Every time things go bad at an emergency scene, there is always one source of blame that everyone can agree on. “Communication was the problem,” we say. “Communi-cation broke down.” This explanation is so easy and so readily accepted that it is almost a cliché.

But what does it mean, that communication broke down? What specifically were the problems? What kinds of changes need to happen so that the same problems don’t recur? In most cases, little analysis is done to improve or restructure how communication functions, on or off emergency scenes. People just accept that communication is likely to cause problems—an unfortunate obstacle, like bad weather, but what can you do about it?

There is plenty you can do about poor communication within your organization, but first, you must understand exactly what the problem is. To say that communication is the problem is too broad. What exactly went wrong? Did equipment fail? Did people make false assumptions? Did individuals or groups avoid contact with each other because of negative history? Each of these situations can lead to the conclusion that “communication broke down,” yet each is a very different problem, requiring different types of interventions.

Problems that interfere with effective communication may be technical or adaptive in a general sense, and it is important to know the difference if you want to make substantial change in future operations. For example, having different agencies on a scene with incompatible radio equipment is a technical problem that might be simply solved by ensuring that all responding agencies use the same equipment. Technical solutions cost money and require skills training but may not demand a fundamental shift in what individuals and groups feel is important or what they value.

When values come into play, the problem is usually one that requires some type of adaptive change. Adaptive changes necessitate shifts in how people view themselves and their essential mission and how relationships are managed. These types of changes are much more difficult and demand time and commitment beyond a simple quick fix.

Although most communication problems are technical and adaptive by nature, often only the technical aspect is addressed. For this reason, solutions often fail. Take, for example, the problem of incompatible radio equipment being used by responding agencies. The simple technical solution is to make all the equipment consistent. The trouble is that applying so-called simple solutions often isn’t simple at all.

Imagine a scenario where a variety of emergency response agencies sit down to discuss the problem of radio compatibility. When the largest paid fire department suggests that the other agencies should change to equipment that conforms with that department’s radios, it gets the following reactions:

“We’re a small volunteer agency, and we can’t afford that equipment.”

“We prefer the equipment we have and think you should change over to what we use.”

“Even if we were to follow your suggestion, it would take years to make the transition. What are we going to do in the mean-time?”

“We’re sick of always having to follow your lead just because you’re bigger than we are. What makes you think that just because you’re the biggest, you’re always right?”

“We could all have identical radios, and we’d still have problems. Even the people with compatible radios weren’t communicating well at that incident.”

None of these concerns is strictly technical. Even the first statement, related to the cost of buying new equipment, might require adaptive changes and solutions, such as collaborating on a regional grant proposal or negotiating to distribute existing equipment more evenly among response agencies. The other statements clearly indicate that what may be seen on the surface as a purely technical, equipment-based problem may in fact go much deeper, to issues of interagency rivalry, long-term change plans, and other causes of communication failures.

Communication problems are not confined to emergency scenes; poor communication can do much damage that is not just strictly operational. If anything, people have a heightened sense of a common mission at emergency scenes and will try to do their best. This is not always the case in day-to-day interactions.

Consider the paradox of e-mail. Instant electronic communication has been a boon to the ability to convey information within organizations, but not without a price. At least one agency had to stop e-mail all together when members became so inflammatory and indiscreet about e-mail messaging that people were threatening physical violence against one another as a result.

Certainly a technical solution—training people on the appropriate uses and protocols of e-mail—would help here. But in this instance, the e-mail problem was symptomatic of a larger and more difficult issue—people in the department had unexpressed animosity toward one another. E-mail didn’t cause the problem; it just let the problem come to light. All the computer training in the world was not likely to solve the deeper problem, but communication was not likely to improve much until this bigger problem was recognized and ad-dressed.

People often say that “communication broke down” when in fact an effective communication system never existed in the first place. It is possible for communication to break down, such as when a piece of equipment fails and people are forced to improvise alternate methods for conveying information. This is a technical problem, and firefighters are usually quite good at devising technical solutions under pressure. But if underlying relationships are strained or nonexistent, then the resulting poor communication is not caused by breakdowns but by a failure to build and sustain those relationships in the first place.

Effective communication requires skill, workable systems, and a commitment to interdependent relationships. The development of skills is largely a technical challenge. Creating workable systems is both technical and adaptive by nature. And building and maintaining relationships is probably the biggest adaptive challenge most of us face in our lives.

Communication skills are just that—teachable, learnable skills that improve with practice. Essential communication skills that should be taught and reviewed frequently within every organization include effective listening, clear expression, the ability to summarize and convey information under pressure, radio protocols, use of computers and e-mail, proper telephone etiquette, and basic writing and documentation skills. A base level of competency in these areas should be required of everyone.

Developing good communication systems is more difficult, and making real change in this area takes more time. The first step to improving communication systems is to understand what they are and how they currently operate. This will require technical and adaptive analysis. Are the computers so slow or overburdened that e-mail transmissions are often delayed? Do county agencies lack a common radio channel for joint operations? These are essentially technical problems, and appropriate technical solutions may apply. Or, on further analysis, is the problem that the B shift supervisor hoards information or that the three engineers at Station 2 hate each other and thus keep separate records of their own work on the truck? These kinds of issues involve adaptive challenges as well as technical ones.

Finally, the real key to effective communication is the ability to create and sustain workable relationships. Valuing relationships must be an essential component of the organization’s mission—it is not something you can suddenly decide to do on an emergency scene. When two agencies have communication problems at an emergency scene, the problem almost never starts there. If you look back in time, you see that the competing agencies have a long history of poorly managed conflict, perceived rivalry, and a conscious or unconscious desire to operate apart from one another. These kinds of long-standing problems can never be resolved in the context of an emergency scene and can often lead to tragic outcomes. Afterward, we say that “communication broke down” when in fact it never existed in the first place.

Building functional relationships is really the key to effective communication, on or off the emergency scene, but doing so requires time, commitment, and the ability to accept that you are not always right and you will not always get everything you want. The time to start building those relationships is now. Some ways to improve communication through relationships include the following:

  • Cross-train personnel to act outside their normal job function. Allow them time to do ride-alongs with people from different functional groups or agencies. Walking in someone else’s shoes creates understanding and compassion for the challenges they face and can lead to new and creative solutions.
  • Train personnel to do constructive debriefs of incidents, focusing on lessons learned and problems related to systems rather than individuals. Consider bringing in a neutral outside facilitator for debriefings that involve multiple agencies or sensitive issues.
  • Create opportunities for different groups to achieve goals through common interest. Some examples might be writing a grant for joint training, developing a multiagency community education program, or promoting social events or sports teams that involve people from different groups or agencies.
  • Promote effective skills through training and example. In particular, leaders need to model good listening skills.

Communication problems are not a condition of employment within the emergency services, nor are they a result of bad luck. Improving communication on and off the emergency scene requires a strategic approach and a combination of technical skills and adaptive commitment to change. Mostly, improved communication necessitates the acknowledgment of and commitment to relationships—at the individual and the organizational level.

Communication is part of everything that happens within the fire service. Poor communication is the most common cause of bad outcomes on the department, on and off the emergency scene. Lives are lost because of problems with communication. Yet, how much time, energy, and money are devoted to making sure that communication works as well as it possibly can? In hard economic times, it may seem like an extra expense to commit resources to communication until you recognize what you have to lose if you don’t.


Heifitz, Ronald A. and Marty Linsky, Leadership on the Line: Staying Alive through the Dangers of Leading, Harvard Business School Press, 2002.

LINDA F. WILLING is an adjunct faculty member in the Executive Fire Officer Program at the National Fire Academy (NFA).and serves as a curriculum adviser to NFA programs. She is a retired fire officer from the Boulder (CO) Fire Department, where she served for 18 years. Willing develops customized fire department training for leadership development, conflict resolution, diversity management, and communication through her company RealWorld Training and Consulting. She has a bachelor’s degree from the University of Pennsylvania and a master’s degree in management from Regis University in Denver.

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