Sending the Right Message

Editor's note: Over the coming months, Tom LaBelle will be looking at the various factors involved in ensuring clear communication, a series which began last month with 'Communicating Safety.'

Photo SmokeShowingPhotography
FDNY firefighters operate at the scene of an apartment fire in August.

There are various ways we can utilize the individual parts of the communication chain to help increase the likelihood of a safe outcome during incidents.

The sender, and the first link, has a great deal of power over how a communication, transmission, order etc., is going to begin — and therefore how it will end. Even though we often feel the need, and quite frankly must communicate quickly on the emergency scene, taking the extra few seconds to think about your role as sender and the who, what, where, when and why of what you're about to say or write will almost always make your effort more likely to get you where you need to be.

In my previous article, I defined the first link in the chain, the sender, as follows:

The sender encompasses the beginning of the process; the person with the information that needs to be conveyed is the sender. As the sender you chose the "who, what, when, where, why and how" of sending out this information. Who will it go to? What information will be delivered? When will it be delivered? Where will it be delivered? Why are you delivering it? And, of course, how will it be delivered? How you answer each of these questions has a dramatic impact on the message you send and therefore how it will be understood.
We can start by looking at the "who" section for the sender. Who are we communicating to? Citizens, firefighters, fellow officers or superiors, both in and out of the fire service? The words and even grammar that we use are different for each group. When we envision what we want to communicate, it's very easy to state it in terms that we — the sender — will understand, but that doesn't matter if the "who" doesn't get it.

The association I work for provides a great deal of hands-on training for the fire service. New York State is a large and diverse state, and often at the beginning of these events we review terms even for fairly seasoned students.

The term "hook" normally brings about the most confusion. When our instructors tell a student to get a hook, the student will often then do one of two things: they will either give the instructor a quizzical look, clearly not understanding the term, or they will go to the apparatus and get what they believe to be a hook. We've discovered you have got a 50/50 chance of them coming back with what many Upstate New York firefighters call a pike pole. It goes to show that many terms used are not always agreed upon, especially at large multi-company incidents or for newer members.

Potential problems
Another area that can lead to problems is when communicating with a senior firefighter. Often, we believe we can take verbal shortcuts with them because we trust them to be able to see the vision or goal we want from our transmission. But are these shortcuts not conveying the level of safety we want them to take? Or perhaps leaving so much to their own interpretation of our vision that they can create a completely different outcome than we envisioned? As the father of two young children, I always remember that if I allow for an interpretation of a directive, I shouldn't really be upset if their interpretation is different than my own.

When we communicate to the public (the press, citizens and elected officials) do we speak to them in technical jargon or in laymen's terms? Do we communicate the desire to ensure the safety of firefighters and citizens alike so that they (and our members) know that we don't consider life to be simply expendable for replaceable property? Again, if we haven't explained to them our needs, goals and desires in their terms, we can't expect the outcome we desire.

Determining the level of understanding (of language, grammar and skills) of the recipient goes a long way in ensuring that you as the sender start out on the right foot. If you begin sending out your envisioned message for the wrong "who," the first link in the chain is weak and the next links will likely just become weaker. When we have failures on our truck company, I always look back at myself and ask if I communicated what I wanted the right way. It is my responsibility as an officer to ensure that I know the "who" that I am sending my message to, and what their ability, knowledge and understanding is so that I can give them the right message.

It is worth pointing out that if you want to limit the amount of variation of knowledge and ability so that you can limit the number of "whos" you need to think about, then the training ground is the best place to start. As we train more, and follow and teach SOPs more, the people we're sending our messages to on the fireground will become more alike.

Next month we'll take a look at some of the "what" questions you should consider when preparing to be the sender.

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