The Ten Commandments Of Communication

July 31, 2006
Those hearing your message should get a clear understanding of exactly what it is they are going to be dealing with. However, there are those who will communicate very poorly, giving the impression that they have lost it, and are out of control! Which do you want to be remembered as?

The first time you use the radio to give the on scene report will leave a lasting impression of you and your ability to communicate. Additionally, it should paint a good picture of the incident for all responders. Those hearing your message should get a clear understanding of exactly what it is they are going to be dealing with. However, there are those who will communicate very poorly, giving the impression that they have lost it, and are out of control! Which do you want to be remembered as?

The first of the 10 Commandments is "Think Before You Speak." Often times firefighters and officers allow the adrenaline rush to overtake them. The excitement will reflect in their communications. Thinking before they speak will assist them in controlling this adrenaline rush. It's hard not to be reactive to the things going on around them, however, for good clear communications to be effective, they have to take control and not react too soon. Taking an extra few seconds, along with a deep breath and think about what it is they want to say before they say it will be very beneficial. After they have their thoughts in line and have taken that extra breath (all within three to five seconds), they will be able to send that clear communication that is expected. Moreover, never yell over the radio. Radios have been manufactured to work just fine using normal voice levels and tones.

As mentioned above, the excitement will reflect in the communications. This is true as well when speaking to members of your crew, other fire department members, or to victims and the public. If you're yelling, it has a tendency to resonate signs of nervousness or uncertainty; it will have a negative effect. Who would want to be racing into battle under the directions of this sort of leader? These individuals (screamers and yellers) often have a tendency to say things that cannot be erased from other firefighter's minds. Worse yet, they often say things that they will never be able to take back or will regret later. What impression is this individual sending about himself and your department as a whole to the victims and the public? They should be mindful of the message, the audience, and the tone with which they are speaking. Many times the way one communicates is more important than the message itself. Taking that few extra seconds to think about what you want to say would be a wise investment on your behalf.

The second commandment is "Speak Truthfully." One of the worst things anyone can do is lie. How many times has someone lied to you? How many times have you lied to someone? The fire service is no place for liars. Period. Communities hold the fire service in high esteem and take what we tell them to be truthful. What a let down to our communities that look to us each day for assistance should we be lying to them? Secondly, how can anyone work along side another fire fighter or officer that blatantly lies to them? Many will lie because they do not want to stand up and take the blame for their actions or admit they have done something wrong. Hey, I say be a man and admit when you are wrong! Everyone makes mistakes, this is how we learn. It has been said, give a person enough rope and they will eventually hang themselves. The same holds true for a liar, eventually they will be caught up in a lie and hang themselves. A good rule of thumb is to stay away from words like never and always. These will have a tendency to come back to haunt you.

Commandment number Three is "Transparency." Transparency is a close companion of Commandment Two. Be open and honest with everyone. Over the years, I have had the opportunity to work with many different bosses and firefighters. The ones that I remember the most have been those that where always open and honest about everything. These individuals never hide behind a fake frontage or facade. I knew exactly what they were thinking, how they were going to respond to a situation, and what they wanted to accomplish and in what order. The officers where humble and never let pride get in their way. Additionally, these officers and firefighters never held back their knowledge from others or me. Many hours spent around the coffee table Monday morning quarterbacking incidents allowed all of us to hone our skills.

"Edifying" is the Fourth Commandment. I am a firm believer that a company is only as good as the weakest link. The good news is that the weakest link can be strengthened through edification. A good company officer will work very hard with his team of firefighters to do just that. Building a firefighter's confidence takes hard work and patience, but pays great dividends in the end. As mentioned, it's a team effort, lead by the company officer with assistance from the other members of the company. One of the most influential members of the company is the senior man; sometime know as the whip. One role of the senior man is to encourage newly assigned personnel and take them under their wings. The best thing he can do is quickly befriend this fire fighter.

The Fifth Commandment is to "Avoid Criticizing or Attacking Others." For some reason many individuals in positions of authority are always looking to put the blame on someone (other than themselves) should results not be favorable. As a company officer, you should encourage your firefighters to take some initiative on their own to salve problems confronting them. If you are not happy with the actions then you need to work with that firefighter to educate him on how tasks of that nature should be handled in the future. At times, company officers will take their frustrations out on their firefighters; forgetting their role as a mentor. This is never good and can lead to rejection on both the officer and the firefighters. There are times when the officer or a fellow fire fighter would like to get into a confrontation. Situations should never be allowed to escalate to this level at an incident scene. As a company officer, you will need to quickly take control of this situation and keep under control until the company gets back to quarters and the parties involved can be taken aside into an office, with the door shut. Addressing situations in this manor will gives the parties a cooling off period and allows them and the company officer time to think about what they want to say. Remember reading about thinking before you speak in Commandment Number One?

This takes us to Commandment Six, "Proper Timing." Knowing when to speak and when not to speak. You know exactly what I mean. Put yourself in the other persons shoes. Timing is everything, and it could be the difference between keeping a friendship or losing it. Always be considerate and take into account all aspects associated with the situation. Officers sometime do not hear both sides of the story before they make a harsh decision. Get the facts; Rome was not built in a day. Some situations require extra time to investigate and gather facts. Once again, I would like to bring you back to Commandment One. You don't want to say something that you will regret later.

On a more positive note, proper timing should be use as well when making requests. Not all request need to be addressed immediately. Sort over requests and submit the highest priority ones first. The rest can wait until a better opportunity presents itself.

Commandment Number Seven is "Kindness and Respect." Kindness and respect go a long way. In Probationary School, every new recruit received instructions on how to address firefighters and officers on the job. That instruction was to respect each of the officers and firefighters on the department, including their fellow probationary firefighters. Has this changed? Some newly appointed probationary fire fighters today act as if they have 37 on the job. They should have been taught to keep quiet and only speak when spoken too. Other than that, they should be encouraged to ask questions about the job and improving their performance before they start sounding off.

The Eighth Commandment is that of "Understanding." When we don't following the above commandments, there is a tendency to shun our firefighters from asking questions to get clarification and understanding. When fire fighters don't have a clear understanding of their job, mistakes occur. Some of these mistakes contribute to injuries or fatalities on the fireground. For companies to operate successfully, each firefighter needs to have a clear understanding of what is expected of him and what his duties are. If firefighters are not asking questions of the company officer during training exercises then the officer should be asking the firefighter questions. Remember Commandment Four said it takes hard work by the company officer to edify his firefighters. Half the battle is getting the fire fighters to ask questions for understanding and clarification. No one wants to come across as an idiot by asking a question that he feels may be embarrassing.

The Ninth Commandment is to be an "Attentive Listener." Being an attentive listener may be the most important part of being a boss. The good bosses in the fire service today do more listening then they do speaking. The key word is attentive. To be attentive one needs to give his total attention to the person speaking. Should the speaker's communications need more clarification ask questions. My grandfather told me many years ago that I have two ears and one mouth, listen twice as much as you speak. Good advice! A key element however, is to ask for clarification whenever you need too, Commandment Eight.

This brings us to the Tenth Commandment, "Attitude and Body Language." You just read about being a good listener. That in and of it's self requires a good attitude; however, we can communicate to others by our attitudes. Our body language also attests to being a good listener. When someone rolls their eyes, they just communicated a negative message to the person speaking and others in attendance that saw the eyes role. Body language is another very powerful mechanism and when people really understand the power of body language, they can manipulate the communications. The person who shrugs his shoulders or waves his hands in a motion that indicates he could care less about what is being said, do you think he is interested? Then there are those that manipulate the conversation in another way, by crying. One may not think his body language has substance, but it may be more powerful than any words being spoken.

The bottom line is, if we want to be good leaders in our organizations we are going to have to work on our communication skills. These skills start by building on a solid foundation found in the above "Ten Commandments of Communications."

Russell Merrick, a Contributing Editor, has over 30 years in the fire service and has been with the Rochester Fire Department since 1986. He has served as a firefighter, lieutenant and is currently a Captain that was ecently assigned to Special Operations Command. Captain Merrick is also an adjunct instructor with Monroe Community College and instructs students in Fire Protection Technology, Public Safety Incident Management, and Command Post Operations. Additionally, he been a Professional Information Program presenter at the Firehouse Expo, a presenter for the New York State Professional Firefighter's Annual Seminar Series, and a presenter for the New York State Association of Fire Chief's.

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