Enhancing Fireground Communications

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...

When we communicate under these situations we tend to:

  • Resist changing our initial perception when confronted with new information.
  • Support our opinion even when we know it may not be totally correct.
  • Shift blame when our message is misunderstood.

These are natural human tendencies which everyone exhibits from time to time. The key is to recognize that these "barriers" will affect the communication process. The true professional, whether paid or volunteer, will strive to keep these barriers from creating obstacles and devote full attention to the job at hand.

Loss of situational awareness is a contributing factor in most fire fatality and injury reports. The underlying benefit of conducting a briefing is that of increasing our situational awareness. Whenever implemented, all types of incidents benefit from these briefings. The perceived drawback is that they take too much time. A 60-second, or less, briefing can make a world of difference and is especially powerful when a known format is used every time so that the important information is always addressed.

An Effective Briefing

A properly conducted briefing is designed to inform all personnel of what is going on and why. Fully informed personnel will be better able to make sense out of the known versus unknown, which reduces stress, increases situational awareness, allows for better decision making, and ultimately leads to the proper amount of risk being taken.

Assertiveness is an important aspect of crew communications. In aviation research, the need for assertive behavior in more junior members has been found. Furthermore, voice recordings from the so-called "black boxes" have revealed the lack of assertiveness to be a contributing factor in more than one airline crash. More recent studies in other high-stake professions found that status differences in groups affects communication behaviors, such as speaking up or challenging a superior's position. This same effect can be seen within the fire service.

Assertiveness lies between a passive and aggressive emphasis in communications, which can be viewed as standing up for one's self in such a way as not to disregard the other person's opinion. This should yield a more open line of communication, but it takes practice and confidence if this is undertaken by a subordinate. Assertiveness may take some investigating to break through any decision making barriers that the speaker may be influenced by. In the end assertiveness may require persistence and objectivity to stay focused on the assignment while advocating your position. Remember, having a different opinion is not about who is right and who is wrong; it is about how best to undertake the assignment.

Another thought worth mentioning before starting a briefing is just how much information can a person actually remember? Research has shown that the average person can really only remember five to nine things at any given time. Throw in some stress and that number gets alarmingly low. When briefing, keep in mind that the individual may use different techniques to remember, so if someone asks you to repeat or rephrase, take the time to do it. This is a fine example of why two-way communication is so important: by repeating back the information, you are helping to keep it in memory...for a short time anyway.

A 60-second briefing cannot possibly cover everything. The key is to use a format that becomes ingrained. Remember all consecutive briefings will cover the hazards that are still present and focus on what's new. This is a skill that must be mastered by all firefighters regardless of rank, which ultimately leads to added crew cohesion.

A five-step briefing format should be used. Remember it is just the critical information you are conveying. If practiced and used on incidents and trainings, officers and firefighters should be able to touch on the five topic areas in as little as 30 seconds. Take more time to facilitate a more thorough briefing when necessary.

Five-Step Briefing Format