Improving Fireground Communications


The January 2007 Fire Engineering Editor’s Opinion, “Renewing Our Legacy,” notes the passing of some great fire service leaders, such as Fire Engineering editors Dick Sylvia and Tom Brennan; author Frank Brannigan; and the ISFSI’s Ed McCormack, who once ran the FDIC. These shoes will be hard to fill. How do we do so?

It’s up to you! I encourage you to step up, take the lead, and change the fire service. I encourage you to take some risks to improve your work environment. Presented below are some ideas designed to improve your department’s procedures for communications and strategy and tactics. They didn’t originate from my desk; I bring in and use new ideas when I find they work.


Communication is critical in our exercise of emergency command and control. How we communicate, good or bad, is not a new topic in the fire service. In 2008, do we still need to standardize communication? Haven’t we figured it out by now? If the way we speak works for us every day, why change? One main reason is safety.

Standardizing communications is part of the ongoing effort to reduce the 100 line-of-duty fatalities the fire service suffers annually. A good communications plan helps us stay out of trouble and enhances accountability, coordination, and fireground skills. Effective communication is fundamental to a coordinated, successful attack.

The concept of command and control has been around for a long time. An early example is found in the Bible in the book of Exodus. Moses’ father-in-law, Jethro, advises him to divide the people into manageable groups and to put competent men in charge of them. Sound familiar?

My experience with command and control began when I joined the fire service in 1983. The incident command system (ICS) was then well established as our operating model in California.

After a round of devastating wildfires in 1970, Congress approved funding for the U.S. Forest Service (USFS) to work on improving operations in southern California, the outcome of which was FIRESCOPE (Firefighting Resources of Southern California Organized for Potential Emergencies). This was a cooperative effort between the USFS, the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection (Cal Fire), the California Office of Emergency Services (Cal-OES), and numerous local government agencies. These groups, with financial assistance from the federal government, attacked a local problem. Using a regional and cooperative approach, they developed a system (ICS) that worked for them and was designed to be functional wherever it was implemented. It then spread throughout different regions and went national, even international.

One main pillar of this system is common communications, which emphasizes terminology (clear text), technology (radio and frequency compatibility), and the elimination of coded message systems (e.g., 10 codes). International phonetics were also adopted as a standard for identifying certain functions and resource capabilities.

The mission and vision of FIRESCOPE continue to lead, support, and pursue the standardization of operations at all-risk emergencies nationwide. Much progress has been made since the 1970s. However, we still have a way to go.

Different agencies have approached the idea of a national system. “Different” systems continue to evolve and grow, acronyms like ICS, SEMS (standardized emergency management system), IMS (incident management system), and NIMS (national incident management system) are a testament to the human work on this issue.

Much has occurred since the early days of ICS. The lack of common communication came to the forefront with Hurricane Katrina. The problems first responders had with communications during this disaster were tremendous. This event lead to the term “interoperability” becoming part of our vocabulary. Can we possibly fix this issue once and for all? Will a federal mandate bring this issue to a positive conclusion? Will the NIMS compliance model make us one big happy family?

At this point, I’m suggesting a slightly different approach: Think nationally and act locally. A country as large and as diverse as ours will struggle to conform to a national model just because of human nature alone. However, regionally, we have our own way of using the English language. Often, we can recognize the region a person hails from just by hearing his voice.

Accents differ according to the regions of our country. In September 2006, I responded as a strike team leader trainee to the Day Fire in Ventura County, California. During my seven-day stay, the Southern Incident Management Team arrived to relieve crews, which were already stretched thin. During the daytime operational period, our strike team was redeployed to a division on the east side of the fire. When we arrived, a significant blowup was occurring. The division supervisor, a member of the Southern team, at one point in the event stated on the radio, “It’s fixin’ to come up out of this holler.” He immediately followed that transmission with the following caveat, “When I say ‘holler,’ I don’t mean yell; I mean drainage.” This gentleman, whom I never met, was using words that were perfectly acceptable in his region but meaningless to a whole lot to us “surfer dudes” from California.

Let me give you another example. My wife and I recently became parents of a toddler again, our adopted fourth child, Zoe Lynn, from the Chongqing region of central China. Her hometown is in Fu Ling, a city of 450,000, five hours by boat down the Yangtze River or three hours by car (a new road) from Chongqing (a city of 32 million). Our guide in China, Debora, who helped us with the adoption, speaks her native tongue, Mandarin and English. The nannies who brought us our daughter spoke a dialect of Mandarin that our guide could not fully understand. When we asked questions about our daughter, the interpreted answers were incomplete because of this difference in dialect. Although these two languages do not exist very far apart geographically, they might as well exist on different planets.

Similarly, in the fire service, we may all use an incident management system around the country, but is it the same system? Do our management systems have the same language? Are we consistent nationally? Regionally? State to state? County to county? Department to department? Shift to shift? Supervisor to subordinate?

Absolutely not! We have been mandated to speak the same language, but how can we possibly accomplish this? It can and must be done, and I have seen good examples of how it is possible.

I observed the best example at the Phoenix (AZ) Fire Department, where I was a guest at its Command Training Center, where Don Abbott works his magic. I observed senior and rookie officers go through a series of fireground command scenarios. The first day was C shift—believe me, they were C shifters. Before class, they were talking about the homes and apartments they were building on their days off. The remarkable thing was when they went into the command scenario room, they all fought fire the same way. Although their tactics were different because of the fire problem they faced, they spoke the same language to each other.

The next day was B shift—they were B shifters (I can say that being a former B shifter myself). All they talked about was how they goofed off on their four-day (B shifters know how to have fun). I was completely amazed when they went into the training session. Not only did they speak the same language to each other, but they spoke the same language the C shifters did the day before!

How did they do this? Practice. They had a plan, and they practiced it.

In reality, different forms of communication exist in the fire service, and I doubt we will ever fully change this. We first need to standardize regionally on communications issues on which we can agree. Although we can all adopt the NIMS standard, does that solve all of our problems? Regional dialects will still exist, and communication order models will differ from region to region.


One example is the way we order our words. My best friend is a retired firefighter in Oklahoma. He started his career in California. When he first went to Oklahoma, he had a difficult time with the order of communications.

In California, the unit initiating the communication does so by calling the radio designator with whom it wishes to speak, followed by its own designator. So when Engine 71 calls the battalion chief of Battalion 10, the message is “Battalion 10, Engine 71.”

But in Oklahoma (or at least the region where my friend worked) the order is reversed; the company initiating the communication first identifies itself and then the company to which it is communicating: “Engine 71, Battalion 10” or “Engine 71 to Battalion 10.”

The message is the same, but there are two completely different ways to say it. Your department must adopt a communications order model, one that preferably conforms to a regional standard. A regional standard is that form of speaking with which you and your neighbors are familiar and can live with. If a standard does not exist, starting with a NIMS-compliant foundation will save you headaches down the road.

Although NIMS talks about a communications order model, is this concept catching on? Do you use the nationally recognized model, or do you conform to a regional dialect? How do we resolve this issue? How do you eat an elephant? One bite at a time. If your region is not NIMS compliant, you should make it a goal to achieve this.

If communication standardization is a challenge for your region, be an agent of change and fix the problem. Find like-minded individuals who have influence in your area and form a communications committee. Outline the areas in which you disagree and those in which you agree. Study what other regions that are successful in communications use as their standard for cooperation. Don’t reinvent the wheel; good training officers “borrow” from their friends. Start small; think big.


Another important factor in the communication model is repeating the message to confirm it is accurately understood. The communicator wants to know not only that he was heard but also that he was understood. The simple practice (and it takes practice) of the recipient’s repeating the main points of the message confirms that the message has been understood.

For example, the initial message: “Command, Engine 6, we are at the rear of the structure. We have an exposure problem. We are defensive. Send us another engine to assist with establishing a water supply.”

The response: “Command copies. Engine 6 at the rear of the structure with an exposure problem. You are defensive. I will send you Engine 11 to assist with water supply. You will now be Division C, Charley.”

To which Engine 6 responds: “Engine 6 copies. Division C with Engine 6 and Engine 11.”

Simply repeating the main points of each exchange confirms to the sender and receiver that communication has occurred and it has been understood.


Good fireground communication begins with a good size-up. Size-up is not just talking on the radio to paint a picture of what you see; that is a report on conditions. The size-up is the process of gathering information, putting it together, and deciding on actions to take based on the analysis. There are numerous books on size-up, and I will not pretend to be able to match the excellent thinking of those authors. If you don’t have a good grasp on size-up, get one of these excellent books and read it.

OCAA. The initial report on conditions is a critical first-arriving officer function. If the initial report does not paint the picture, the incident is behind the power curve from the get-go. Using a systematic approach in these verbal reports is essential. One tool that I have found (I don’t remember the source) is the acronym OCAA (“o-ka”: object, condition, action, assignment). It is a quick way to remember the essential information needed for a report on conditions. The first-due officer gives a report on conditions following the OCAA acronym:

  • Object that has the problem: single-story residence; multistory, multifamily dwelling; vehicle, etc.
  • Condition of involved object: heavy black smoke, well-involved, nothing visible, etc.
  • Action you and your company intend to take: offensive fire attack, exposure protection, investigation, etc.
  • Assignment of incoming alarm companies to needed tasks: Level 1 stage, water supply, ventilation, traffic control, etc.

The actions the company is taking are communicated to further paint the picture of the type of operations being attempted. In this report, assignments identify the next operational need according to fireground priority. These assignments will change based on the fire problem and the available responding resources. This process can be practiced through drill-ground scenarios or fire simulation.

Coordinate/Communicate/Attack. In making action and assignment decisions, officers and future officers should practice Coordinate/Communicate/Attack. This mental process helps you formulate your game plan in your head, communicate it to the rest of the assignment responding, and then have them execute the planned attack in a coordinated fashion.

  • Coordinate. Consider the fire problem you face; decide your strategy—offensive or defensive; and identify the resources you have available and their capabilities. What are your tactical priorities? Who can accomplish those tasks?
  • Communicate. Take a short time to decide the message you want to send, and then communicate your message to the receivers. Follow a communications model such as OCAA or another one that works for you. Ensure that your assignments are clear and that they are understood. Practice having the message recipient units repeat the message they heard, to confirm that they heard the right message.
  • Attack. Carry out the tactics that you decided on in a coordinated fashion with the other companies working the incident. There is only one way to make this process happen—practice!

The outcome should be an orchestrated and successful resolution of the problem you face. This sounds like “pie in the sky” thinking; but if you practice, it can happen.


An initial fireground commander should be able to articulate a verbal plan to an incoming superior officer who plans on taking command. Often, this new officer arrives, figures out his own plan, and changes what you are doing. It doesn’t have to be that way if you articulate your plan from the beginning. The initial strategy decision and subsequent tactics should be able to be put into a written Incident Action Plan (IAP) with very little difficulty.

For example, Engine 1 pulls up to a single-family wood-frame structure. Moderate gray/black smoke is coming from the gable vent on the structure’s leeward side, and some smoke is coming out under pressure from the eaves. The homeowner meets the engine captain and advises that everyone is out of the house and he believes the fire is in the attic. The officer has seen this situation before and begins to formulate his plan. He coordinates in his mind what needs to happen and begins to process how he wants to direct the other crews to effect a positive outcome. This sounds like it takes forever; but if you practice, this process only takes a few seconds.

The Engine 1 officer then communicates his plan: “Engine 1 has arrived and has smoke showing from the attic area of a single-story, single-family dwelling. The occupant advises that the house is evacuated. Engine 1 will be offensive in the property priority; we are entering the Alpha side with a crew of three; our air is full, and we will be salvaging and pulling ceiling.”

“Truck 2, evaluate the ventilation situation. Engine 2, get us a water supply. Medic 1, you have two out. Engine 3, you are RIC.”

If you had to pass this information along to an incoming officer, you could provide written or verbal incident objectives:

  • Maintain safe firefighting practices while preserving property in the property priority.
  • Comply with Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) requirements by establishing two in/two out and provide added safety with a standby rapid intervention company (RIC) when on-scene.
  • Initiate an offensive attack after initial property salvage is complete.
  • Identify the need for ventilation, and perform appropriate ventilation methods, consistent with attic fires, to safely assist interior crews.

These objectives are crude, but isn’t that basically what the crews are doing? You can get good at writing IAPs by practicing this verbalization of strategy on the drill grounds, in simulations, or just in your head. On routine incidents (what’s routine?), we typically do not create written plans. Often, there is no time or need to do so. However, if the opportunity presents itself, a written plan is a good idea. You should practice converting your strategic goals and tactical actions into written words whenever you can.


Once the initial report on conditions is performed, it’s not time to start freelancing on the radio with nonstandard communication. Now that the fight is on, radio discipline is more important than ever. A communication model becomes even more critical at this point.

Some points to include which may or may not be new to you are the following:

  • Modes of operation (strategy): offensive, defensive.
  • Priority of operation: life (rescue) or property (slow down, cowboy!).
  • Points of entry into the building.
  • Accountability: number of personnel in the company.
  • Amount of air in least-filled cylinder among the crew (full, three-quarters, half, one-quarter).

If we add a quick step at the end of each transmission, a personnel accountability and air report (PAAR), we can give vital information that the incident commander wants and needs. This report requires the officer to be “Air Aware” of himself and his crew and also to be certain of the physical location of each member assigned to him.

A typical transmission following this model: “Battalion 10, Engine 71 is taking fire attack; we are offensive; we have a possible rescue; we are entering the building on the A alpha side; we have full air and a crew of three.”

The battalion chief responds: “Battalion 10 copies. Engine 71 taking fire attack; rescue mode; entering the Alpha side with a crew of three; full air. Battalion 10 has arrived and is establishing Cul-de-sac Command.”

Conditions/Actions/Needs. Once operations have begun, the parties on-scene have conflicting needs. The IC needs information, and the interior crews need radio air time. If radio discipline is not maintained, no one gets what they need. One method for streamlining communications and maintaining discipline is using conditions, actions, and needs (CAN) reports. This easy-to-remember acronym functions well on the fireground and meets both needs described above. Without the CAN report, the IC might call in to the interior crew and question them on their progress. If the IC knows that a CAN report is coming, he would keep the radio channel open for the interior officer to relay information. If the officer working the interior of the fire reports CAN, the IC can respond constructively. Without this method of communication, a commander may frustrate the interior crews by constantly asking the questions to which he wants answers. A typical CAN exchange is below.

Interior crew: “Command, Fire Attack. We are on the second floor making our way to the seat of the fire. We are offensive. We have heavy smoke and heat; we need ventilation; three-quarters air; PAR of three.”

This report tells the IC what he needs to hear and accomplished the following:

  • The officer is still comfortable with his chosen strategy, offensive fire attack.
  • The crew has not attained its objective but is making progress.
  • Conditions are not ideal; the crew needs ventilation assistance.
  • Air supply is adequate to continue the operation.
  • All members who entered with the fire attack crew are accounted for (based on Command’s knowledge of fireground accountability of his crews).

Following this CAN report format will communicate the desired information. The IC now knows what he needs to do next—i.e., arrange ventilation for the attack crew.

Adopting this type of communication model is the first step. The next step is to put the plan into effect and practice with all of your crews. A written document to capture your communication model is helpful. You can use such a document as an outline for training objectives, and it will be available to your department members for future reference. Just writing it down and having it approved makes such a procedure a permanent part of your department culture.

• • •

We have come a long way since the 1970s, but there are some areas where we can still improve. If you find any truth to what I have shared and can relate situations in your operational areas, I hope I have given you some motivation to get involved. Many smart firefighters around the country have been working on these issues and are coming up with solutions. I would like to thank them for their mentorship and hard work on the examples presented. I hope that you appreciate the need for and value of common communication, a communications order model, and the practice of confirming the accuracy of all radio transmissions. The above tools can help improve your arrival reports, communicate goals and objectives through practicing and forming IAPs, and maintain incident radio discipline. If you face challenges in these areas, you will have a renewed motivation to be an agent of change and to develop your own strategies to move forward to improve the fire service in your area.

SEAN STUMBAUGH is a battalion chief with the Cosumnes Community Service District Fire Department in Elk Grove, California, assigned to the Training Division. He is a 24-year veteran of the fire service, has an associate’s degree in fire protection technology, and is a certified fire officer and instructor III.

No posts to display