The Human Side Of Fireground Communication

When anyone mentions "communication problems," many of us in emergency services instantly think "hardware." Who hasn't gotten totally committed to a task only to have their radio make that all-too-familiar "bleep bleep" sound signaling a low battery or...


When anyone mentions "communication problems," many of us in emergency services instantly think "hardware." Who hasn't gotten totally committed to a task only to have their radio make that all-too-familiar "bleep bleep" sound signaling a low battery or tried to understand someone talking through...


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When anyone mentions "communication problems," many of us in emergency services instantly think "hardware." Who hasn't gotten totally committed to a task only to have their radio make that all-too-familiar "bleep bleep" sound signaling a low battery or tried to understand someone talking through an SCBA facepiece? Or, my favorite: trying to clearly see the channel numbers, being careful not to select the wrong one and transmit a lengthy tactic-oriented "Chatty Cathy doll" conversation over the dispatch channel.

But there is more to communication than just all the electronic bells and whistles. Communication is as much about the art of what we say to each other, how we say it and when we say it as it is about a fully charged battery. If manpower is the muscle, then communication is the backbone of every type of emergency incident. More times than not, poor communication takes the blame when an operation goes bad.

The human side of communication problems, otherwise known as human factors, can be grouped into two categories: radio traffic-related issues and miscommunication. Radio traffic issues would be knowing when to hold your nonessential versus emergency traffic, speaking in clear and concise sentences, and basic radio discipline (i.e., do you really need to talk over the radio or can you walk over and meet face to face?). Miscommunication such as "I did not know," "Nobody told me" and "I don't need to listen to that" are phrases commonly heard when flushing out the issues during post-fire critiques or after-action reviews.

When discussing the human factors behind communication problems, we immediately find that they are more difficult to fix than equipment failures. According to a 1999 U.S. Fire Administration (USFA) report titled Improving Firefighter Communications, "Good human communication skills and procedures will help promote safety even in the face of technical difficulties" (Improving Firefighter Communications, USFA-TR-099/January 1999). Situational awareness is briefly mentioned in this report. Eleven years later, with the term "situational awareness" brought to the forefront of firefighting, we can now see the critical link between communication and our level of "SA."

Situational awareness requires all individuals to pay closer attention to everything on the fireground, which is no easy chore. Therefore, improved communication leads to a higher level of SA. All firefighters have an obligation to themselves and others to provide the best communication possible. Improving our speaking and listening skills takes us one step closer to overcoming common communication problems.

Speaking skills consist of using common terminology, spoken with appropriate volume, word enunciation and a moderate pace. Direct eye contact and a respectful tone of voice will also help to keep listeners focused on the conversation, even when firm, "cut-to-the-chase" language is used. Casual conversation may be appropriate in all but the most intense situations, at which point firm statements must be employed. The goal is to get the information across without creating an atmosphere in which listeners feel they cannot ask a question or make a comment. Try to remove as many distractions as possible by 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 nonverbal indicators that 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.

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