By Joseph Pronesti
I am very lucky to have been happily married to the love of my life for 25 years, but if I had a dime for every time my bride said, “Joe, you never listen to me!” most of you reading this can relate. This problem can sometimes make its way to the fireground, where the radio transmission from the sender may indeed state something of note that just doesn’t get through to the receiver. Communications can cause severe problems on the fireground and has triggered many a close call or, worse. Communications issues are one of the top five common errors found in the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health’s line-of-duty death investigations. One doesn’t need to go very far to find articles, training sessions, and books specifically addressing conducting and describing conditions encountered.
The fireground can be a dynamic environment, but we can become “lost in the fog” if we only hear what is being communicated and fail to compute the transmissions to help size up the true problem being confronted, especially in the fire’s early stages. As a fire service, we have become extremely competent in giving a size-up on arrival; however, the bigger issue is having others hear, understand, and apply strategies based on the information given.
To be proficient, we need to find a way similar to size-ups to assist with listening, computing the information, and putting the strategy pieces of the fireground “puzzle” together. The best way to do this is to listen to fireground audio and place yourself in the role of command. When listening to audio, close your eyes and paint a picture of the situation based on the size-up. It is also important to know your districts, city, response area, and so on. How good are you at hearing the address of a building and immediately identifying the era in which it was built, its construction hazards, the area’s water supply situation, and its occupancy?
When it comes to dispatchers, is your department able to work with them regarding how to disseminate critical information to responding units, or do they just advise you of a fire at “123 Main Street” and neglect to spur on your thoughts by informing you that 123 Main Street is “Bill’s Furniture Warehouse”? One of our biggest issues with dispatchers is when they fail to advise responding units of the exact area in which the fire is reported to be, i.e., a basement fire. For example, consider this dispatcher call: “Dispatch to Chief 1; Engines 1, 2, 3; and Ladder 1, report of a structure fire at 123 Main Street, caller reporting a basement fire.” If you know your district, you can pretty much know right away the era of the residence from the address. If 123 Main Street is in a new development full of houses built in 2016, you can begin to think about issues that cause the fire service headaches in newly constructed basements.
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Now, let’s say 123 Main Street is a reported basement fire in an area of your jurisdiction where the homes date back to the late 1800s; it’s a big difference from a furniture store fire, but it’s information that will make our crews safer.
Below is audio of the dispatch and arrival at a fire in which a firefighter was tragically killed in a roof collapse. As you listen, close your eyes; try to “paint a picture”; and perhaps start to piece together a plan regarding possible fire involvement, construction, occupancy and life hazards, attack options, and apparatus approach and placement. Unless you are from this town, you most likely won’t be able to identify the era in which this church was built (in this particular case, the church was built in the early 1990s). The time of call is 1557 hours during a week day, there is a very strong wind gusting up to 15 iles per hour, there are no hydrants available in this area, and water needs to be shuttled in.
Remember, the key is not to “Monday morning quarterback” what was or wasn’t done in this tragedy; the key is to use all the media we have available to us from events and then place ourselves into the “starring role” of command, company officer, and so on. The “fog” can be thickest when we first arrive to an event where actions of other companies are already taking place and we have to take command. An inexperienced officer or command chief needs to practice taking in all the information before, responding to, and arriving at an event.
Author’s note: If you are an avid reader of Fire Engineering, you have seen retired Chief Skip Coleman’s “What Would You Do?” simulation exercises. What I suggest here regarding listening and fireground communications is basically the same thing. Remember, the goal is to get better on a personal, company, and department level when listening to audio. It is wise not to be critical or even consider what the actual outcome was from the standpoint of what you and your department would do with a similar situation. Test your knowledge of size-up, construction, strategy and tactics; use a familiar acronym such as COAL WAS WEALTH; and practice your listening to avoid the fog!
JOSEPH PRONESTI is a 26-year veteran of the Elyria (OH) Fire Department, where he is an assistant chief and shift commander. He is a graduate of the Ohio Fire Chiefs’ Executive Officer program and a lead instructor at the Cuyahoga (OH) County Community College Fire Academy. He is a contributor to fire service publications and sites, including Fire Engineering. He will be presenting a four-hour preconference classroom at FDIC International 2016 titled “Main Street Tactics and Strategies: Are You Ready?” He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org