Incident Communications

The backbone of the incident command system (ICS) is the process of communications. A time-tested truth states, "If you're in the emergency response business and without communications, your failure is imminent." Many case studies have proved this...


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The backbone of the incident command system (ICS) is the process of communications. A time-tested truth states, "If you're in the emergency response business and without communications, your failure is imminent."

Many case studies have proved this axiom. Unfor-tunately, when communications have broken down at some incidents, the results have been the traumatic death of many firefighters. The lessons learned, at such a great expense, must be shared and reinforced to prevent similar situations from occurring. We must learn from our past, or we are doomed to repeat the same costly mistakes. This column will examine the critical communications process as it relates to emergency response and its application within the ICS framework.

Sending & Receiving

The function of communications is described as the conveying of a message from a sender to a receiver through some medium. The sender develops a thought or idea and attempts to convey that exact notion to another person. The sending media are generally written, spoken or non-verbal methods.

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Photo by Michael Schwartzberg
A Baltimore County, MD, Fire Department captain communicates with other units after taking charge at the scene of an Oct. 5, 1996, dwelling fire. Every fire department should have a standard operating guideline that indicates to all members how the communications process will work in that department.

It is seldom that complete communication takes place between two individuals. If you are married or if you have teenage children, you know exactly what I mean. This is because there is interference ("noise") associated with the transmission medium. This noise could be volume, speech, speed, accent, terminology, education, hearing or a host of other problems. Any instance when such noise affects the reception of the message falls into this category and lessens the understanding of a message.

To illustrate this concept, I'll describe a personal experience. Eighteen years ago, when I was a new lieutenant, my engine was dispatched to a report of smoke in the attic of a very large wood-frame building. The building covered nearly one city block and had more than a dozen different businesses under roof.

The engine was returning from a previous alarm when this call was dispatched. Because we were a distance from quarters, we ended up arriving behind a battalion chief causing a great deal of early "chaos" ("chief has arrived on scene"). From a location in the attic and without personal protective equipment, the chief radioed for my company to "...bring a handline." Or so I thought.

When a firefighter and I arrived in the attic space (it was large enough to fly a small plane in) with our 1 1/2-inch hoseline, the chief was rather irritated he demanded to know where was the handlight he requested and why had I brought a handline. Unfortunately, he was much clearer in the communication process (in his office) that followed this alarm than he was during the incident. This was one of those "learning opportunities" that I have never forgotten.

Typically, fire-rescue officers communicate using a radio device over some distance under the poorest of conditions. The potential for failed communications is real and steps must be taken to overcome this anticipated problem. Knowing the devastating outcome that poor communications typically causes, we must work diligently to learn techniques that help ensure that messages are correct the first time and every time.

Response personnel should be trained in and use a communication order model. This process will greatly increase a message's chance of being received correctly. The order model that we'll discuss is used in the National Fire Academy's command courses. It requires both the sender and receiver to repeat the message. Once repeated, the message is confirmed or denied. Let's try a few messages to see the system in action.

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