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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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 www.integrated-firesolutions.com.