Communications: The Main Link to Safety On the Fireground

April 1, 2005

It is troubling in 2005 to still be reading after-action reports involving firefighter fatalities that contain “communications” as a possible contributing cause for the death or deaths. The main breakdown, in my opinion, seems to be between command officers and company officers. The disaster appears to start with missing or inaccurate information involving size-up.

Size-up is not a new phenomenon. There are many books on the subject on the market today. One of the very best is written by Battalion Chief Michael Terpak of the Jersey City, NJ, Fire Department. Two of my fellow Firehouse® contributing editors, Deputy Chief James P. Smith of the Philadelphia Fire Department and retired FDNY Deputy Chief Vincent Dunn, have written about the combat side of size-up for decades – yes, decades. And still we don’t seem to get it.

Size-up is the first informational report from the scene. It includes a confirmation of the address, the dimensions of the building, including height as seen from the vantage point of the officer, the location of the fire or/and smoke coming from the structure and any other important information, such as people trapped or extension. This report should be repeated for the rear of the building. The incident commander should be able to determine from these reports whether sufficient resources are responding or more should be requested. The incident commander should also make decisions regarding deployment of the units already on the scene.

The next element of communicating occurs when we face incidents involving tall or spread-out large buildings. These scenarios remind me of space walks – units will be “untethered,” so any disconnect can cause the members of these companies to become lost. What do you do as a department if a unit’s radio goes out of service? Many departments advocate the joining of units and continuing to work, but this may lead to more personnel being put at risk.

Any time an incident commander cannot readily communicate with operating units, chaos can be anticipated and disaster will follow. If a unit loses its radio for any reason, that unit needs to be replaced. If the total communications system goes down, units need to retreat to a safer place in the building or, better yet, outside until the problem is rectified. I know this sounds like we aren’t doing our jobs, but the key for me is to stop causing firefighters to become victims based solely on someone’s perception of tradition. Our tradition should be to protect our own first by giving our officers the opportunity to withdraw their people when equipment failures occur – and radios are equipment.

One of the worst behaviors on the emergency scene is nonsense radio traffic. Whether Bob and Harry feel the need to cross-talk about their companies’ progress, or someone is making requests for stepladders or other non-essential equipment, it just ties up the system. The first person to key a mike “owns” the system – no one else can talk. Some officers and firefighters feel the need to give blow-by-blow descriptions as they migrate throughout a building.

Radio messages should be succinct and relevant. I never queried my engine companies. Most of the time, they were too busy fighting the fire to talk to me, plus any information from them probably wouldn’t have been factual. Engine companies operate in a very violent world confined by smoke and adrenalin, so their traffic was one way. As a chief, I told them to let me know if they were deviating from procedures because they were making rescues, if additional lines were needed and where, or anything else the officer felt was affecting the safety of the personnel. If I wanted a picture of the scene, I contacted the rescue or truck companies, asking them for their locations and descriptions of conditions.

One of the most overlooked disconnects in the communications process occurs at the dispatch center. This is often true when fire and police share a center and the call takers and dispatchers are police employees who also handle fire and EMS calls. I believe that if more training were given to these individuals regarding the incident management system, size-up, and fire behavior and the standard operating procedures (SOPs)/standard operating guidelines (SOGs) of their fire department, they would be more beneficial to the system.

Behavior is the last piece of the communications puzzle. The best and most comprehensive SOPs/SOGs will not do anything if the members of the department don’t support or adhere to them.

We need to remove “communications” from our after-action reports. I hope that happens sooner rather than later. Stay safe!

Michael L. Smith, a Firehouse® contributing editor, has over 35 years of fire service experience, including more than 30 years with the District of Columbia Fire Department, from which retired as a deputy chief. He currently is an international consultant and instructor for the fire service and U.S. military on incident command, training, risk management and WMD response, and lectures on a wide array of emergency response issues.

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