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Clearer Communication for Company Officers

“What we have here is a failure to communicate.” This famous movie line is all too true in day-to-day fire department operations, both on and off the emergency scene. If you go to any debrief or after-action review, what always emerges as one of the main sources of trouble at the incident? Equipment failure? Lack of skill or motivation of the troops? No, in nearly every case, communication problems top the list.

The role of the company officer is critical to effective communication. You are responsible not only for giving orders to your crew, but also:

  • Eliciting information from them
  • Sharing information with peers and other agencies
  • Conveying policy and mission direction from above
  • Giving constructive input to your supervisors
  • Developing working relationships with members of your service community.

Communicating effectively across this wide array of roles does not just happen. You have to prepare, develop skills, learn from mistakes, and understand the value of communication in every aspect of your job.

The ways communication can go wrong seem nearly infinite at times, but some communication pitfalls are universal. They include:

  • Making assumptions. Remember the old joke that to “assume” makes an “ass” out of “u” and “me?” Unfortunately, assumptions can lead to worse outcomes than just looking foolish. Whether it is assuming what will happen when you give direction to ventilate a building (“But when you said ventilate, I assumed you meant a hole in the roof, not just opening the windows!”) or your assumption that you and the utility company mean the same thing when you agree that the power has been turned off to the building, unforeseen outcomes are surprises you don’t want to deal with. Be specific about what you intend and check for understanding.
  • Lack of clarity. It is easy to forget that firefighters speak their own language, full of jargon and slang that others might be clueless to interpret. Even firefighters from different departments use a wide variety of terms for the same tools and procedures. Be explicit — don’t assume others understand what you mean. Be especially conscious when using technical terms and abbreviations. Watch out for language that could be interpreted in more than one way (telling someone to go to the “front” of the building versus the northwest door, for example.) When in doubt, spell it out.
  • Fear of admitting lack of understanding. Nobody wants to look stupid. When people don’t understand, they are just as likely to remain silent as to speak up and ask for clarification. People are especially hesitant to admit lack of understanding if it appears they are the only ones who don’t get it (this is almost never the case, but the perception is reinforced when everyone is standing by silently.) It is critical to impress upon people that it is not only okay but imperative that they speak up if they do not understand.
  • Lack of trust, or outright hostility. It has been said that in the absence of real information, people tend to connect the dots in the most pathological way possible. This is particularly true when the general atmosphere is one of mistrust and the usual outcome of honest mistakes is finger pointing and accusation. If you don’t have a trusting relationship with those you work with, they will let you walk right off the cliff, even if they clearly see the problems that exist.

So what can you do to help communication work as well as possible? A general attitude in valuing communication and showing your commitment to doing better is the first crucial step. In addition, consider the following points to improving communication at work:

  • Learn and practice active listening. Nobody is born a good listener. Active listening is a skill that can be learned. The basic components of active listening include adopting an attentive attitude toward others when they speak such as through engaged body language, verbal cues that indicate interest and understanding, and repetition of the essence of the message for clarification.
  • Ask for specific feedback. How will you know if others understood what you just told them? You can ask them. You don’t have to be condescending about it. Try saying, “Please tell me how you understand what we just agreed to, so we can be sure we are on the same page.”
  • Use back-up systems. E-mail works great as a redundant communication system. If you talk to someone on the phone and agree that you will meet in person on Tuesday at 0900, it never hurts to follow up with a brief e-mail that confirms that agreement, explicitly stating the date and time. It won’t be uncommon for such follow up to result in the prevention of misunderstanding (“Did I say this Tuesday? I meant, next Tuesday, the 12th.”)
  • Build trusting relationships before you really need them. The emergency scene is not the place to start building relationships that enhance communication. Do this work ahead of time, among your crew, with other stations, among other agencies, and with the public. Learn about one another, and work on clarifying any misunderstandings long before such misunderstandings could lead to dire outcomes.

Years ago, I was hired to teach classes on communication for a major fire department. The class was mandatory, and many of the participants were none too happy being there. As two firefighters entered the classroom, I heard one say to the other, “I don’t know why we have to take classes on things like communication. We should be taking classes on things that could kill us out there.”

Unfortunately, poor communications will kill a firefighter as quick as anything else out there. It is your responsibility as an officer to learn skills, eliminate obstacles, model positive behaviors, and above all, make sure that all the people on your crew communicate as if their lives depend on it. Because they do!

Take your department in the direction you want. Get expert advice on how to effectively lead your fire department. 20-year veteran Linda Willing writes “Leading the Team,” a FireRescue1 column about fire department leadership.