In a previous article entitled "Communicating in the Wildland Interface," Rick Lynsky and I identified communication problems and solutions targeted at the equipment or the ways we use the equipment. Unfortunately equipment problems are probably only related to less than half of our overarching fireline communication shortcomings.
Situational awareness (SA) requires all individuals to pay closer attention to everything on the fireline, which is no easy chore. Therefore improved communications leads to a higher level of SA. All firefighters have an obligation to themselves and others to provide the best exchange of information possible. Improving our speaking and listening skills takes us one step closer to enhancing fireline communications.
Speaking & Listening Skills Required
Speaking skills consist of using common terminology, spoken with the appropriate volume, word enunciation, and with a moderate pace. Direct eye contact and a respectful tone of voice will also help to keep the listeners focused on the conversation, even when "cut to the chase," firm language is used. Casual conversation may be appropriate in all but the most intense situations, at which point firm statements will need to be employed. The goal is to get the information across without creating an atmosphere where the listener feels they cannot ask a question or make a comment. Try to remove as many distractions as possible such as moving away from engine noises and turning the radio speaker away from the group.
Listening skills should be used constantly. If you normally are a speaker, this can be challenging. Actively listening helps to update your situational awareness of the fireground itself and the personnel you are interacting with. Focus your attention on the speaker and watch for the nonverbal indicators which could point to an underlying issue. If the speaker is obviously stressed, for instance, inquire in a helpful way so the issue can be discussed. Low situational awareness could be the root of the problem; open discussions help to increase SA.
Basic guidelines of a good listener:
- Remove distractions.
- Stop talking and focus on the speaker.
- Make sure that you are listening, not just waiting to talk.
- You may already have a perception of the conversation. Try to keep it neutral.
- Don't interrupt; let the speaker finish their thoughts.
- If information is unclear, ask for it to be rephrased.
- Be a team player. What can you do to help the speaker be successful?
- Don't walk away until the conversation is finished.
When messages are passed from one individual to another, it is important to acknowledge that the information was received. Safe and effective fireline communications is a two-way process. Formal acknowledgments should be required for every message. While this may seem excessive, use of acknowledgments is vital when communicating critical messages. By doing this all the time, even during routine communications, it will become second nature. When speaking to more than one person, be sure to request a confirmation that the message was received by all parties. If this is over the radio, take the extra air time to verify.
Receivers have the responsibility to acknowledge messages and to request clarification if they did not completely understand. Saying "copy" or "got it" is not sufficient when acknowledging critical messages. Take the time to repeat it back to the speaker. This may seem like a lengthy process when time is short, but that is when all messages must be fully understood. Furthermore, if this process begins to degrade and co-workers regularly start to "drop" acknowledging the messages, factors such as stress and fatigue may soon become issues.
Communicating Under Pressure
Even with the best speaking and listening skills, we may still have trouble communicating, especially when the subject gets emotionally charged. According to Lark McDonald, CEO of Mission Centered Solutions, who has co-developed numerous nationally recognized fire leadership courses with a heavy emphasis on human factors, emotionally-charged subjects can activate defense mechanisms that try to keep us from looking foolish, but inhibit clear communication, thus affecting situational awareness.