommunication can result in severe consequences. Just think what would happen if “Stop at the door” was heard as “Pop the door” when smoke is pushing through the door frame and no handline is in place. Ensuring communication on the fireground and in the firehouse is properly understood should be not just a goal, but a lifesaving necessity.

Mass Miscommunication

One of the clearest examples of miscommunication within the fire service can be seen in the emerging fire attack debate. Lloyd Layman’s groundbreaking 1952 text, Attacking and Extinguishing Interior Fires, espoused the value and effectiveness of the indirect method of fog attack. Layman clearly stated that this effective fire-suppression method needed to be introduced “…from positions that will enable personnel to avoid injuries from super-heated smoke and live steam…”2 and require ventilation. Yet the late Andy Fredericks observed that the practice was almost immediately misapplied due to photographs in textbooks depicting firefighters solely using fog streams.3 This led to an entire generation of firefighters being taught to hit the ceiling of a room on fire with a 30 degree fog pattern then hunker down until the steam settled, despite the fact that doing so caused low visibility and steam burns. The result was a legacy of miscommunication via the written word and visual images, compounded by countless verbal lectures and directives in burn buildings throughout the U.S. for nearly 40 years.

Fortunately, a new generation of work conducted under proven scientific methods by the likes of Dan Madryzkowski’s NIST team and Steve Kerber’s UL team are filling communication gaps with accurate data and visual demonstrations of how fire attacks can be conducted more safely and efficiently. Neither body of work calls for the elimination of interior attack, but they are positing the wisdom of reducing a fire from 2,000 degrees to 200 degrees before entering the “box” to finish the job. It’s important to note that their work has been going on for about 10 years, but is only recently gaining the traction it deserves. In this case, the barriers to communication come in the form of closed ears and minds, as well as suspicions about the intent and results of their work. As Walt Kelly’s comic strip character Pogo so succinctly stated, “We have met the enemy and he is us.”

The Three C’s

In order to minimize the potential for miscommunication, senders must work toward making their messages clear, concise and complete.4 Structuring all communication with the three C’s provides the sender with information in its simplest form, and simple communication greatly reduces the chance for misunderstanding.

Clear communications involve using words, gestures and symbols that are understood by both sender and receiver(s). This is a daunting task when you consider the previously mentioned barriers and personal biases (such as one’s generation, education, gender, etc.) that can obstruct communication. Being aware of these human factors, however, can be of great benefit when considering how to get your message across.

Concise communication calls for using the appropriate amount of correct words, signals, gestures, symbols and procedures to get the message across. An example of a concise communication would be the following on scene report: “Dispatch from Engine 1.” (Dispatch acknowledges.) “Engine 1 is on the scene of a two-story, occupied dwelling; working fire, all occupants reported out of the structure and accounted for. Engine 1 has laid a supply line from the hydrant at the intersection of Main and Forest. Engine 1 will be in the offensive strategy, entering the structure through the front door on Side Alpha when my two out arrives. This will be Main Street Command. Accountability will be at Engine 1.”

Complete communication describes the step that ensures the transmitted message is understood by the receiver, putting everyone on the same page. The method most appropriate in the verbal world is the order model, which most often includes a repeat back of the message step (sometimes referred to as “parroting” the message). For example: “Engine 2 from Main Street Command.” (Engine 2 acknowledges.) “Complete the water supply and pull a back-up line to the front door of the structure for our two out.” Engine 2 would then reply: “Main Street Command from Engine 2, arriving on scene, copy completing the water supply at the hydrant and pulling a back-up line to be your two out.”

Your own practices may vary, but as we try to understand each other, ensuring that principles like the three C’s are at the forefront of every interaction will reduce the likelihood of being misunderstood.

1. Young, J. Different Forms of Communication. (2013) Retrieved May 5, 2014 from http://www.beamentornow.org/different-forms-of-communication/

2. Layman, L. Attacking and Extinguishing Interior Fires. (1952, pg.45) Boston: National Fire Protection Association.

3. Fredericks, A. Little Drops of Water: 50 Years Later. (2000) Retrieved May 6, 2014 from http://www.fireengineering.com/articles/print/volume-153/issue-2/features/little-drops-of-water-50-years-later-part-1.html

4. Peterson, L. Three C’s of Effective Communication. (2010) Retrieved May 5, 2014 from http://www.selfgrowth.com/articles/3-cs-of-effective-communication