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Firefighter communication: How to avoid dangerous traps

Making sure firefighter communication is understood is a key to safe firefighting; here are ways to ensure what is sent is received


Communications plays an important part within our society as it forms the very basis upon which we operate, function, live and relate to each other.

In the fire service, communication plays an even bigger role. It is the lifeline between firefighters working on the fireground, as it also is in the station during non-emergency times.

Communication is constantly and consistently identified as an area for improvement in the fire service.

A majority of NIOSH line-of-duty-death reports highlight how communications was either nonexistent or poorly established, thus leading to a fatality or a serious injury. The recommendation to improve, train, replace or even update communication systems is consistent in these LODD reports.

Stop freelancing
Whenever there is a communication breakdown between working crews and incident command or other sector officers, the dominos of becoming a handicapped firefighter start to line quickly. One of the biggest concerns we have individually and collectively is the safety and well-being of each other; this includes preventing freelancing from occurring.

Freelancing is when we do not communicate to someone, be it an officer, sector officer, incident command or another firefighter what we are doing or where we are going. When this happens, disaster usually strikes, resulting in a bad outcome.

Communication on the fire ground can be very overwhelming, especially when it is a large event and involves numerous crew members, mutual aid and outside agencies.

There are two main ways in which we can communicate with each other: by a portable radio or face to face. Of the two, face-to-face communication is the best as it allows for instant receipt of the message and also provides other means of communication to take place such as facial gestures and body language.

Communication basics
Using a portable radio provides for long-distance, large-area communication. A portable radio is an excellent piece of technology and very useful for our profession. It does, however, breakdown operationally and requires a user to use the device in the proper manner.

Communication requires a sender and a receiver. A common breakdown in communication is between the sender and the receiver. Either the receiver did not receive the message or the sender did not send the message properly.

Communications needs to be in a clear and simple format so that anyone using a portable radio or even speaking face to face can easily understand the message.

The order model is a standard way to transmit messages over a portable device ensuring that both the sender and the receiver understand each other.

This is where the receiver repeats back to the sender the message. By doing this, it lets the sender know that the message was received and understood by the other party.

Training on this method of communicating will help to eliminate the dominos that will line up when communications start to descend on the fireground. And, it will help prevent a firefighter or crew form becoming handicapped.

Mark van der Feyst has been in the fire service since 1998, currently serving as a firefighter with the Fort Gratiot Fire Department in Michigan. He is an international instructor teaching in Canada, the United States and India. He graduated from Seneca College of Applied and Technologies as a fire protection engineering technologist, and received his bachelor’s degree in fire and life safety studies from the Justice Institute of British Columbia and his master’s degree in safety, security and emergency management from Eastern Kentucky University. van der Feyst is the lead author of the book “Residential Fire Rescue” and “The Tactical Firefighter.” Connect with van der Feyst via email.