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 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.

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.

Another thought worth mentioning before starting a briefing is just how much information a person can 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. If more time is available, facilitate a more thorough briefing.

Briefings take practice. It is not feasible for most people to read this article and then conduct the perfect 60-second briefing. Brush up on your speaking and active listening skills beforehand. Incorporate the briefing into incidents, training sessions and station life. Ask for feedback of your briefings and coach others on theirs.

Another good habit to get into is to write it down. For the 60-second version that may consist of just "buzz" words (a sticky-note pad can be used; keep them everywhere). For longer briefings, a written format is likely essential for keeping your train of thought going. Longer briefings almost always have distractions and interruptions.

Debriefing your actions immediately after completing a crew assignment is a good way of "spot checking" how the flow of information is being assimilated. This can literally be done in 30 seconds, and it ensures that everyone still understands why they are doing what they are doing. If requested actions still don't make sense, situational awareness is low and a more defined intent must be verbalized.

Speaking and listening skills are used every day, so work to increase their effectiveness. Acknowledge all messages and require the same of others. Be aware that you and those you converse with may build up barriers to communication; keep these obstacles to a minimum. Improve your situational awareness; the 60-second company briefing can assist you. Everyone can initiate and maintain excellent communication, which ultimately helps to identify and mitigate life-threatening situations.

QUINN MACLEOD, owner and lead instructor of Integrated Fire Solutions, has been in the fire service since 1985, including 20 years on the line with the Parker, CO, Fire District. He is also National Wildfire Coordinating Group (NWCG) qualified as a wildfire division supervisor. MacLeod holds an associate's degree in fire science and numerous state and national certifications, including Fire Officer and Fire Instructor. More information is available at