Firefighter Close-Proximity Communication Through Nonverbal Methods

By John Checco

In the southern tier of New York State, FF-1 classes (aka “Essentials”) regularly consist of students that are representative of the communities they serve. This includes civic-minded volunteers with varying degrees of English comprehension, from ESL (English as a Second Language) to absolutely no English understanding at all. Yet, these individuals that have various comprehension abilities, whether it be a language barrier or other condition, has a direct effect on the ability of that person as a first responder to listen and operate safely.

New York State, unlike the United Stated Armed Forces, has no explicit requirement on spoken language for emergency service personnel. Therefore, instructors must rely on the local department heads, who submit students for training to have properly vetted their candidates for meeting mental, physical, and communication requirements specific to their department. As such, we must support such candidates as best as possible.

Beyond the insurmountable task of persuading any government agency to require a common language for firefighting, we must look at alternate ways to communicate firefighting operations effectively with non-English-speaking first responders.


Communication Paradigms

For the purposes of this article, I will outline two broad categories of communication: “Fireground” and “close-proximity” communication.

Fireground communication. This occurs between any two parties regardless of distance—dispatch to command, command to operations, roof operations to engine operations, search operations to medical teams, and so on. Such communications require the use of fixed location radios, mobile and portable radios.

Close-proximity communication. This is for directing operations within small teams working in immediately dangerous to life and health (IDLH) environments where radio usage is inappropriate, or there exists extreme noise, traffic, and other situational issues.

RELATED: Zaitz on Fireground CommunicationsTerpak: The Oral Communications Assessment CenterStratton on Wearing Portable Radios


Problem Statement

The reality is that well-seasoned firefighters—especially those teams that work together frequently—do communicate nonverbally quite well in IDHL environments. Yet there is little documentation on close-proximity communications beyond those needed for specific tasks, much less standardization. This results in many customized signals that emergency service personnel must remember (but may rarely use). Current resources on firefighting communication through hand signals or other nonverbal methods has been limited in both sources and depth, some of which follow:

            o Speaks to traffic and apparatus navigation signals, but not to firefighting operations.

  • Fire Engineering’s Handbook for Firefighter I and II (Chapter 17).

            o   Figure 17-83 (page 539) highlights nonverbal communications as a safety guide during saw operations, but fails to detail the exact protocol.

  • Dive Rescue. There exist variations of communications protocols.

            o National Association of Underwater Instructors vs. Professional Association of Dive Instructors certification.

            o DRI vs. LGS signaling standards.

            o Sender vs. Receiver signals (

  • International Fire Service Training Association, Chapter 10—Confined Space Rescue Awareness.

            Use O-A-T-H method with line:

            o One tug represents “O”—OK.

            o Two tugs represents “A” —Advance.

            o Three tugs represents “T” —Take-up slack.

            o Four tugs represents “H”—Help.

            o   “Unit Intercommunications” only specify radio protocols.

Engine company officers should develop a communication system with the nozzle firefighter for use when voice communications are impaired due to stream impact noise, power saw operations, opening up and ventilation noise. The following system of touch signals can be used in conjunction with verbal commands to relay orders:

  1. Opening or closing the nozzle—One or two slaps on the back or shoulder.
  2. Direction of stream—tug or pull on the arm or nozzle, either left or right.
  3. Advancement of hoseline—steady push on back or mask cylinder.
  4. Halt or stop advance—pull back on shoulder bunker coat or mask assembly.

A physical communication system between the Guide Man and the Operator will be as follows:

  1. One slap on the back of Operator ……………………Stop Cut.
  2. Two slaps on the back of Operator ………………….Cut.
  3. Three slaps on the back of Operator ………………..Shut Down Saw.

Although the FDNY has explicitly defined varying close-proximity signals in their operational chapters, there are several deficiencies with these teachings, which follow:

  • Inconsistency. For example, What does two slaps mean? (different based on engine or ladder operations); Are slaps the same as tugs? What about pushing on a mask on a roof operation?
  • Documentation reference. Does such signaling need to be reiterated in Chapter 7 on Communications as well?


Local Alternatives

As a county fire instructor for the past six years, I have been augmenting many of the hands-on skills with nonverbal techniques for close-proximity communication—during search, hoseline, and roof operations—to help overcome limited visibility, operational distractions, and high noise levels. I teach the following protocol, which is similar to that originating from the backstep buzzer and similar to the FDNY Saw Operations as well as the O-A-T-H protocol used in confined space rescue.

  • 1 = “Stop/Listen” (sender) à “Okay” (receiver).
  • 2 = “Go”, “Continue,” “Advance,” or “Forward.”
  • 3 = “Back up/Back out” or “Take up [tether] slack.”
  • 4+ = “Attention/Help needed.”

These actions can take a number of forms: a tap on the shoulder, a tug on a rope, or banging a tool on the floor; they all mean the same thing. This has proven to be very effective because of its clear (dis-ambiguous) nature and concise (minimalist) instruction set. Also, when using a rope or banging sound to communicate over short distances, we instruct the receiver of the message to acknowledge the correct signal by repeating it (a standard operating guideline for dive rescue/recovery teams.

In IDLH environments, it is imperative to have a consistent set of signals that you can use regardless of the situation or context.


Request for Information

Ideally, a global standard for close-proximity, nonverbal signals and tactile communication techniques is needed to ensure consistent communication regardless of language or environment.

  1. Should close-proximity, nonverbal communication as an operational protocol be standardized?
  2. Does your fire department/district or local authority having jurisdiction require a common language or comprehension ability?
  3. Is your fire department/district or local fire training facility promoting their own signaling?
  4. Has your fire department/district solved the problem in a unique or novel way?

This may be a small tactic that needs to be vetted, but it is one that I feel is very important.

Please feel free to e-mail me with your thoughts and experience.


John Checco is a New York State fire instructor. He can be reached at

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