By Mark van der Feyst
Communications in the fire service plays a vital role in how well a fire department responds, reacts, and conducts itself in its day-to-day operations. A breakdown in communications leads to a dysfunctional fire department or fireground. The fire services uses different types of communications with which we should all be familiar and well versed such as written, face-to-face (photo 1), electronic, and radio.
In the station, we are exposed to written, face-to-face, and electronic communications. Written communications will include memos, communiques, e-mails, bulletins, and so on. These are usually posted somewhere for all to see or they may be directed at one person. Either way, there is time for the receiver to read the item and gain an understanding of it.
(1) Photos by author.
There is also time to ask questions for clarification and to engage in a discussion about the content of the written material. Electronic communication will be in the form of an e-mail sent by mobile phone, text message (either individual or group), or social media postings. These types of communications will (usually) be directed to a single person or to a group of people that have access to the media. The message is going to be short and sweet with little room for interpretation or discussion. The idea of electronic communication is to have quick dialogue with one or more person.
On the firegound, we are limited to certain types of communication such as radio, electronic, and face-to-face. Portable radio is the most common type of communication for most firefighters. A portable radio allows a team of firefighters to remain in contact with the incident commander (IC) as well as each other; it is a lifeline for the firefighter working on the fireground. Without it, they are left to more primitive ways to communicate such as face to face. The portable radio gives distance to the working crew by allowing it to be farther away from the IC and still be able to report back to him or receive messages. Knowing how to use the portable radio correctly is the key to effective fireground communications.
Today, we also have the advantage of using cell phones or mobile devices. We can use this advanced technology on the fireground, but in a limited capacity. Interior crews will not be able to use these devices, but exterior sector officers and the entire command staff can. This allows these members to communicate with instant results without involving the portable radio. This will also allow the interior crews to have ample air time for their purpose.
Out of all the ways to communicate with a person or persons, face-to-face is the best. It allows the receiver and the sender to have instant acknowledgement from each other when passing on information, asking a question, or giving an order. Facial expressions as well as body language are also used in this method to convey or receive messages. There is an opportunity to clarify the message to obtain a full understanding of it. The downside to face-to-face communication is that it reduces the distance at which a crew can work from the IC or sector officer. As a result, crews and officers must maintain close proximity with each other to remain in contact.
The same goes for interior crews working with a limited number of portable radios or if their portable radios fail. Defaulting back to traditional face-to-face or verbal communications will be the only to communicate with each other. For some firefighters, this is a lost art, where dependence on the portable radio is all they know. So, train on how to communicate on the fireground when the portable radio fails or is lost during an interior operation to reinforce the traditional skills needed when the time comes…and it WILL come because a portable radio is powered by a battery, which itself WILL fail.
When firefighters use portable radios on the fireground, communications can become confusing or hard to follow; this is because of several reasons. One is the usage of 10 codes. Using 10 codes in the fire service has been removed when the National Incident Management System (NIMS) came into existence. NIMS was created and implemented in the wake of the tragedy on 9/11. The communications breakdown that day and in the days to followed led to the adoption and use of a common language called “plain text language,” which is an everyday language we use to allow or people to communicate with each other. If different fire departments are working together at a fire, they will be able to speak to each other using plain text language.
Within NIMS there are also provisions for common terminology that we need to use on the fireground. Certain terms such as sectors, divisions, geographical designations of buildings (Alpha, Bravo, Charlie, and Delta), “roger,” “acknowledge,” and “over” are terms we used to reduce the amount of confusion over the airwaves when trying to communicate by a portable radio or other means.
Another reason for communication confusion on the fireground is because of firefighters yelling into the radio when trying to speak. When a message is being transmitted by the sender, and he is yelling into the radio, it will be received as a distorted message with the receiver wondering what was said. This can be because of improper positioning of the radio to the mouth when transmitting. Avoid holding the radio/mic directly in front of your mouth when speaking (photo 2). Also avoid pushing or “swallowing” the radio/mic down your throat when speaking. Instead hold the radio/mic on a 45° angle about two inches away from your mouth and you will send a clearer message.
If you are wearing a self-contained breathing apparatus face piece, make sure the radio/mic is positioned at the communication portals on the face piece which allow you to speak clearly and not sound muffled. Holding your breath while relaying the message may also help; this is where you inhale a breath of air, then speak a few words, inhale again, and speak a few more. The removal of the breathing sounds helps to amplify the message transmission.
Another method is to hold the radio/mic directly to the lens of the face piece when speaking. This requires putting the radio near eye level on the outside of the lens. With the radio/mic in direct contact with the lens, sending a message comes across a lot clearer for the receiver. Avoid feedback between other radios on the fireground when transmitting. This can happen when all crew members have a portable radio and one is trying to transmit. The feedback distorts the message. So, turn away from other radios when transmitting a message.
Using these simple but basic steps in communicating on the fireground will enhance the quality of the transmissions and remove the confusion factor for all.
Mark van der Feyst has been in the fire service since 1999 and is a full-time firefighter in Ontario, Canada. He is an international instructor teaching in Canada, the United States, and India, and at FDIC. Van der Feyst is a local level suppression instructor for the Pennsylvania State Fire Academy. He is also the lead author of Residential Fire Rescue (Pennwell).
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