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‘STEP’ into Better Horizontal Communications

Fireground Communications Part 2

Editor’s note: Check out Charles Bailey’s first article in his series on fireground communications, Fireground Chatter vs. Clear Communication.

While the Tactical Decision Making Under Stress (TADMUS) program may have been developed by the U.S. Navy, elements of it can apply to the fire service.

The STEP process it developed can help improve both our decision making and communications on the fireground.

S means to develop a story
T means to test that story
E means to evaluate the story against the facts
P means to plan for having been wrong about the S, T and E.

This process asks you first to tell a story about what you expect to see; in our case it could be how you expect a fire to unfold. You then test that story against the facts as they are presented to you, evaluate the validity of your story and finally create new stories as needed. Essentially you’re always planning for what happens if you are wrong. The STEP process allows the user, even while engaged in a high stress, high intensity situation, to continually reevaluate the utility and safety of his/her decisions.

I recently went to a critique of a fire where one unit officer told an interesting story. He said that he expected to have smooth sailing as he went through the front of the house, as the fire was obviously in the back of the property. This officer certainly did not expect to encounter the heat, fire or smoke conditions that were apparent straight away.

As far as I know he had never been exposed to the STEP process, but it was good to hear him talk openly about having created a story. However, it was somewhat disturbing that he did not make any significant adjustment to his tactical/task level approach to the incident based on his failed story. As he talked further, it seemed that he naturally conducted the “S” part of the process, and to a limited extent realized that the story failed. However, he did not reconstitute the story in a way that made sense of the actual fire environment or make adjustments based on the failed narrative.

It turned out this officer was facing a significant fire that was still growing as he made his way through the front door. He was not aware that the fire, which apparently started on the outside of the house, had made its way inside and was developing quickly throughout the majority of the structure. He had no way of knowing that the fire was above him, below him and all around him in the walls. Or did he?

Crucial point
The key to the story is that it did not make sense. While it was initially valid, the crucial point is his vision of what would happen did not match up with reality. In other words, he only did the first part of STEP — he developed the story. Perhaps if he was aware of the other three steps, he would have “tested” his story, comparing it to the facts as they were presented, “evaluated” it and decided that his initial story could not have been valid because the facts simply were not lining up.

It’s often said that no one has time to think on a fireground. Things are happening so fast that we just react, right? But why must we rush? Why can’t we slow down the clock just a little? What if instead of pressing forward because we can’t think of anything else to do, we stop and re-evaluate what we are facing?

If everyone is talking, no one is listening. A balance must be struck.

The officer’s initial story was based on what he visualized as he approached the house from the front. For whatever reason he did not do a circle check, but that would not have changed much. No matter how much he walked around the property, he would have still made his attack with an incomplete picture of what actually awaited him inside. Even as he made entry and began to attack the fire, he would be working with an incomplete picture of what was happening.

How then could he have known what was happening around him? The answer lies in effective horizontal communication on the fireground. One of the most common failings I have witnessed in recent fires — both those I have been on or commanded — is the failure of the tactics-level actors to help the incident commander complete the incomplete picture of what was happening and how conditions were changing.

So let’s revisit the same story we started with earlier to see how a different communications framework might have altered the situation.

Imagine that the first arriving engine officer arrives on the scene of a house fire with heavy fire showing from the rear of a two-story single-family dwelling. He knows what to do, is confident and orders the cross lay advanced to the front door as he provides an on-scene report via radio and assumes command. Similar to the original story earlier in this article, he is working with the same limited picture: as he stretches through the front door, he’s expecting to find fire, heat and smoke in the back third of the house.

But what’s different about this new example is that the second arriving engine officer stretching the back-up line calls the first engine to advise him of fire and dense smoke spreading to the second floor. The third engine takes a position in the rear and advises the first engine that the fire is now entering the attic and the exposures, and that the initial lines do not seem to be making an impact. The first truck advises that their ventilation efforts are not able to remove smoke from the structure as fast as it is being created, and that they have signs of fire spread to the exposures on both sides.

Available information
It does not matter if these communications are being made unit-to-unit, unit to sector supervisor or unit/sector supervisor to command. By being transmitted over the common talk-group or frequency, that information is there for everyone to take and process.

Assuming that the first engine officer is able to listen, hear and absorb all the information that is provided on the network, would he make a different decision about how to proceed? Well that is not so clear. First, the unit officer is exposed to a tremendous amount of stress. The environment is providing a tremendous amount of information about heat levels, smoke or flame density, noise and other things. Each of these stimuli is competing for space in a brain that is overloaded with information. On top of all that, the stress tends to cause a tunnel vision or fixation on what is directly ahead. It is quite possible that all the information to make a different decision is present but the officer still does not adjust his behavior because he cannot absorb, process or put all it together in a useable way.

Whether or not this extra information is actually useable depends on a lot of things, not least of which is division and group supervisors along with branch directors and section chiefs being able to step back from the action. Are they able to slip into the action to provide direction and to gain situational awareness and then slip out to take a look at the larger picture.

The scenario I just laid out may sound nice, but realistically horizontal communication is really a misnomer; it’s actually spherical. For the average structure fire, all communications are handled on the same frequency or talkgroup. A unit may actually be talking directly to a group or division supervisor but if they communicate via radio everyone hears the message. If everyone is talking, no one is listening. A balance must be struck.

As I imagine it, radio communications on the fireground should most likely be between different group and division supervisors. Having these supervisors talking leads to increased coordination of search, ventilation and attack. The message that engine two needs to transmit to the attack group supervisor in the scenario I to outlined could probably wait for a face-to-face transmission.

Some jurisdictions declare radio silence or restricted air in the initial minutes of an incident to clear the channel for critical information, for more effective horizontal communication. This technique is only effective if individuals, units and commanders all share a common operational picture, which is to say they share common definitions of what critical communications are.

In the first article, we looked at how many messages are transmitted on the fireground and how individuals can easily become overwhelmed by the amount of information that they are receiving. Once overwhelmed, the innate human information filters don’t start working harder, they start shutting down. What is important is that we as a profession begin to develop more precise language beyond the confines of NIMS mandates, effective mechanisms for deciding what information is critical and create communications frameworks that recognize the inherent limitation of human cognitive ability, especially in high stress situations.

An adherence to the STEP process provides a framework based on narratives. Actors on the fireground should all be able to know that the other actors are developing ever-changing narratives and should only transmit information over the air that aides in either the development or modification of that narrative.

No matter what you come up with, there simply has to be a way to improve horizontal communication on the fireground. The tactics-level actors have to be talking and coordinating their efforts if we are to continue having successful outcomes. This profession really does require mindfulness.

Get information on the basic tactics of firefighting from veteran Charles Bailey’s FireRescue1 column, ‘Bread and Butter Basics’. Learn how to attack different types of fires and minimize risk to your crew.