There are a number of components involved in managing any emergency operation. Equipment, personnel, procedures, and training are all significant factors. However, the importance of effective communication cannot be overstated. The fire service can benefit from reviewing a key moment in United States history as described by John McManus in his book Fire and Fortitude.
At 0702 hours on December 7, 1941, two soldiers were monitoring their radar equipment in Honolulu, Hawaii. A large blip appeared on the radar screen and, on examination, they discovered that a group of more than 50 planes was headed toward the island. They continued to observe the screen for seven more minutes. At that point, one of them contacted the officer in charge of the aircraft warning information center. He informed the officer that they had seen “blips” on their screen but did not advise him that it represented such a large group of planes.
The officer, a 28-year-old pilot with very little training for the job, recalled that when he had driven to the center earlier that morning, he heard Hawaiian music playing on the car radio. A bomber pilot had previously told him that when radio stations played music all night, it meant that a flight of B-17s was due to come in from the mainland, and the music served as a navigational aid for the bombers.
The soldiers continued to monitor the radar blips until 0739 hours, at which point they were obscured by mountains on the island. The officer continued with the assumption that the incoming aircraft were American planes.
(1) Clear and accurate radio reports from inside the building are a tremendous asset for an incident commander. (Photo by Matthew Daly.)
This episode was an unfortunate example of lack of precision in communication. If the private had informed the officer about the number of planes detected rather than just describing his observation as a “blip,” he no doubt would have known that something unusual was occurring. The number of planes would have represented just about all of the B-17s that existed at the time, and it was a highly unrealistic possibility that all of them could be approaching the island. The scenario was further compounded by a lack of effective intraservice communication between the army and navy personnel on the island, with the end result leading to a complete surprise attack by the Japanese.
One cannot help but wonder how a correction in any part of that chain of events may have affected the outcome. Would more specific wording have changed history in some notable way? The incident provides a case study in which well-motivated personnel made incorrect assumptions based on incomplete information—information that was not sufficiently shared because of issues in communication.
The trilogy of effective communication, physical conditioning, and situational awareness is the key for survival on the fireground. The one common element in every major fire or emergency I’ve been to is that they all relied heavily on the rapid exchange of important information. Sometimes this was accomplished very effectively, and sometimes it wasn’t. Poor communication almost always led to problems. The hoseline may have been charged too soon, the windows may have been taken at the wrong time, or the roof may have been vented in the wrong spot. One time, I even saw the wrong roof vented at a fire. The well-motivated firefighters involved were intent on accomplishing an effective roof cut but totally zoned out on the fire’s precise location.
On the other hand, an operation that is guided by effective communication is most often conducted in a much safer manner and accomplished more efficiently. There is a sense of coordination and control established, along with a level of confidence that personnel can adapt and react to any problems or changing conditions they encounter.
Three Communication Components
Any effectively communicated message must include three separate parts. The first is the identification of the person or unit giving the message (Engine 1, Battalion 5, and so on). This is followed by the content of the message (which is hopefully simple and clear). Finally, there must be an acknowledgment that the message was received. If that last component is missing, you must assume that the message was not heard and you must either repeat it or ensure that it was, in fact, received.
If any of the three parts is missing, there is, in effect, no message, no transfer of information, and no communication of what may prove to be vital knowledge to everyone working at the scene. It’s as if you never said anything at all.
The Art of Listening
It is not sufficient to merely follow the basic rules of communication. The ability to hear and understand what is going around you at the scene of a fire is a skill that also must be developed; it is an integral part of your situational awareness. Firefighters should be trained and encouraged to relate any important observations they happen to note on the fireground. They are the true “eyes and ears” of the incident commander. His view of the situation is often somewhat limited, and he is very dependent on his personnel to obtain the specific information he needs to formulate a safe strategy. Firefighters must be able to identify which fireground radio messages warrant “Mayday” or “Urgent” priority. New personnel should be taught which situations would call for such transmissions. Beyond that, they should be groomed to a level of comfort for routine communications on the fireground radio. Many of the newer personnel may be initially uncomfortable with the thought of speaking on a channel that everyone at the scene will hear.
However, it is equally important to know when to say nothing. It is very easy to get heavily involved in the hands-on tactics of firefighting and lose the overall strategic picture. An informal, poorly structured radio message like “Back up the rig” or “We need some hooks” might address an immediate tactical need, but it might also come at the precise moment when someone else is trying to transmit an important, lifesaving message. There are times when we absolutely must speak, but there are also moments when silence is golden. The ability and willingness to listen can be vital in distinguishing the two. Listening is an art and a skill; it allows us to pick up vital information and to choose appropriate moments to interject our radio input without needlessly disrupting the communication flow.
There are, of course, some significant communication obstacles to overcome when operating at a fire. Radio interruptions are right at the top of the list. How often have you been unable to transmit or hear a complete message because the transmission was disrupted by someone breaking in on another radio? The high-decibel background noise at a typical fire will also hinder the clarity of a radio message, as will the muffling effect of a self-contained breathing apparatus face piece—not to mention that the radio itself, like the cell phone, has its own technical limitations.
Inexperience can also lead to communication difficulties. New personnel just may not know which information is relevant and must be transmitted immediately and which messages can be delayed to avoid tying up radio traffic. A new firefighter may also be challenged by describing his observations in a radio message. For example, his interpretation of what constitutes a “medium” or “light” smoke condition can be very different from that of an experienced firefighter.
Stress is another factor that can affect the quality of fireground radio transmissions. The greater the stress, the more difficult the challenge. It is usually when bad things are happening that it is hardest to communicate properly. Under such circumstances, your heart rate increases, your ability to think objectively is hampered, and even the tone of your voice is affected. As with most aspects of firefighting, good physical conditioning will be of some help in these situations. But, just as we learn in other aspects of our lives, there is nothing quite as good as experience in developing communication skills and improving performance.
It is helpful to honestly review your own performance after each operation you respond to. Examine how well you did tactically but, beyond that, consider how well you conducted yourself and handled the stress of the incident. Very often, that will also influence how effectively or how poorly you communicated with others. And, most important, don’t be discouraged by any of your miscues or less-than-desirable performances. Your goal should be to continually “fail forward” and continually improve in all aspects of the job.
There are a number of things we can do to improve how effectively we speak to each other in the chaos of a firefight. First and foremost, slow down and think about what you need to say. It will just take a few brief moments to form and edit your thoughts. Thinking while you are transmitting will generally lead to rambling, confused messages. Mentally formulating your thoughts before you speak will allow for clear, concise radio reports.
Remember to tailor your message to the experience level of the person receiving it. Referring to “exposure B-2” when making assignments at a fire may confuse people. Labeling it as the “red brick” building or the “three-story frame” will make it a lot simpler and clearer.
Even the tone of your voice can influence your message. We’ve all worked with “screamers” at some point in our careers. I’m sure you’ve met them—individuals whose personal communication style seems capable of putting everyone on edge with even the most routine radio transmissions and who raise every subordinate’s blood pressure when something is not going well. It is when things are going badly that we should be doing the exact opposite and aiming to communicate firmly but calmly. It does not necessarily require a great deal of firefighting experience to develop and maintain a confident and an effective voice on the fireground. At times, some acting may be required. You can make an effort to sound confident and under control even if that is not what you are feeling. A radio message that sounds calm will definitely put others at ease and can influence an entire operation in a positive way.
You can also develop and improve communication skills if you incorporate them into drill sessions. As I travel around the country lecturing to various fire departments, I sometimes ask if they have ever conducted any communication drills. Often, my question is met by a momentary pause. You can sense the thought process: Why would we drill on that when forcible entry, pump operations, and other skills are so essential?
I usually follow up that question by asking them to give an honest evaluation of the effectiveness of their fireground communication. Frequent responses range from “bad” to “mediocre.” Encourage firefighters to practice speaking to each other on the radio as they are stretching hoselines, establishing a water supply, conducting a search, or performing other activities in the drill yard. As in a sporting event, you tend to perform the way you practice. Drill sessions are the ideal time to instill good communication habits in personnel.
Any department with the technical ability and funding available may want to consider a procedure that has been implemented by the Fire Department of New York. After each fire, the chiefs who worked the incident have access to CDs that contain recordings of all the fireground radio transmissions from the operation. They are an excellent drill resource and provide an opportunity to hear and evaluate the transmissions without the interference, noise, and distractions of the fire. They allow for some interesting listening and a chance to discuss both the positive and negative aspects of the on-scene communications.
Of course, you must make sure that the intent of such drills is to teach and improve and not make any of the participants uncomfortable. As with all critiques, it’s very easy to Monday morning quarterback and pick up on mistakes that will naturally occur in the heat of a firefight.
Finally, I can’t stress enough the importance of addressing communication issues with neighboring fire departments and other relevant organizations at mutual-aid drills. That is the ideal time to meet with personnel you don’t normally operate with and to determine if things like hose fittings, command procedures, and fireground radio channels are compatible. We live in a world with increasing concerns for terrorism, inclement weather, medical pandemics, and other large-scale disasters where we can anticipate long-term incidents involving numerous fire departments and government agencies working together.
The fire service is generally well-trained in stretching hoselines, positioning ladders, and other “bread and butter” physical activities. Given the role of communication at everything we do, we owe it to ourselves to continue to refine our communication skills as well. It’s worth taking the time to consider just how effectively we are speaking to each other on the fireground. Evaluate the quality of your emergency communications on an individual, unit, and department basis, and try to be objective and honest with that evaluation. To quote George Bernard Shaw, “The biggest single problem in communication is the illusion that it has taken place.”
McManus, John C. Fire and Fortitude, Dutton Caliber, 2019.
Dunne, Thomas. Notes From the Fireground, McFarland & Company, 2020.
Thomas Dunne is a retired deputy chief and a 33-year veteran of the Fire Department of New York (FDNY) with extensive experience working in midtown Manhattan and the Bronx. He has been the incident commander at hundreds of fires in residential, commercial, and high-rise buildings. He has written numerous articles for Fire Engineering and lectures on a variety of fire service topics through his “Third Alarm Fire Training” seminars. He has also published Notes From the Fireground, a memoir of his experiences in the FDNY, and is currently working on a novel.