One Skill, One Drill, One Hour: Communications Drill

April 24, 2006


Driver training is an ongoing process in a small town fire department where fires are few, so when you have a group of firefighters on a Sunday morning who want to do something, it is a natural choice. The New Milford, NJ, Fire Department has a very sensible policy of not allowing an engine out for training unless it has a full crew, so when the manpower is there, we hit the streets. Unfortunately, for the members who are not driving it can be a very boring experience, just sitting in the back, hoping the driver keeps the engine on the road. After all, even street watching and making up new nicknames for the chief gets boring after a while, and just how many times in one day can you stop for ice cream? So I needed to come up with a worthwhile drill that could be done on the run, one that would hold their interest, and maybe teach us a thing or two. So I came up with a communications drill.


I instructed the driver to pull over at a random house, and picked one of the guys in the back to act as officer, and told them that they were first on scene, and asked what report they would make on the radio. The rest of the crew would then critique the report for coherency and adequacy. It was surprising at first how much stuttering and hesitation we heard. After resuming the drive, we would continue this until everyone got the hang of making an initial size-up report. At that point, I would begin making up scenarios for the houses such as "Closed garage door with smoke coming out the bottom," or "flame showing from that small window on the second floor," and tell them to make their initial report with that information. Then we would brainstorm hose line and apparatus placement. Over the course of an hour's driver training, every member of the crew had half a dozen chances to act as officer and chief. Don't forget to include yourself in the drill; not only do you need practice just as much as everyone else does, but I think it is important for morale for the crew to see you working just as hard as they do.

Instructors Notes

One of our ex-chiefs, Ron Stokes, taught us that it is not enough to look at a building and wonder how it would burn, but that you also should imagine what you should do in response to it. This is a mental game anyone can play, at any time, and a game that you will get better at with practice. I like to do it while jogging around town, imagining this or that house in flames. It makes for a more interesting exercise session, and can liven up otherwise dull driver training. Make sure the initial size up report contains the following information;

  • Who is making the report, and that they are establishing command (vital if more than one piece of apparatus is enroute, or there is more than one incident going on), and where the command post is setting up.
  • The type, size and usage of the structure. One of my old instructors used to call it painting a picture in words for the incoming crews. You will be surprised how many firefighters have forgotten the different classifications of structures. It is worth reviewing.
  • Any special features that incoming crews should be aware of, such as attached garages, cul-de-sacs, signs of children such as toys on the lawn, exposures, or indications of commercial occupancy in a residential structure.
  • Any indications of fire, such as smoke or flame, and their location in the house. Hopefully, there aren't any departments left that haven't adopted incident command standards for labelling the different sides of the building.
  • Keep the report clear, concise and use the same format with each report. Think before you talk. Don't let your first message be incoherent, it would set the wrong tone for the entire incident. The five seconds you take to compose a message is time well spent, since clarifying a confusing would take a lot longer.

Practice, practice, practice. Remember, if you are not practicing good habits, then you are practicing bad ones.


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