Communications Broke Down: An Excuse for a Serious Problem

Silhouette of a firefighter

(Photo by Tony Greco)

By Roger Lunt

At the conclusion of a crew review over their most recent structure fire, where there were serious concerns with the coordination of ventilation and the interior hoseline, the statement is made: “Our communications broke down again, it happens.”

It may be accurate to define the event in this way. However, it is unacceptable if that statement is used to end the conversation rather than starting a conversation that seeks to fix the communication problem.

If you keep doing the same thing over and over, you should NOT expect different results. If you have a communication problem and explain it away with “Communication broke down again,” expect a repeat appearance with this fire scene problem. In fact, consider the statement to be a front door welcome mat for your frequent fire scene visitor, chaos.

Not establishing departmental communication protocols–such as the removal of ALL 10 codes, speaking plain English, practicing “Hey you, it’s me” communications, and providing a personnel accountability report (PAR) number each time you offer a status report, and simply provide complete feedback–is equivalent to inviting Mr. Murphy to a fire scene chaos party. These protocols are not difficult to establish and practice. They probably require no more communication discipline than you would expect at the drive-up screen of a popular fast-food chain. “Copy, please drive to the next window.”

It is not uncommon to have a member on the roster that speaks too quickly over the radio, has not quite figured out the push-to-talk technique, speaks too softly, or even sounds like they have swallowed the radio microphone. Any one of these people challenge our communication process and invites chaos onto our fire scene.

Communication refers to the exchange of thoughts and ideas with the intention of conveying information. The importance of communication skills cannot be underestimated. The lack of effective communication will have a negative impact on the safety and performance of response personal and the overall effectiveness of the response.

Although it is understood that all response personnel have their respective organizational communication practices and policies, these may not be easily understood and used on the multi-agency response. The efforts of other agencies to adapt to what seems to be a foreign language will risk a serious breakdown of all communications.

The following bullet points are universally accepted as activities or techniques that will be supportive of effective response communications.

1) Avoid the use of 10 codes

Most responders do not use 10 codes, and those who do will not likely apply the same meaning to the codes as one of the other agencies on the response. If you are only using 10-4 you are using 10 codes. This will threaten effective communications and ultimately the safety of firefighters.

10 codes are typically not used in everyday conversations. There is no need to inject them when someone is in harm’s way or personal property is being damaged. I have heard new recruits question why they must learn a new, numerically based language in an environment that is certain to create high stress and risk, and I have yet to hear a good response to their life-safety based question.

Some say 10 codes speed up communications by shortening what is spoken. To that I ask, “What is the hurry if the goal is to communicate something important?” Some say 10 codes were developed so others do not know what is being said. To that I say, “I agree, 10 codes were developed to confuse communications.”

2) Communicate with Plain English

All responders must understand that the use of plain and simple English should be practiced throughout the response. This practice should apply even when the members of the same agency are communicating. Plain English is the common language of our responders.

3) Understand that agency jargon is not universally understood.

While we have our jargon, keep the verbal communication simple. Clearly the fire service has jargon and labels that must be used to identify our unique tools and techniques. I suspect the same could be said for most careers. Keep it simple, and incorporate, as needed, the career-specific terms and labels into our daily plain English.     

4) Get attention with “Hey You! It’s Me!”

Whenever speaking over the radio, practice the “Hey You! It’s Me!” format of communications to capture the receiver’s attention. Give the name of the person being called before you give yours. Main Street Command from EMS Group.

It is always best to get the attention of the person with whom you want to communicate prior to sending your message, i.e. “Command from Staging” NOT “Staging calling Command.”

5) Always provide communication feedback.

You should repeat what you believe to be the critical message you just received from a sender. This is universally referred to as feedback and a proven technique to improve upon the goal of a message being been sent and received. The following are not acceptable communication stand-alone feedback: copy, understand, 10-4, roger that, clicking of the microphone.

You can never be absolutely certain that your message was received accurately if feedback is not a part of the communication process. It is a fact that the communication process is not complete if feedback has been omitted. Firefighters can be seriously hurt or killed when sloppy with communications. Understanding each other, especially when there is the potential for personal injury or loss of property, should never be an assumption.

When communicating with a radio, feedback shares the critical part of fire scene messages over the radio twice. There are two different radios and broadcasts from two different locations. Obviously this can greatly enhance the communication process.

6) Use the command label correctly.

Establish a command system that has only one incident commander (IC) and only permits the label of command to be used by the I.C. The incorporation of command into several response titles/labels can confuse communications. Having traffic command, rescue command, security command, interior command will challenge clear communications.

7) Always establish and maintain an incident management system.

The only way to ensure good communications that will support safety and efficiency of the response is that everyone work under an established incident management system.

8) Know when and how to use the National Incident Management System (NIMS).

NIMS was not developed for the 15-firefighter response to a kitchen fire in a mobile home. Though the intent of NIMS exists on any incident with an effective response management system, attempting to apply the letter of NIMS on all incidents can threaten communications.

On incidents of multi-operational periods with multi-response agencies, use the NIMS response structure. This will standardize organizational structure and communications with all agencies.

9) Use a department-standardized format for the on-scene report.

Initial on-scene reports should be given by the first-arriving agency and follow the format of location, what do you have, what are you doing, what do you need, and who is command. This report incorporates the mental process of size-up but is not referred to as size-up–it is a report.

10) Use a department-standardized format for status reports.

Status radio reports should follow the format of location, what do you have, what are you doing, what do you need. These can be solicited or unsolicited reports as long as the purpose is to support the safety and efficiency of the response.

11) Provide a PAR number each time you offer a status report.

I have yet to find a group of firefighters that did not believe the IC held a responsibility for tracking their activities and locations. However, it is not common to hear a group leader express that he or she never misses an opportunity to remind the IC of the size of the group. During a recent conversation with my son, Firefighter Chad Lunt of the Kansas City (MO) Fire Department, he stated, “Do it correctly every single time or expect to do it wrong when it matters.” The message within his statement applies here. When on the response, and the opportunity arises, always remind your direct report of the number within your group, even if you think it may not be important at the moment.

Tracking our personnel is a responsibility of all firefighters. Help the IC track your group by providing the number of firefighters in the group with nearly every radio message that you deliver. For example: “Command from attack.” “Attack is on two with three under heavy heat and low visibility…”

12) Use a department-standardized format and policy for transfer of command.

This should be a formalized face-to-face or radio-communicated process that follows the format of location, what you have, what you are doing, and what you need

The intent of this format is to get all necessary information. It is rarely possible to actually have an uninterrupted conversation with the IC that allows you to obtain this information as easy as just asking four questions.

13) Use caution when passing command.

The arrival of a ranking officer or official on the response scene does not necessarily indicate that command has been transferred to that officer or official. The practice of announcing an automatic transfer of command can quickly lend to a complete breakdown of communications.

Command is not automatically passed to the next arriving senior official or officer without the fulfillment of specific conditions. The scene commander must always be on the scene of the incident before and during the fulfillment of the IC position. The person assuming command will communicate with the person being relieved by radio or preferably face-to-face that command has been transferred.

14) Eliminate unnecessary radio traffic.

Command officers and representatives of all response agencies should eliminate all unnecessary radio traffic while responding unless such communications are required to ensure that command functions are initiated and completed. This requires the person initially in command to give a clear on-the-scene report and continue to give updated progress reports as needed.

15) Know your department response goals prior to the response.

All responders must understand that the prioritized listing of goals in an isolated area on the response or the overall response area is life safety, incident stabilization, and then environmental and property preservation. This understanding will reduce the challenge to effective communications that occurs when a part of the response is not in support of the current response activities. These can only be realigned after communicated approval from the IC.

16) Know your department response labeled activities.

These are often referred to as tactical priorities. These must be communicated to be tracked and organized with other response activities and also support the goals of the response.

Although everyone may have the same response goals, it will be the properly communicated labeled activities that keep the response on track with how we have prioritized those goals. Thus, everyone is working on the same page of the same book.

17) Establish and work within operational levels.

The establishment of three operational levels–strategic, tactical, and task–will support clarity of duty and direct communication reports for responders. Each responder must understand the operational level in which he or she operates. This will reduce unnecessary communications that risk leaving those who should be informed out of the communication loop.

The objective must be to develop the command organization at a pace which stays ahead of, or even with, the tactical operations. If this is not achieved, effective communications for the response will suffer and may never be fully repaired.

18) Communicate response benchmarks.

Benchmarks will communicate a great deal with regards to achievement of response goals and tactical decisions and activities. They apply to geographical locations–NE section of city, a building, or an area within and around a building.

Benchmarks must match the three response goals–All clear (life safety goal achieved), under control (incident stabilization goal achieved), and lost stopped (environmental and property preservation goal achieved).

19) Assign proper labeling of your most valued resource.

Whenever possible refer to engaged resources (personnel) with geographical (division) or functional (group) labels. This will support the communication process by identifying activities and assignments within the label.

20) Do not give conflicting directives.

This must be avoided throughout the various levels of operations. The responsibility for the avoidance of conflicting directives rests with the strategic and tactical leaders of the response, not with the firefighter at the task-level of operation.

Communication Support Activity: Speaking Clearly                  

Set up tables and chairs at a distance apart whereby if a firefighter is speaking over the radio from one table (table 1), a firefighter at the opposing table (table 2) can only hear what is being said via the radio. However, by raising a voice from either firefighter, both could be heard without the hand-held radio.

Table 1: The training officer is positioned at this table. He or she has a typed prepared message to read via the use of a hand-held radio. The message should be similar to a message commonly heard via the radio on the response scene. For example: “Command this is attack. There are three firefighters on attack on the second floor. We have light smoke and low heat conditions. We are moving down the hall. We don’t need anything at this time.”

Table 2: A department officer is at this table with a portable radio and will listen to the quality of the audio message being read and broadcast via portable radio at table 1.

Place a firefighter in a full set of structural turnout gear and have him or her conduct predetermined activities that are expected to, at a minimum, moderately elevate respirations and heart rate. After the expenditure of about 50 percent of the air cylinder, the firefighter will go to table 1 and read the prepared message using fire department hand-held radio.

The department officer at table two will be able to see and hear that the firefighter is sending a message, and then be able to shout back to the firefighter (message sender) what difficulties are being experienced, if any. For example, the firefighter may be talking too fast, too slow, too low, if the voice is over modulated, or if perhaps it sounds as if the sender first swallowed the mic. In some cases the firefighter (message sender) may even discover that the mic is not being pressed before speaking and thus the first word or two of the message is not sent.

Every firefighter will learn exactly where to hold his or her portable radio microphone and a speed, pitch, and volume of speech specific to them.

Within station-level crews, or even small career and volunteer fire departments, this is a great training support activity for better response scene communications.

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The statement “Communications broke down” is not the problem, but rather a way of verbalizing that something within the communication system did not work as you had wanted. Stating,“Communications broke down” should never be the ending of a conversation. The statement has identified that a problem exists. It is your responsibility to specifically identify and fix the communication problem.

Roger LuntRoger Lunt is a retired fire chief who spent 38 years in the fire service. He is the retired deputy director of the Illinois Fire Service Institute and is a field instructor with that organization. He has a bachelors degree in law enforcement administration and an associate degree in fire science technology. He is a founding member of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security. As a member of FEMA Region V Disaster Mortuary Response Team [DMORT], he deployed to New York within 24 hours of the collapse of the World Trade Center Towers, and deployed as a member of the United States Health and Human Services DMORT Weapons of Mass Destruction Team to the after math of Hurricane Katrina. He is the author of the self-published book, “Avoiding Fire Department Induced Chaos.” He can be contacted at rdlunt@gmail.com.

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