Fireground Chatter vs. Clear Communication

While listening to audiotape of a pretty big fire recently, it occurred to me that a lot of information was floating around. Command was calling, asking, ordering. Other units on the scene were doing the same thing. All in all, a lot of talking. As the incident continued to develop, it was clear that command was frustrated and the operation was out of sync.

In the end, all of the bases were covered. There were some blown assignments, but all in all things happened as they are bound to on a fire, right? There will always be a certain amount of confusion, it is unavoidable, right? Or is it?

The tape I listened to spoke volumes about the difference between radio chatter and communication. Of course I can't go around passing out or posting copies of the audio and I won't even tell you what fire it is from or when it happened. But this was not the first fire that ever made me think of communications. 

I've reviewed much of the fireground audio I have in my archives recently. Initially my intent was to concentrate on calls that involved a mayday; I was looking for correlation between the amount of radio chatter and a subjective perception of how well the mayday went. In each case, the mayday had a positive outcome, in that the firefighter was rescued. But I noticed that some patterns began to emerge. 

I listened to the tapes multiple times. I broke each tape into one-minute segments and counted the number of radio transmission made in that time period. I included every transmission; however, if someone was talking and simply took a pause before completing their thought, I did not count that as two transmissions.

I did the same thing with the tape we are talking about here, only concerning myself with the first few minutes of the operation.

A rudimentary analysis
First let me make clear that my analysis of this and other events, while approximating scientific methodologies, makes no claims toward being a statistically valid process. I am still interested in rapid decision making, which is to also say rapid information processing, but for now it is simply anecdotal data and not reliably reproducible.

At the beginning of the tape, a unit is requesting and receives location information. At time equals 1:20, the first command officer arrives, seconds after the first arriving unit announced that they were on the scene with nothing evident. Command arrives on the scene, corrects his unit identifier and assumes command.

Given that this call was very close to the first due station, not all the units due on the call had been response checked but command took over this function, essentially adding additional luggage to his command in the stressful first few minutes of a fire.

The criticality of the first few minutes of a fire call obviously cannot be disputed, but taking the job of the dispatcher by assuming the role call adds a significant amount of stuff to one’s cognitive load during what is already a critical moment.

First 60 seconds of command
Over the first 60 seconds after assuming command, command made six statements, three requests for information and gave one order. There were also six audible bits of information transmitted by other units. This yields a total of 10 transmissions from command and 16 in total. The math says command made a transmission every six seconds on average in this first minute of operation and in all there was a transmission every 3.75 seconds.

This does not include the conversations occurring in the cabs, the missed transmissions because of an ill-placed air horn, a near miss with a civilian vehicle or any number of other possible distractions. Also, people were making transmissions on the talk-around channel, an inappropriate use of that channel. The point is that where some of the most critical decisions are being made is also the time when the brain is being swarmed with information.
With that much information moving around that fast, something is going to be missed — you almost have to assume that. 

Second 60 seconds of command
The next 60 seconds is the second chapter to this story; companies have now reported fire on the terrace level and the possibility of trapped children has not been resolved.

In this minute, command made four statements, six requests for information and gave four orders. There were nine audible bits of information transmitted by other units. This yields a total of 14 transmissions from command and 23 transmissions in total.

The math says command made a transmission every 4.28 seconds on average in this minute and in all there was a transmission every 2.6 seconds. Think about this for a moment and if you were on the fireground during this time: As you were stretching your line, throwing your ladders and searching rooms, a different bit of information is coming to you by radio every 2.6 seconds. Add that to the amount of environmental noise, and you have a bunch of people who are just about maxed out on the amount of information that they can receive, process and act on.

Just how do we manage the potential for information overload?

Successful outcomes
Listening to command on the audiotape as the level of confusion and stress grew, it seemed as if the number and detail of transmission from him also increased. It was not clear, however, what some of the more rapid-fire comments actually meant. For example, command said, " … Engine 2, you are out." What does that mean and how should the officer of Engine 2 now behave? When command says, "Truck 3, do your thing," again, what does that mean? How should that officer now behave? Another example: "Command to Engine 8, take a line to the rear and work your way up." I am sure that the picture of how that all would unfold looked right in head of command but no one else was on the same page.

In the initial moments of any emergency event, the hardest thing to do is to communicate effectively. However, it's also the most important factor in assuring positive outcomes. When new bits of information are being created every 2.6 seconds, there is precious little time or cognitive space available for processing those details. Successful outcomes will be based in a common operational picture, well rehearsed standard operating procedures and the ability of command to provide short, clear messages to the appropriate people at the appropriate time. And, as I have come to realize, at the appropriate rate.

The next part of this discussion will look a little deeper into how improved horizontal communication on the fireground may help to alleviate some of the problems discussed here.

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