A familiar fire service proverb states: “The first 15 minutes of operations at an alarm will set the pace and determine the potential outcome of an emergency incident.” The major influence on an incident’s development during that quarter hour is the first-arriving company.
In turn, that company’s ability to ascertain the magnitude of the incident, the life and property hazards, and the measures that must be undertaken to stabilize, control, and conclude the incident safely will be determined in part by the company’s communications.
Initial reports influence a number of participants during an incident: additional responders (including mutualaid and second-alarm companies), responding command officers, dispatchers, and shift commanders. The varying areas of fireground responsibilities and unit types create special concerns that individual companies will focus on, based on their arrival sequence and respective fireground functions. Initial incident communications helps to establish strategy—the common thread by which responding companies can begin specific tasks.
Thus, during the subsequent dispatch and arrival of other companies and officers, effective communications is critical in directing them so that strategy and tactics are set into motion. This can happen only if, in transmitting the initial reports, the first-arriving company takes into account what the various participants will need to know for proper deployment and operations. Basic size-up factors that the first-arriving company and its command officer normally analyze mentally must be verbalized and transmitted.
Initial reports must be brief and concise, because the dynamics of an unfolding incident make time and radio air time scarce resources. The reports should be communicated in a clear, natural tone of voice using accurate radio codes or plain-language communications. And the company officer or unit identification must be included, since who is communicating the initial reports will influence vital decisions made by receiving units. The ID also establishes the initial incident commander to whom other radio transmissions may be directed.
The initial reports should include basic information and observations revolving around the questions What?, Where?, When?, and How? First-arriving companies’ reports indicating “nothing showing” will establish the pace at which the balance of the alarm assignment responds to the scene. Other common initial report statements such as “all hands,” “working fire,” and the like must be followed up with more descriptive reports. (See figure on page 14.)
Once they have this information, responding companies can readily apply the department’s standard operating procedures about such matters as hydrant locations, apparatus placement, and company responsibilities for suppression, ventilation, laddering, and rescue. Use of SOPs, in turn, helps to minimize radio traffic about what tasks will be undertaken following the initial report. [See “Repetition and Exception,” Fire Engineering, November 1987, p.33.] Appropriate modifications to SOPs, based on conditions encountered by the first-arriving unit, must be communicated during the initial reports to ensure that the original SOP assignments are picked up by another company.
When they receive initial reports that are this complete, the other alarm participants can base their own decision-making processes on timely and concise information:
- Incoming command officers have added time to formulate strategy.
- Dispatchers can initiate other procedures and agency notifications based on what will be expected as the incident unfolds.
- Mutual-aid or second-alarm companies can anticipate possible response and on-scene requests. They’ll also be able to begin size-up and prefire plan reviews. The house watch can alert station personnel of incident status, and volunteer firefighters monitoring the frequencies within the surrounding mutual-aid districts can make their way to their stations in preparation for alarm dispatches, thus reducing overall response times.
- Deputy chiefs and division and shift commanders can determine the impact on battalion and district response status and capabilities.
Communication by first-arriving companies is but one small facet of overall, continuing incident operations. But when it’s effective, it makes those first 15 minutes count.