Are We on the “Same Page”?

BY ALAN BRUNACINI

The current management topic of situation awareness is now showing up in more and more business-related stuff. It seems the topic is highly relevant to the command and tactical things we do on the fireground. The regular management types apply developing a higher level of awareness to more typical organizational situations like producing a financial spreadsheet that creates a more accurate future prediction of where the “business puck” is going so they can skate there ahead of the competition. Just like us, if they are in the right place, doing the right thing, they win; if they are not, they may not get another season. Although we are similar and there is a lot we can learn from them, we are also, at the same time, very different. Simply, their hazard zone is not like ours. When they lose, they get a pink slip; when we lose, we get bagpipe music.

Another fire service phrase I hear a lot today that is closely connected to situation awareness (and also really applies to hazard zone management) has to do with us all being on “the same page.” We use this phrase to describe, for example, a fire operation where everyone on the team was in their assigned place, playing their position, hooked up to the overall strategy, effectively doing their part of the incident action plan. We use the same phrase to describe just the opposite. We might describe a fire situation where we had lots of coordination, communications, and conflict because we could not get everyone on “the same page.”

When we examine how a firefight actually occurs, we quickly see how challenging it is to effectively connect a bunch of highly energized firefighters together on “the same page.” We routinely face and must deal with a whole set of difficult fireground conditions: critical things like lots of known and unknown high-risk conditions; lousy initial information; decentralized—sometimes widely separated—operating positions; difficult communications; and the consistent, major challenge of highly compressed time frames.

There is no way that we could survive all this by ourselves. Simply, these typical fireground conditions exceed any single person’s attention (i.e., awareness) span. There is no way one person could run far or fast enough to take in, sort out, and keep straight all the tactical details of an active fire situation. This incident complexity also becomes some of the reasons it is so difficult to sometimes get everyone together within the same chapter, much less on the same page. Our response to this ongoing, ever present, overwhelming challenge is that in the fire service, from our first day to our last, we are part of a team. We basically do not do anything by ourselves. In fact, on the fireground, if you are all by yourself in the hazard zone, you are in the front end of being a candidate for a lot of desperate Mayday attention if anything goes wrong—and you are in the place where a lot can and sadly does go wrong!

The way the team deals with establishing and then maintaining an effective level of overall collective awareness of a complex, fast-moving tactical situation is pretty simple. We create an organization designed to fit the operational needs of that particular situation using regular incident command system elements. We then delegate, using SOPs/orders, a command or an operational assignment to everyone within the organization. SOPs become our basic “playbook” that describes the roles, formations, and moves we make when we operate and become a major way we go into the incident on “the same page.” A regular and critical part of every fireground assignment is to be aware of the current and changing conditions going on in our assigned spot within the incident organization.

To be effective, the system must use communications SOPs to train everyone to understand the difference between routine and critical information. Routine information goes with and stays with that assignment. This category of regular, ongoing information, thankfully, comprises the majority of fireground information. This information describes what normally goes on in that activity and is generally verified and exchanged in regular condition, progress, exception, and completion reports. The other category of information relates to critical information. This is something that will critically affect another place in the organization or even the entire operation. This information generally relates to a safety or operational condition that many times is critical enough to be transmitted as higher-priority emergency traffic.

For us, the point of team awareness and information exchange is to produce effective action, so every part of the organization must respond/take action to those awareness details in an empowered way. We get the job done by performing the manual labor of firefighting on the task level. Always maintaining the capability to effectively move both routine and critical messages is a major command system and situation awareness capability. To maintain this capability, the IC manages the overall strategic level as a “sitting boss.” Sectors/divisions/groups do the tactical level and operate as a “walking boss.” Fire companies work on the task level, and company officers are “working bosses.” Operating together, the team is able to initiate and maintain the capability to effectively complete its assignment, become aware of and respond to the critical factors all over the incident site, integrate its work into the incident action plan to get the job done, and survive working in the hazard zone. Doing this over and over creates predictability, dependability, and confidence. When all this happens, we are on the same page.

Retired Chief ALAN BRUNACINI is a fire service author and speaker. He and his sons own the fire service Web site bshifter.com.

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