As fire chief, you receive the following as part of an after-action report:
After a recent third alarm was brought under control, a ladder company firefighter (who was performing overhaul) stepped out of a third-floor window onto a wooden balcony, which immediately collapsed. The balcony and where it was attached to the building had been weakened by fire. The third floor collapsed onto the second floor, causing that balcony to collapse and sending the member violently to the ground.
The condition of the rear wall and balcony were well known throughout the operation. There were many radio messages warning of this condition. The breakdown in communications occurred when a relieving unit was not notified of these dangers. The situation could have been a tragedy. Incredibly, the member only suffered minor injuries. (Report 09-298)
You try to remember if you were on scene, but realize it doesn’t matter. The events that transpired after the breakdown of communications have happened before in your department. What will you do?
The compromise of structural components during and after a fire may be known by some members on the fireground, but never be relayed to the remaining crews at the scene. Why? Is it that the members who were initially aware of the collapse hazard assumed that other members will know about this condition? Or is the information relayed to the officer not acted on. Either way, you have a communication breakdown that must be managed.
Consider another type of communication problem that is subtle in appearance:
We have started physical fitness training on a regular basis. After about 30 minutes of physical fitness training, the group began to cool down. One firefighter became lightheaded and felt like he was going to pass out. We immediately provided assistance to him. An ambulance was called to the station. He refused to go to the hospital and was released with the permission of a doctor at a local hospital. He was excused for the remainder of the drill and placed in the care of his family. (Report 08-058)
Why didn’t the firefighter tell the instructor he wasn’t feeling well during the training? Did the instructor communicate to the firefighters the importance of hydrating and that if someone didn’t feel well to notify him?
In the academic world, effective communication is associated with a communication loop; the sender, receiver and feedback are loop elements. Fire and emergency service leaders can adapt this process to their departments’ culture.
Firefighters who have pertinent information to share—the senders—must communicate it either verbally or nonverbally to the officer—the receiver. Information vital to the safety of operations or personnel will be given either face to face or by radio to the appropriate individual who can initiate the proper action.
In the examples above, notifying the officer that a porch is unsafe or the instructor that you aren’t feeling well is essential information that must be sent. Likewise, the officer or instructor must acknowledge the information was received and take the appropriate action: share the porch hazard with personnel on the scene, have the sick firefighter sit out the evolution. Either way, feedback—a response or reaction—must take place for effective communication.
An interesting twist to communication failures is when too much information is shared. This includes superfluous information, unorganized transmissions and the lack of feedback due to an interpretation breakdown:
While on automatic aid working a residential fire, crews were advancing a 1¾” line on the first floor of a two-story house. My crew of four was advancing a 1¾” line in the basement just below the crews above. Once the fire was knocked down, several attempts were made to notify incident command of the conditions of the fire, but were unsuccessful due to the amount of heavy radio traffic. It took several minutes to get through to incident command to notify them that the fire was out and overhaul was being performed. (Report 11-75)
Consider these questions when discussing communications concerns with your staff:
- Do you have policies in place that specifically focus on communications? Do they include both radio and face-to-face methods?
- Is a formal feedback process (acknowledging a message) designated?
- When being relieved or transferred of duties, does a face-to-face meeting take place to provide important safety and operational considerations?
- Do all firefighters at an incident carry portable radios? If so, what are the procedures for their use? Emergency or tactical information?
- Are multiple channels/talk groups designated for the various strategic/tactical operations being performed at an incident?
Hundreds of near-miss reports and the majority of the NIOSH Fire Fighter Fatality Investigation and Prevention Program reports contain some reference to a communication failure as a deficiency factor. At least one of the following is present in the reports:
- The sender’s quality of information, or lack of it
- A transmission interruption, radio or verbal
- The receiver’s interpretation or an absence of feedback
The disruption of any of these elements will cause your communication loop to break.
John C. Woulfe III is the assistant director of the IAFC’s National Programs and Consulting Services.