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 messages are passed from one individual to another, it is important to acknowledge that the information was received. Safe and effective fireground communication is a two-way process (Improving Firefighter Communications, USFA-TR-099/January 1999). 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 communication, 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 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.
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 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.
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 (Course development contributor; NWCG L-180, Human Factors on the Fireline, October 2000).
These are natural human tendencies. 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.
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 SA. Whenever implemented, all types of incidents benefit from these briefings. The perceived drawback is that they take too much time. A 60-second, or shorter, 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.
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 communication. In aviation research, the need for assertive behavior in more junior members has been found. Furthermore, voice recordings from "black boxes" have revealed the lack of assertiveness to be a contributing factor in more than one airline crash (National Transportation Safety Board, 1982, Report Number AAR-82/08). More recent studies in other high-stakes professions found that status differences in groups affect 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 communication, which can be viewed as standing up for one's self in such a way as not to disregard the other person's opinion (Safety at the Sharp End: A Guide to Non-Technical Skills by Rhona H. Flin, Paul O'Connor and Margaret Crichton, 2008). 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.