In the inaugural article in this series, the four critical components of the commercial airline industry's Crew Resource Management process was discussed. As a brief refresher, crew resource management (CRM) is a human factors approach to flying a plane from one location to another without any unexpected or unplanned events occurring that could ruin the crew and / or passengers day. As technology and aviation equipment have advanced dramatically, the area where the most significant safety improvements can be made is by raising the performance levels of the crew (humans). Similar improvements in fireground safety can be achieved by utilizing CRM concepts in our environment. The four tenants of the CRM process are: 1) Communications under stress; 2) Teamwork & Leadership; 3) Task Allocation and; 4) Critical decision making. This article will focus on how an incident command team can improve their communications under stressful conditions.
Critical Communications Failure
Turn back the clock to 1988 and let's review one of our darkest firefighter tragedies that reinforces the need for effective communications under stress. A building that houses an automobile dealership had a working fire in the attic area. Dreadfully, the building construction included a bow string truss roof assembly that was waiting to collapse on five unsuspecting firefighters inside the structure. The incident commander decided to be "mobile" during this entire alarm. Among the negative results that this improper decision had on this incident (as reported in the detailed post incident analysis1) was very poor (non-existent) communications. In fact, the investigator summed up the communication process by reporting that "?there was a lot of talking at this fire, but no communications?"2.
The heart pounding audiotape records the voice of a senior company officer calling to "command" for help. The voice is strong, clear and very specific about their location and help that he needs to be rescued from certain death. This company officer further describes that he and one other member (a fire fighter) are trapped and are running out of air. The Lieutenant calls out to Command more than 30 times over approximately a 15-minute period for assistance. Because of the "mobile", hands-on approach selected by the IC, the pleas for help go unheard and unheeded. Captured on videotape, the IC's portable radio is seen worn around his hip and too far away from his ears to hear these critical radio transmissions.
As the Lieutenant is completely out of air and still requesting help, a police officer calls the communications center to report the event that he has been listening to and he knows that command ("the scene"3) is missing this most vital information. Once again, the incident review describes the rescue efforts for all five members as "too little, too late"4. Of the five fire fighter fatalities, the two members trapped in the closet space died of asphyxiation according to the medical examiners report. If there was ever an incident that would drive home the need for proper and effective communications under stress, this should be our "poster child" event.
A World Class Success Story
By contrast, one year before this tragic incident, United Airlines pilot Captain Al Haynes is at the controls of a DC-10 jumbo jet. Captain Haynes is the command pilot in charge of a flight that originates in Los Angles and is headed for Chicago. All is calm aboard this gleaming beautiful "ship of the skies", until the unthinkable occurs. The number two Pratt - Whitney jet engine (center topside engine on this model) comes apart. A turbine fan blade disintegrates causing great damage to the aft section of this enormous airplane loaded with 292 people on board. The damage is so severe that all three separate, redundant and independent hydraulic systems are severed. Most unfortunately for Captain Haynes and all, a DC-10 must have hydraulic power to fly and stay aloft (or so it was thought).