One of the most important aspects of a successful fireground operation is effective communication. When you think about it, effective communication is probably the most important factor in all aspects of day-to-day life. Without it, things will eventually fall apart or begin to fail. While ineffective communication in your personal life typically only results in an argument or misunderstanding between friends or spouses, ineffective communications by a fire company or multiple fire companies on a fireground can be deadly.
Why we communicate
In order to understand how to communicate on the fireground, we must first understand why we communicate. We communicate to pass along vital messages to other companies, the incident commander (IC) and amongst our own crew operating in a forward position. The more concise and to-the-point communication is during stressful and hostile situations, the more likely the message will be received. We communicate to provide size-up reports, report the progress by individual companies, report problems, give directions, identify hazards or call for help.
For many fire departments, the complicated and difficult-to-navigate radio system immediately hampers communications. Radios in our pockets or radio strap are little complicated computers. If improperly programmed, the radios can affect the voice of the person transmitting, as it takes your voice and turns it into a computer voice. Little did most of us know that there were settings that adjust the gain, volume, noise reduction and so forth that are useful to firefighters but that weren’t programmed when sold to firefighters. When wearing an SCBA, the muffling of our voice distorts the interpretation by the radio, and things get all messed up from time to time.
The unfortunate problem with our radios is mostly that they were made for police officers. Until recently, most radios had small buttons, lapel microphones with small push-to-talk buttons and screens that were only seen when removing from your pocket or pouch.
Another major issue with technology is that we went from very few channels where we successfully managed incidents for many years to a multitude of channels, in different zones and on a complex radio template. It’s a problem in our city, and I’m sure it is a problem in many other places, too. As fire service leaders, we should focus on simplification of our system to ensure that those responding to fires and operating in hostile environments don’t have to navigate a complex radio template to be on the correct channel.
The lapel microphone is likely the weakest link in our system. Water sometimes affects its ability to allow you to receive or transmit messages. The cord, which can be exposed if carried in a radio pocket on your coat, is also not resistant to extreme heat conditions, thus you may not be able to communicate for help if caught in a rapid fire progression event. Many people utilize a radio strap to conceal their microphone from direct exposure to heat. I wear one; however, I’m not a die-hard advocate either way. Know your own limitations, figure out what works best, and expect that if you don’t have it protected, you may have an issue when bad things are happening.
The initial communications take place on the radio to other companies responding in the form of a size-up. There are several size-up methods. Simply paint a picture to those other companies of what is on fire or occurring. Taking 30 seconds to give a report or simply saying “FIRE” doesn’t do anyone any good. At a minimum, indicate who you are, what you have and what you are doing (if its not assumed through procedure). For example: “Engine 12 on scene, two story with attic, wood frame, fire on the second floor, A side.” This report indicates who, what building/occupancy and what we have.
In our system, we go to work with the officer in a fast-attack command mode (staying with their members). So tasks like stretching, etc., are assumed in our system. If you have reported victims on arrival or when stretching, you need to update a report. If you have an exposure issue, you need to identify that as well. If you need help, call for it! Another example: “Engine 12 on scene, two story with attic, wood frame, heavy fire on first floor, extending to B side exposure. Engine 12 start the second alarm.” They provided a picture of what was occurring and because we now have two fire buildings, we call for more resources.
As we complete tasks, some communications are vital for providing progress to other companies and to Command. For the Engine, we must indicate when we are putting water on the fire: “Engine 12, water on the fire.” This simple message tells the chief that the truck and other companies have made it to where we think the fire is, and they should expect things to get better. If the conditions aren’t getting better, then the chief may tell you that you aren’t putting water on the fire he sees! If a truck is pushing for a search above the fire and you indicate that you are putting water on the fire, they may push a little harder.
Another important communication is “Fire knocked down.” This lets Command know you have the fire taken care of from your perspective and he can assess from the command post to ensure you actually do. “Fire under control” isn’t something that the interior, tunnel-vision engine company should announce or declare, because they can’t see the entire picture.
Other communications to indicate progress equally as important are when the primary search is clear, when to ventilate and PAR reports. Make sure that when you indicate that the primary search is clear, you’ve actually checked the area you state. Saying “Primary search all clear on the first floor” and not checking every room does not mean it’s actually clear.
Another concern seems to be with identification of parts of the building. In our system, we use “A, B, C, D” and others use “1, 2, 3, 4.” Whatever you use, predetermine how you identify exposures, how you declare the “A” side (because the entrance or address side isn’t always where you arrive), what you do about buildings on grade that may have two or three levels below street level, and how you deal with generally strange layouts in some occupancies.
On the fireground, always try to use location identifiers when transmitting to Command. “Engine 12, third floor to Command—we need another line up here.” This reminds Command where you are, helps accountability better track you, and if the extreme happens, your last known location was just broadcast to everyone. Whenever you change positions on the fireground, notify Command. In our system, the first engine goes to the fire, and the second engine assists and backs up the first engine. If the fire is on the first floor and the first engine gets a knock down on the fire, the second engine may reposition for internal exposures on the second floor. If you don’t indicate this on the radio, then Command assumes that you are still on backup, because that’s where our procedures indicate you are supposed to be.
Communication among company members on the fireground is usually face-to-face, unless there is a split in a crew (truck company) or delay from a member (coming from the hydrant). In any event, proper preparation should dictate immediate communication to the company officer if those other people go where they aren’t supposed to be or get pulled elsewhere. Face-to-face is always the easiest to perform and convey a message.
When communicating at a fire, everyone should have a radio. However, not everyone should have his or her radio turned all the way up. This causes feedback and echoing when three to four people are in the same room with their radios on full volume.
When you locate hazards, immediate communication needs to take place among your crew first and then to everyone else (usually through Command). You should have an “Emergency” or “Urgent” radio transmission protocol. These messages should be repeated just like a mayday. For example: “Emergency, Emergency, Emergency—Engine 12 to Command. The stairs to the second floor are burned through.” By repeating the initial message just like we do in a mayday, it helps draw attention to your vital report. Some common issues may involve holes in floors, damaged or missing stairs, open shafts, partial collapse, loss of water, burst hose length, hose that is caught or trapped by a door or other obstacle, and rapid fire progression.
If you have water problems on the engine company, don’t be afraid to communicate that. It could be the engine operator indicating a mechanical issue with the engine, bad hydrant or burst supply hose. This needs to be communicated to the interior crews so assessment of their environment and determination of the next steps can be made.
We recently started having a dispatcher dedicated to our fireground channel on all working fires. This allows for a secondary set of ears, in a non-hostile environment, to listen for messages that might get missed (maydays, loss of water, etc.). We also have dispatchers record data, such as water on the fire, fire knocked down, primary search clear, fire under control, etc.
We recommend our ICs and engine company operators wear a headset to hear vital messages on the radio. Some do, but it’s a habit that needs work. Our accountability officer always wears a headset, and that officer can easily relay missed messages to Command.
We’ve touched on a few issues related to communications on the fireground and some methods in which to ensure that your messages are always heard. Take the time to practice communication while in full PPE, and use the radio with your mask and gloves on. Practice transmitting standard messages, urgent or emergency messages and mayday messages on a frequent basis. Practice makes perfect!