Fireground communications: How to make it great

Your firefighters and responders need basic communications training, or you are doing them not only a disservice, but you are risking their lives

How many times have you been involved in a critique of an incident or training exercise and listened to participants complain about our number one issue in the fire service, communications?

Regardless of technological breakthroughs and the latest in digital communications, we still are plagued with communications issues. We have attempted to draw attention to this drawback in the acronym LCES:

Escape Routes
Safety Zones

While initially adopted in the wildland firefighting world, the acronym was quickly adopted by structural firefighters. While this is commendable, we still suffer with communications issues on all incidents, and our personnel, while well trained, still hit their heads against the communications wall.

There are various reasons, some simple, some more complex. Let us explore basic communications issues along with potential solutions.

Communications basics
Do you train your personnel to recognize communications blocks? Many fire academy classes utilize the old basic communications exercise where we whisper a message in one student's ear, and transfer to the next student and so on by whisper until we get to the last student and ask them to state what the message was.

You would be surprised by what comes out after going through 20 or 30 students. Is this an example of real world issues? Absolutely!

In the wildland fire world, we teach the 10 Standard Fire Orders and 18 Situations That Shout Watch Out.

 These form the basis for LCES, and offer valuable insight to activities not just on wildland incidents, but other emergencies as well. Two of my favorite Fire Orders are:

1. Maintain prompt communications with your forces, your supervisor, and adjoining forces.
2. Give clear instructions and ensure they are understood.

This demonstrates our clear understanding of how important communications is to emergency services personnel. In the 18 Situations That Shout Watch Out, we have more examples of the need for communication:

1. Uninformed on strategy, tactics, and hazards.
2. Instructions and assignments not clear.
3. No communication link with crewmembers/supervisors.
4. Cannot see main fire, not in contact with anyone who can.

Out of the 28 total Fire Orders and Watch Out Situations, six cover communications, hence the "C" in LCES.

We train our personnel to don and doff SCBAs in the dark, tie knots behind their back, couple and uncouple hose blindfolded, and perform a myriad of what we consider essential tasks in the dark.

Yet do we truly prepare them to COMMUNICATE? I fear not, and this is what is going to pose one of the most significant threats to our staff.

When you mention communications, the first thoughts revolve around radios, cell phones, microwave links, narrowband compliance, and other technical aspects.

What about BASIC communications. I have met and worked with individuals that can be characterized as poor communicators at best in the non-emergency world. This can translate to disaster on the fireground.

You may be surprised to learn how few of your firefighters know emergency communications signals such as evacuation signals or rope tugs during a structural search.

We all have portable radios, right? Wrong! I am still submitting grant applications for departments that lack sufficient portable radios and there are other departments struggling to meet narrowband radio requirements.

Have you ever had a portable radio malfunction? Have a battery go dead? In the industrial fire world, we struggle with communications during refinery fires or pipeline release due to loud noises that block communications.

Your firefighters and responders need basic communications training, or you are doing them not only a disservice, but you are risking their lives.

Take a few minutes at each training session to practice a form of communication. Instructors are taught to read body language of students, so you should be able to see if your students are uncomfortable or do not understand. Practice "OATH" rope signals:

One tug = OK
Two tug = Advance
Three tug = Take Up Slack
Four tug = Help

Practice hand signals used by your department, and evacuation signals and be sure that everyone understands what they mean.

Talk about emergency procedures of what to do when a portable radio fails, and review department SOPs.

Read, memorize and understand the 10 & 18, and how they apply to all firefighters, and the relationship between them and LCES. After dinner, in lieu of watching TV, take 10 minutes to review communications and discuss how your crew will adapt and overcome.

Communications do not need to be a negative aspect of emergency services. Think of the sense of accomplishment at your next critique when you get to say, "Well, when everything else went badly, our communications was GREAT!"

Does your department have exercises that you use to improve communications? If so, share them so others can learn.

Until next time, stay safe!

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