Communication Solutions: Part 1 – The 8 Words of Life Safety

Jan. 1, 2005
Mark Emery stresses the need for improving your fireground communication.
Assuming that your radio batteries are charged, your communication hardware works and your dispatchers are in the loop, I guarantee that this series of articles will improve your fireground communication.

By standardizing the strategic meaning of common fireground words, you will hold the key that will unlock the secret for improving your fireground communication. You will learn what the words are and what each word means. Finally, you will learn how and when to use these words so that fireground communication will be clear, concise and disciplined.

Why is the meaning of strategic and tactical words important? Because if a single word can mean a lot, and if all the players know what each word means, you can broadcast a single word that will convey a clear, concise message that would otherwise require a rambling narration.

Competent fireground communication is developed upon a framework of words. This article will address the five words of civilian life safety and the three words of firefighter of life safety. Part two will address the words of incident stabilization and the words of property conservation. Part three will address the words of fireground support, and finally the words of competent incident management.

Once we agree what the words are and what each word means, subsequent articles will provide the ‘music’ of competent fireground communication; you will learn how and when to use these words – including models for conveying objective-level assignments, communicating clear, concise and disciplined status reports, announcing strategic transitions, and coordinating radio traffic during an emergency roll call.


Communication is a problem on the fireground. No revelation in those words; communication has been a persistent fireground problem for decades. Throughout North America, not a post-incident analysis/critique occurs that doesn’t identify “communication” as a problem. What’s interesting is the complete lack of information available on fireground communication. Sure, plenty of books are available that address dispatching and communication technology, but I challenge you to identify a single reference dedicated to how to communicate on the fireground.

The solution to the fireground communication problem is simple: words. Knowing what the words are and what each word means is the only way to eliminate the majority of fireground communication problems.

I’m certain you will agree that clear, concise, disciplined fireground communication is important. I’m also certain that you have the ability to recognize clear, concise, disciplined communication when you hear it. Both the challenge and the solution is to standardize (culturally) competent fireground communication so that it becomes the norm.

What follows is the framework for standardizing clear, concise and disciplined fireground communication:


If words mean something – and if a single word can mean a lot – then it is possible for each life safety word to accurately describe the strategic status of life safety on the fireground. It then becomes possible for a single word to communicate how life safety will be addressed tactically.

Consider the following life safety words (and phrases); each word identifies the strategic status of life safety on the fireground:

  • Firefighter life safety words


1. Rescue – The first civilian life safety word – rescue – means that civilians are in immediate danger and must be removed by firefighters. Rescue means that firefighters know the location of the endangered civilians and fire department personnel verify their location using visual and/or audible cues. The word rescue means that there now exists a known, confirmed rescue situation – no speculation or interpretation required.

Example situation: Three civilians clustered on a side C, floor 3 balcony with smoke swirling at their backs. Firefighters spot the victims, assess the precarious situation and quickly raise ladders to perform an immediate rescue.

Example communication: “Main Street Command from Truck 26. Ground ladder rescue in progress, side C, floor 3 balcony. Three conscious victims, pressurized smoke increasing. Need a team with a hoseline, an additional team with a ladder and a medic unit.”

2. Search and rescue – The second life safety word (actually phrase) – search and rescue – means that civilian occupants are endangered, but their location is unknown; in other words, firefighters must search for the victims in order to perform the rescue. Search and rescue means that fire officers have compelling evidence indicating that there are endangered occupants. Evidence must also suggest that endangered occupants are viable.

Example situation: A frantic woman greets you at the curb screaming that her child is still somewhere in the house. Because the exact location of the child is unknown, firefighters must search before they can execute the rescue.

Example communication: “Main Street Command emergency traffic from Division 12. Report of two occupants unaccounted for on floor 12, viability probable. Search and rescue in progress from the south stairwell on floor 12, conditions stable. Recommend establishing a rescue group.”

As a reminder, if you want to have clear, concise, disciplined communication, everybody needs to know what the words are and what each word (and phrase) means.

3. Primary search – The third civilian life safety word (another phrase) is primary search, which means that the strategic status of life safety is “unknown if occupied.” In other words, there is not a known, confirmed life safety problem that would require immediate rescue; in addition, there is no compelling evidence of viable occupants who would require search and rescue.

Should your life safety size-up indicate unknown if occupied, the appropriate life safety tactical objective is primary search. If primary search is what firefighters will be doing, then call what they’re doing primary search; DO NOT refer to primary search as “search and rescue.”

Example situation: During secondary size-up of a house fire, it was determined that the status of life safety is “unknown if occupied.” Accordingly, to tactically address the strategic priority life safety, primary search was assigned. The team searching is assigned to Division A.

Example communication: “Division A from Truck 31. Primary search complete, nothing found.” After confirming Truck 31’s report, the Division A supervisor would announce: “Main Street Command from Division A. Primary search complete, nothing found.” After acknowledging Division A’s report, the command post would announce: “Dispatch and all units from Main Street Command. Primary search complete, all clear.”

4. Secondary search – Secondary search, the fourth civilian life safety phrase, is technically not a life safety phrase. Most fireground professionals and fire service references consider secondary search to mean the recovery of deceased victims rather than the search for and removal of viable occupants. Normally, secondary search is initiated after the incident has been stabilized.

By the way, nothing prohibits a fire department from performing more than one primary search during an incident. However, once you complete primary search of an IDLH (immediately dangerous to life and health) atmosphere, it is unlikely that a civilian will survive until somebody returns to search again.

Example situation: The house fire mentioned previously has been “stabilized.” That is, the fire has been confined and extinguished and primary search has been deemed “all clear.” An overhaul safety survey has been performed and personnel have received fluids during rehab. The fireground operation is ready to continue.

Example communication: “Main Street Command from Division A. Secondary search of floor 2 complete, nothing found. Secondary search of floor 1 in progress.” (Main Street Command doesn’t care who is performing the secondary search or where each team searching is located. All the command post wants to know is the progress of the tactical objective secondary search.)

5. Evacuate – The fifth civilian life safety word, evacuate, means the proactive, orderly removal of civilians before they become a life safety problem. Like secondary search, evacuate is actually an incident stabilization word, not a life safety word.

My rationale is simple: If civilians are not proactively evacuated, they could become a life safety problem, and destabilize the incident. Because of its meaning and intent, a close relative of evacuate is “shelter in place.”

Example situation: Twenty-story multi-family building. Hot, smoky fire on floor 14. Teams are working hard to confine, vent, and extinguish the fire. Floors above the fire are contaminated with smoke.

Example communication: “Main Street Command from Evacuation Group. Evacuation of floors 20 and 19 complete, evacuation of floors 17 and 16 in progress.”


1. Withdraw – The first firefighter life safety word, withdraw, means the proactive, orderly removal of firefighters before they become a life safety problem. Withdraw is not a civilian-related life safety word.

To withdraw means that firefighters leave the hazard area (exit the building for example), taking tools and equipment with them. Withdraw means that firefighters will most likely exit from where they entered. No crisis, no imminent danger, perhaps simply an orderly strategic transition from offensive to defensive.

To withdraw can also mean that a potential hazard situation exists. Thus, just as evacuate means proactive removal of civilians before they need rescue, the call for firefighters to withdraw means that they are proactively removed from the hazard area before they need rapid intervention.

Example situation: The incident commander has broadcast, and dispatch has repeated, that the operational mode has transitioned to defensive. The command post had previously established two divisions. Both division supervisors have been notified of the defensive transition. The division supervisors must now ensure that teams assigned to their divisions exit to defensive (safe) positions.

Example communication: “The following companies withdraw from Division C; repeat, the following companies withdraw from Division C. Engine 25 acknowledge Truck 31 acknowledge. Engine 57 acknowledge. Division C acknowledgment complete.”

Question: Your team is busy performing primary search. On your portable radio you hear the incident commander broadcast, “Suppression Branch from Main Street Command. Evacuate the building.” Your correct response to this transmission would be to:

Answer: D. Continue with your assignment. To answer this question correctly, you and everybody else first need to know what the word evacuate means. Did the incident commander mean firefighters, civilians, or both? Is it possible that the incident commander intended that only civilians evacuate? You bet it’s possible, even likely.

Words should mean something. Do not allow one word to have two strategically significant fireground meanings. The difference between evacuate and withdraw is important: civilians are evacuated, firefighters are withdrawn.

2. Abandon – Because of what the second firefighter life safety word – abandon – means, it should rarely be heard on the fireground. Say a prayer that you never hear the word abandon used on the fireground.

Hearing the word abandon – for example, “Abandon the building!” – informs firefighters that they are in immediate peril. Abandon means that the situation is very unstable and firefighters are in immediate danger. A crisis situation now exists. If the word withdraw is proactive, then the word abandon is the complete opposite; abandon is 100% reactive.

Hearing abandon broadcast on the radio is not good news. Abandon means that firefighters are at great risk and that you are no longer in control of the incident, the incident now controls you.

Abandon describes a crisis, personal survival situation. Firefighters hastily escape from any location where they can quickly exit. Non-essential tools and equipment are dumped and, quite possibly, each firefighter is literally on his or her own to escape. Firefighters on their own?’ Consider this situation: Firefighters working as a team hear a noise and look up to see a masonry parapet coming apart above them. They scatter, self-preservation. Firefighters don’t wait for the team to assemble, count heads, collect tools and then run. Nobody waits for permission.

It is always in the best interest of firefighters that incident managers initiate a proactive “withdraw from the building” rather than push the envelope until a reactive “abandon the building” is required.

3. Intervention – The third firefighter life safety word – intervention – refers to the removal of endangered firefighters. Words should mean something: Intervention means endangered firefighters; rescue means endangered civilians.

As you have just learned, fireground words should mean something and that a single word can denote the strategy, the tactics and the urgency. Rapid intervention is relatively new to the fire service vernacular; we now have an opportunity to differentiate between the removal of a civilian and the removal of a firefighter. Intervention means to support the survival and to facilitate the removal of a firefighter.

The proactive deployment of a rapid intervention team is the minimum standard of care for offensively deployed firefighters. When firefighters hear the word intervention broadcast on their radio it should mean that a firefighter is in immediate danger and there will be a prompt, coordinated intervention by a rapid intervention team (or preferably rapid intervention group).

Never forget the most important of my “Command Caveats”: If you need it, and it’s not there and available, it’s too late.

Example Situation: A firefighter is down on floor 2. His partner immediately transmitted, “Mayday from Engine 85, firefighter down on floor 2; repeat, Mayday from Engine 85, fir fighter down on floor 2.” The rapid intervention team is activated and enters to assess the situation and provide immediate life-saving assistance. Main Street Command immediately assembles a rapid intervention group with a supervisor, three teams (including the original rapid intervention team) and a medic unit.

Example communication: “Main Street Command from Intervention Group. Intervention in progress from side B on floor 2. Put Airlift on standby. Need two additional teams.”


The solution to your fireground communication problems is very simple: words. Knowing what the words are and what each word means provides the first step toward improving your fireground communications.

My hope is that clarifying the words of life safety will enable you and your fire department to begin improving that persistent, consistent and annoying fireground problem: Communication.

Mark Emery will present “Communication Solutions” at Firehouse World 2005 in San Diego, Jan. 31-Feb. 4.Mark Emery, a 21-year fire and life safety veteran, is an operations battalion chief in King County, WA. He also is a partner in Fire Command Inc., which has provided incident management solutions throughout the Pacific Northwest since 1986. Emery is co-developer of the Integrated Tactical Accountability System (ITAC) and author of The Ten Command-ments of an Intelligent and Safe Fireground Operation. He is a graduate of the National Fire Academy’s Executive Fire Officer Program and is a National Fire Academy instructor specialist, and has a bachelor’s degree in education from California State University at Long Beach. Emery also developed the six-week Officer Development Academy and the Advanced Pump Operator Academy in King County He may be contacted at [email protected].

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