Tailboard Talk: Oh, Now I Get It

By Dane Carley and Craig Nelson

Scenario: A battalion chief (BC) is en route to a working house fire with what will be the two first-due engines on scene. The neighbors report that no one is home. The first-due engine reports a fire on the second floor during the size-up. The engine pulls a 1¾-inch preconnect for an initial interior attack. The second engine takes command and starts coordinating with the first engine. As the BC arrives on scene, command orders the first engine out of the house. He also orders a second 1¾- and a 2½-inch line to come to the C side of the house. The BC has not yet taken command but cannot figure out why such an order is given.

From the BC’s perspective, all he can see is a little fire coming through the roof, so it looks like the opportune time to make an aggressive interior attack before it spreads throughout the attic. The BC knows the captain makes good decisions, but he just cannot figure out why this decision was made at this point in the fire. So, the BC exits his vehicle and walks around the house to gain a better understanding of what is happening. As the BC rounds the B/C corner (where the captain in command is standing), he sees that the entire second floor is on fire on the C side. It has burned through a large area of the roof and is coming out all of the windows. The captain had a better grasp of the extent of fire and knew that a single 1¾-inch preconnect had insufficient gallonage for the volume of fire.

What happened here? This is a great example of a lack of a shared understanding. Developing situational awareness means more than just understanding the situation from one person’s perspective. Understanding the situation as a whole (at least to the extent possible on the fire ground) reduces the possibility of having a crew perform a task that places another in a dangerous situation or placing crews in unsafe positions.

Situational awareness is at its peak when everyone understands the situation the same; they share an understanding. A shared understanding is developed when each person contributes relevant information as necessary, a leader [e.g., the incident commander (IC) or a company officer] develops a plan of action based on that information, and then makes sure everyone involved understands the way in which the plan will be implemented including trigger points for members to contribute additional information or to change the plan of attack.

Developing a shared understanding is a key to a successful outcome in any situation. What would have happened had the BC in this scenario ordered the interior crew to stay inside the house? Chances are high that the crew would have been overrun by fire, and it would have extended further because of an insufficient volume of water. Regardless of the exact situation, not developing a shared understanding can lead to, at best, an ineffective attempt at solving a problem but, at worst, a dangerous situation with crews putting each other in danger.

Figure 1. Everyone on scene sees different pieces of the same situation. Developing a shared understanding requires those on scene to transmit relevant pieces of information to the decision maker—considering this information is meant to improve your understanding of the situation—and then transmit the plan to everyone involved so all responders see the same situation.

Discussion Questions

  1. What fire service habits hinder the development of a shared understanding?
  2. What behavior helps an IC or company officer develop a better understanding of the situation?
  3. Watch and listen to this video: Structure Fire with Radio – Minneapolis – 4/29/2013 Part 1. What do you hear going on at this scene in relation to developing a shared understanding?


Possible Discussion Topics

1. Some common obstacles to developing a shared understanding include the following:

a. Not recognizing the importance of listening to everyone’s input including the newest firefighter (see our Tailboard Talk article titled “Do Your New Firefighters Think They Know Everything?

b. Teaching firefighters to avoid transmitting information on the radio (see our Tailboard Talk article titled “Do Firefighters Talk Too Much or Not Enough?”).

c. An overreliance on rank and its associated symbols (lower rank employees are literally afraid to bring up certain subjects to a superior).

2. The most basic behavior that helps an IC or company officer develop a better understanding of a situation is to listen…ACTUALLY listen. Listening means reacting positively to input. This means waiting up to 30 seconds before responding to what someone says. It only takes five seconds to form a response (that is usually defensive), but it takes 30 seconds for the brain to actually process the importance of what is being said.

3. This video shows a great fire attack with many positive examples. It is a great training video, and our question is not intended to detract from this. This video happens to contain an excellent example of how a single action can affect the understanding of what is going on. Some key points in the video follow:

a. 5:30—radio traffic starts talking about a water supply.

b. 7:30—the supply engine’s pump primer can be heard in the background.

c. 8:30—interior crews report losing water.

d. 9:00—the supply engine’s primer can be heard again.

e. 9:15—crews report that both lines lose water.

f.  9:30—the supply engine’s primer can still be heard.

g. 9:45—rapid intervention team reports a solution to the water supply problem over the radio and command tells them to stay off the radio.

h. Within the first 30 seconds of part 2, command begins to share the understanding of what is happening, and by 1:15 evacuates all of the crews because there is no water.


Craig Nelson (left) works for the Fargo (ND) Fire Department and works part-time at Minnesota State Community and Technical College – Moorhead as a fire instructor. He also works seasonally for the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources as a wildland firefighter in Northwest Minnesota. Previously, he was an airline pilot. He has a bachelor’s degree in business administration and a master’s degree in executive fire service leadership.

Dane Carley (right) entered the fire service in 1989 in southern California and is currently a captain for the Fargo (ND) Fire Department. Since then, he has worked in structural, wildland-urban interface, and wildland firefighting in capacities ranging from fire explorer to career captain. He has both a bachelor’s degree in fire and safety engineering technology, and a master’s degree in public safety executive leadership. Dane also serves as both an operations section chief and a planning section chief for North Dakota’s Type III Incident Management Assistance Team, which provides support to local jurisdictions overwhelmed by the magnitude of an incident.

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