Closing the Communications Loop on the Fireground

Fairfax County VA firefighters at a structure with fire blowing out the windows
Courtesy Fairfax County (VA) Fire and Rescue Department

In many close-call and line-of-duty-death (LODD) reports, communication is routinely listed as a contributing factor, making it an area of our operations that demands attention. Aside from this grim reminder, the level of importance on being able to communicate directly to units operating on the fireground cannot be overstated and results in great frustration when we cannot. Without communications, we cannot clearly articulate the incident commander’s (IC’s) strategies and tactics. We also cannot receive pertinent feedback to gauge the success of the implemented tactical plan without having a sound communications plan and equipment.

The device we use, varying between a mobile and a portable radio, is the main tool for us to have dialogue on the fireground. This is coupled with the direct face-to-face conversation we may have on the fire floor or at the command post. These two aspects, device and face-to-face, compose a large part of our fireground communications loop on the fireground. The action of performing a tactical size-up from the time of dispatch and throughout the incident can be viewed as the catalyst for our fireground communications. From our fireground communications and what we view firsthand, we develop our strategies and tactics.

Communications Broke Down: An Excuse for a Serious Problem

Improving Fireground Communications through Training

Fireground Communications: From Size-Up to Mayday

The Communications Loop

In most fire departments across the country, the most common communications loop on the fireground would look much like it does in Figure 1.

Figure 1. Most Common Fireground Communications Loop

This is the most common fireground communications loop used in the fire service. Obviously, the loop is not complete and lacks closure in the form of feedback, which is essential for continued success. (Figures by author.)

  1. Size-up. This starts prior to dispatch with building and equipment knowledge and continues throughout the incident. This process is the accumulation of information we gather, and we must interpret and make sound decisions swiftly. Ultimately, this is expressed through fireground strategies and tactics from the IC.
  2. Water supply report. Only one thing puts out fire: water! So, it is vital that you have a water supply plan. Whether your plan requires a forward or reverse lay, taking your own hydrant, rural operations, and so on, it does not matter. What matters is that the plan is clearly communicated and executed.
  3. On-scene report. This subject could take up its own article, but I cannot overstate the absolute need for having a formal, succinct, and descriptive on-scene report. This report should encompass the following:
    • The side of the structure where you have positioned.
    • The number of stories of the structure.
    • Structure type.
    • Detailed description of present conditions.
  4. Lap report. A proper 360˚ walk-around is not intended to increase your physical fitness by mandating a run around the structure; it is intended to provide you and the rest of the units en route with a detailed picture of the structure, access points, hazards, and exact location of the fire.
  5. Command statement. Once the initial IC completes the 360° and provides the information, he must share what he plans to do, what he needs from the immediate arriving units to support that effort, and what their intention is for command. The options here are to establish command or request the incoming chief to transfer to another unit on scene because you will be engaged. You may have another way you accomplish this or use different verbiage, but the point is that you cannot have a gap in command ever!
  6. CAN reports. CAN (Conditions, Actions, and Needs) is an excellent acronym to learn and to remind you of how future reports should sound. For example, if the IC calls when you are on the fire floor and ask for an update, he may ask for a CAN report. This will provide the IC with all the pertinent information to meet that request. It will also supply the IC with information on the current conditions you are facing, the actions you are taking, and what your needs are to accomplish your mission.
The Tailboard Critique

So, what’s missing? The postincident feedback and conversation with those who put forth the effort on the fireground. Although it may be cumbersome to have all fireground personnel convene for a productive conversation, it can be accomplished if it is limited to the company officers. At a minimum, the process should include the IC (and other chief officers involved with the incident) and the company officers from the units that were involved in the mitigation of the incident.

It is incumbent that the information shared and discussed at this “tailboard critique” is then taken in by the company officer, and the same process happens back at the kitchen table with his crew.

Ultimately, the goal of the tailboard critique is the following:

  1. To determine what worked well and how to keep it going for the next fire.
  2. To hold each other accountable for what didn’t go well and determine how to improve tactics.

If we conduct the tailboard critique and, subsequently, a formal after-action report, we not only form but close the communications loop for fireground operations, as seen in Figure 2. The lessons learned are not isolated only to those on the fireground or perhaps to the one company officer who conducts this process routinely with his company. It is a step toward culture change to engage in candid and relevant feedback to influence future success.

Figure 2. Communications Loop with Tailboard Critique

With the addition of the tailboard critique (and, if applicable, an after-action report), we successfully complete the communications loop on the fireground.

The addition of these two processes ensures that we have put in place a definitive process to do the following:

  1. Affirm the importance of formal fireground radio communications to transmit essential information for executing sound strategies and tactics. Additionally, it starts the accountability process on the fireground with units clearly stating or being directed to complete specific assignments in specific areas of the structure.
  2. Define expectations on the fireground regarding communications. As mentioned earlier, the continual mentioning of communications in LODD reports should be a catalyst for demonstrating the importance of this process.
  3. Provide a pathway for mastery on the fireground through shared communications, accountability for actions, and affirming positive outcomes.

Although it is important to analyze our actions in the fire service and denote our successes and errors, it is shortsighted to have no solutions. Without a level of critical thinking to go beyond just denoting what was done wrong, it is expected that those same errors will occur again and again. To address this specific issue of designing and implementing a tailboard critique, here is a recommended process. (Obviously, adjust this to your specific department and operational doctrine, but the overarching themes remain the same to accomplish the mission.)

  • Learn from the case studies we have seen on the human responses to stress such as the work of Lieutenant Colonel David Grossman (On Combat, On Killing)—specifically, the need to ensure that your personnel take a break from the adrenaline dump of fighting fire before starting a debrief. Additionally, having your officers arrive hydrated is another key step in having a productive and useful session. Instituting these two small steps will bring down the tenor of the incident and enhance having meaningful dialogue. Announce on the fireground channel when and where you plan to have the tailboard for the first-alarm companies. For instance, say, “Attention all first alarm company officers, we will have the tailboard critique in 15 minutes at the command post. All company officers cycle through rehab and report to the command post in 15 minutes.”
  • Never utter the statement, “The fire went out and no one got hurt.” This is one of the most important rules. This would occur if we never showed up; the fire would run out of fuel and, most likely, everyone would run away from the burning structure. Our fire service personnel arrive with the purpose of having a positive impact, to execute the mission of saving lives and property. They do not have the defeatist goal of hoping the fire goes out and there are no injuries.
  • Have the goal of a structured, purposeful, and succinct debriefing to capture the incident. What did we do well, and how do we keep that going? Where did we fall short? Let’s address it, hold each other accountable, and understand the “why” behind our actions.
  • The IC must provide a short but descriptive summary of the incident with initial actions by the companies. For example, “We were dispatched at 1405 hours for a reported house fire. Fire was reported in the kitchen, and all occupants out. E10 arrived first, took their own water, and gave an on-scene report of two-story single-family dwelling with fire showing from one window, side alpha, alpha quadrant. Lap was completed with two stories in the front and three in the rear with a walkout and no smoke/fire in the basement. E10 deployed a 1¾-inch line through the front door and knocked the fire down quickly. T10 arrived with E10, positioned on side alpha, and entered with E10 to conduct a primary search. T10 reported back that primary search was complete and negative on the first floor.”

In some instances, the IC will go to each company officer, who will provide him with the synopsis. This is an acceptable practice, but it can lead to more of each officer being on the defensive and providing justification for their actions, detracting from the purpose of the tailboard critique. The IC is responsible for the actions of those he assigns on the fireground, so he should feel confident to deliver this synopsis. If the IC is unclear of what units did on the fireground, was he really in command or just a uniformed observer?

Once the critique is complete, allow the company officers to clarify any portion of what the IC covered. It is imperative that every officer feels empowered to discuss things openly. The goal is to develop mastery, and that comes from relevant and accurate feedback.

Asking the Right Questions

The final step to the critique, and probably the most important one for each officer, is to ask the following questions:

  1. What actions did I take that worked well?
  2. What actions did I take that did not work well?

The answers start with the IC. This simple step can break the ice and show that the IC is as vulnerable and human as any other officer. We want to break down the defenses and take the focus off the individual—it is always about the mission! How can we get better if we can’t put aside our ego and focus on the mission?

If the IC or company officers are slow to engage, a helpful list I use is based on the core skills and tactics we need to execute to be successful. If these skills and tactics are done with precision and accuracy, it’s a good bet that the incident is mitigated swiftly and we are only left to overcome what the fire throws at us. So, consider the following tactical objectives of your fireground response:

  1. Communications. How accurate were the transmissions? Did you follow policy or did you have to deviate? If so, why?
  2. Positioning. We do not park apparatus; we position for tactical success. How did we do in this area? Why did certain units position where they did? Did conditions look different from their perspective at that time in the incident?
  3. Water supply. Only one thing puts out fire: water—especially in the hands of a skilled operator. Did we get two independent water supplies in the hydranted area? If not, why not? NFPA 1403, Standard on Live Fire Training Evolutions, requires us to perform this action for training fires, so why would we not do this on “real” fires that are unpredictable?
  4. First and second hoseline. What did we deploy, why, and did it work? Note that we do not refer to our second hoseline as a “backup” line; it is the second hoseline deployed that may back up the first, but that is not an absolute. The fire always gets a vote and, sometimes, dictates that the second line must go to the fire above, below, or wherever the IC sees fit.
  5. Primary and secondary search. This tactic is why we exist as a fire service: to save lives! We cannot do that effectively if we do not continue to hone our skills in performing this function. Where did we initiate the search? Why? Was it successful, or would you do something differently now?
  6. Ladders. If we occupy an abovegrade space to conduct operations, we must have a ladder for us to exit or remove a victim. Did we deploy ladders to where our personnel where operating? Were they the right sized ladders and were they placed correctly?
  7. Ventilation. Did you perform ventilation? Was it horizontal, vertical, or hydraulic? If so, why was it performed?

These seven tactical objectives cover the essential tasks needed on the fireground, and mastering them will increase your probability of future success.

Ending the Critique

To end the tailboard critique, the message from the IC should be clear: The feedback and lessons learned cannot just stay there. The small-unit leader must conduct the same feedback session back at the firehouse and at the kitchen table with those under his command. It is also acceptable that the IC may perform this same discussion with the companies in the days after the incident or use this information as the foundation for a formal after-action report.

Our focus should always be “Mission first, people always!” Our members put forth an incredible effort to execute the mission because they understand that is why we exist. If we keep the mission first, then the mission will take care of our people if they are here for the right reasons. The institution of the tailboard critique is merely one piece of the puzzle but one that is often overlooked. Pair this process with the operational doctrines of your department, and you can develop and communicate clear expectations; increase accountability for actions; and, hopefully, have continued success on the fireground executing the mission.


DAN SHAW is a deputy chief of operations with the Fairfax County (VA) Fire and Rescue Department and the vice president of and an instructor with Traditions Training, LLC.

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