The Model Incident Command System Series: Communications

The Model Incident Command System Series: Communications



In this eighth article in the series on the National Fire Academy’s model incident command system, the authors discuss the importance of effective and efficient fireground communications.

One of the essential elements of any command system is a properly functioning communications process. Defined as a process by which information is exchanged between individuals through a common system of symbols, signs, and behavior, communication requires that there be a sender and a receiver. If a message is sent but not received, no communication has taken place. The use of words facilitates the communications process, but only if all parties in the process apply the same meanings to the words, otherwise, effective communication has not been achieved.


Borrowing from the National Fire Academy’s advanced incident command course conducted by Lucien Imundi, the following are rules of “good” communications:

Photo by Christopher Naum

One of the limiting factors of effective incident command is your level of communication into and out of your command post.
  1. Orders should be stated as objectives (i.e., give a reason for an order: “Stretch second line to third floor to back up Engine 5.” “Open the roof to relieve the stairway.”).
  2. Detailed explanations should be minimized.
  3. Face-to-face communication should be used where possible.
  4. Orders should be acknowledged by the receiver repeating the order. Don’t just give a 10-4.
  5. Enough words and description should be used so that the message is received and understood.
  6. Quantity, quality, and, when applicable, time parameters should be used in your orders.
  7. Avoid CB radio talk and other superfluous chatter.
  8. Manage by exception.
  9. Don’t let incoming units and staff chiefs marry you to the radio.
  10. Have subordinate officers report on foot, leaving their apparatus and personnel at a remote location until they get an assignment.

Orders in objective form

Orders given during an emergency situation should provide the receiver with a clear idea of the job that must be completed to satisfy the tactical assignment. Orders such as “Cover the rear” or “Open up” are so broad in meaning that each person may apply their own definition to the assignment. Some better directives may be: “Lay to the rear and give me a status report” or “Horizontal ventilation third floor, exposure three.” Few would mistake these orders if they are followed by an objective or reason. We also would know when the task is completed.

Minimize explanations

It is normally accepted that the typical firefighter and fire officer has had basic training and practice on departmental evolutions: pulling lines, carrying ladders, cutting holes, venting, performing search, etc. Given these capabilities, there is no need to explain in your orders the evolutions required to get a job done. You should assign the tactical objective and let the company officer determine which evolutions are appropriate to meet the objective. There are exceptions to this if you need a specific set of actions to occur in sequence. At these times, more detailed orders will be required.

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Use face-to-face communications

The most effective communication will take place in face-to-face conversations. The use of gestures and the view of the scene in front of you assist in communicating the intended message. Also, verbal and non-verbal (facial expressions) feedback from the receiver will help the message sender to understand more readily than feedback transmitted across a radio channel.

Repeating orders

When an order or assignment is communicated, the receiving person should repeat the order back to the sender. This will help the sender to know that the order was properly received and the desired action carried out. This method takes a little more time, but reduces the chance of misunderstanding in critical situations when noise and emotion tend to be at a high level.

Do not be too brief

While being brief and concise are a necessity in fireground communication, messages that are too brief may not contain sufficient information to have the receiver take the desired course of action. The order “Ladder 3, open up” may convey different meanings to different receivers. It could mean either force the doors for entry, horizontally ventilate by the windows, or vertically ventilate through the roof or floor above. It further leaves questions as to what doors or windows to open or where to cut the hole. More specific orders such as “Ladder 3, horizontally vent on front and rear of the fire-floor” leave little doubt about what needs to be accomplished and where.

Use quantity,

quality, and time parameters

The receiver of one of your orders must know what constitutes the completion and achievement of your directive. In order to know this, the officer must understand what quantity of work you desire, to what standard it is to be done, and how long it should take to accomplish the job.

Quantity is normally set by your directive during the tactical assignment. Quality is normally set within the departmental evolutions and training practices. Time parameters may not be part of the directive, but, as the incident commander, you must track the time of the various assignments if coordinated fire attack is to occur.

Avoid superfluous chatter

Non-standard radio language should be discouraged at all times. Consistent language and terminology is required if fireground emergency operations are to run smoothly. Trucker and CB language have no place in emergency communications. This “language” was developed for purposes other than the emergency scene.

Manage by exception

At many incidents there is a lot of unnecessary talk on the radio. The more complex the incident, the greater the need for limited communications so that important data can be transmitted without interference.

Many departments literally “talk out” their fires, and it’s easy to tell the big fires from the small ones by the amount of “chatter” on the radio. Let’s take an example. You’re operating at a dwelling fire in a suburban area. There is no hydrant supply, and nine pumpers are shuttling water to the fireground from a water source several miles away. As each one leaves the fireground, the driver reports, “Pump number __ going for water,” and as each one arrives on the fireground to dump its load, the driver reports, “Pump number __ back on the scene.”

Of what importance are these transmissions to the incident commander? The incident commander gave them an assignment to shuttle water. The objective will not be met until the incident commander cancels the shuttle operation when the fire is extinguished. Again, I ask, what purpose do the transmissions serve? I venture that absolutely nothing of significance is gained by any of the receivers.

The incident commander should manage by exception. In other words, if you’re accomplishing your assigned task in the most effective manner, stay off the radio unless the transmission announces that:

  • The objective is met. This implies that your company is ready for another assignment.
  • The objective cannot be met. In this instance, the reason why should be stated.
  • A dangerous situation exists.
  • Assistance is needed.

Don’t let yourself become a radio operator

Departmental operating procedures should specify certain terminology to be used by incoming units. It seems to be a common practice to allow incoming units to ask the incident commander for an assignment. This puts unnecessary pressure on the incident commander to assign these companies. In many cases, in order not to look bad or indecisive, the incident commander responds immediately with an assignment, even if he is not really ready to assign the unit. In this case if no assignment is given, this company officer will continue coming to the scene and repeatedly ask for an assignment. Under the pressure of an emergency situation, the stress that this puts on the incident commander is intolerable. Incoming units should stay off the radio except to:

  • Acknowledge their response to the incident scene.
  • Identify their location when about one block from the scene (direction from the scene; hydrant; intersection; staging area); or establish a base and have companies report there.
  • Report if they are unable to respond or are delayed.
  • Indicate serious or unusual conditions that need reporting.

Company officers report on foot

Should a company officer not get an acknowledgment after reporting his unit’s location to the incident commander, he should repeat the location a second time after a short waiting period. If this fails to bring an acknowledgment at a working incident, the company officer should leave his unit, with portable radio in hand, and report, in person, to the incident commander. After receiving an assignment for his company, the officer should contact his unit by radio, give them the directives, and rendezvous with them at an appropriate site.


The fire department radio communications system ties all the elements of the organization together during an emergency situation. This equipment was designed for communicating essential data or orders relative to the incident, not for sending personal messages.

Transmissions should be brief, relevant, and clear. It is in this area that the development of consistent terminology and procedures can be valuable. Only essential information should be transmitted.

What is irrelevant in this example: “This is Captain Curry on Portable 6. Chief Bonk requests two ambulances to this location.” It is fairly obvious that the names cited are irrelevant information. Fewer words could have produced more information. “Portable 6 to Command. Request response of two ambulances to the scene.”

The tone of your voice, speed of transmission, clarity of your message, and proper use of the radio equipment can set the pace for an effective, efficient operation.


The advent of the modern two-way radio has led to a proliferation of portable radios. In most departments, every pumper, ladder company, and other main apparatus have a portable radio (handi-talki) as part of their equipment. While these radios have been a boon to officer mobility and instant communications ability, they have saturated the typical fire officer’s thought processing time.

Follow along with the description of the following fireground scene: You are the company commander of the first arriving pumper on a three pumper, one ladder company response to a structural fire. Having arrived on the scene and reported serious fire involvement in a hardware store, you request a second alarm. You place your company to work and, in the absence of a superior officer, you assume command and assign tasks to the next two engine companies. You directed the ladder company officer to report to the command location to give him specific orders and directions based on your sizeup. As you begin to talk, a message comes across the radio. Since the message could be for you, you stop talking to the ladder officer and listen to the radio long enough to hear who is being called. It’s not for you.

You turn your attention back to the ladder company officer, but by now you’ve lost your train of thought. After a second, you again begin to speak. The radio breaks in again. You listen again. This time it’s for you. The officer on Pumper Number 2 reports the need for two additional personnel at his location. You contact Pumper Number 3 and order them to assist Pumper Number 2.

You turn back to the ladder company officer. You begin to speak; the radio interrupts. You ignore it and give the ladder officer his orders. Before the ladder officer rushes away, you ask if he heard what unit was calling you. The reply is “No.” You go on the air, ‘”Unit calling Command, repeat.”

You have just proven that you cannot talk and listen at the same time. You cannot decode and encode verbal messages simultaneously. You also cannot be in two different conversations, nor can you talk or listen and think (analyze data and information) at the same time. Our brain is phenomenal, but it only does one conscious operation efficiently and well at any given moment.

The portable radio has placed you in immediate contact with the various units in the operation. It has increased your coordinative ability. It has also turned you into a radio operator in lieu of a strategist. It has virtually destroyed conversations and caused much processed information to be “lost.” You must have time to process data, plan strategy, and issue tactical assignments at an incident.

You, as the responsible incident commander, do not have time to monitor all the fireground radio traffic at a working situation. Therefore, the radio traffic must be monitored by a helper or aide as soon as possible, just in case one of those messages is for you. It’s clear that the first-arriving officer is the one person who needs the most time that can be squeezed from the action of a working fire. This also applies to all ascending ranks of incident commanders until the situation is under control.

You may have hundreds of options to choose from in your attempt to coordinate the attack. There are a large number of jobs that must be done, and too few personnel in the early stages. Your decisions must be accurate, coordinated, and by priority. You must analyze complex data and variables to reach reasonable conclusions and issue correct orders. You do not have time to be a radio operator.

Some fire departments have attempted to overcome this problem by assigning aides to chief officers. Most of us are not that fortunate. Often, a firefighter is designated to go immediately to the incident commander and act as an aide. Unfortunately, unless manpower is in good supply, the company losing the firefighter could be left shorthanded.

Another method to free the incident commander from having to monitor radio traffic is to use your fire department medical (EMS) people for this job. If you don’t dispatch a medical unit on a first alarm, you might consider doing so. Sure, sometimes they will be on a medical call when a fire alarm comes in, but at least we will have them most of the time. Immediately after arrival, have one of the EMS people report to the incident commander with his unit’s portable radio and immediately begin monitoring radio communications. When the incident commander is busy giving face-to-face orders to other personnel, he can rest assured that any radio message for him would be relayed by the aide as soon as the face-to-face is finished. The incident commander further knows that the aide would interrupt only for messages requiring immediate attention.

Compare the following example with the preceding one: You are operating at the hardware store described previously. This time you have an aide from the medical unit as a radio operator. You are busy talking to the first-in ladder company officer about that company’s tactical assignment. The radio breaks in; you continue to talk. The message is that Pump Number 4 is a block from the scene. The aide replies, “Standby, Pump 4.”

The radio blares again, “Interior Sector to Command, I need two additional personnel to assist with the hoseline at my location.”

The aide says, “Two personnel to Interior Sector, Command 10-4.”

As you finish your conversation with the ladder company officer, your aide says, “Interior Sector needs two personnel for the hoseline. Pump 4 is West.”

You reply, “Have Pump 4 bring the entire crew to the command post. Have two of the personnel report to Interior Sector.”

You return to your analysis of the fire to determine which of the priorities must now have companies assigned to handle them. While you are thinking, the radio is blaring; but you don’t hear it at all. Your aide is doing the listening.

The incident commander now has the time to think. He can devote more time to collecting data, analyzing it, determining strategy, and issuing more accurate and coordinated tactical assignments to the companies. There are times when the incident commander will talk on and listen to the radio; but now we can choose.

The aide can also be equipped to record unit locations and the tactical assignments given to each company. The aide can be your resource directory. You will also find that experienced aides often assist you by seeing things that need attention, things that you’ve missed while you were busy “commanding” the incident. Aides are another set of eyes, and, more importantly, another analytical brain.

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