Talk it out: Improving personal communication interoperability

Use communications-focused models, methods to enhance fireground communication among members


By Zachary Smith

The first time I ever spoke over the radio to Incident Command on an incident scene, I was terrified. I had read my department’s communications manual, knew what I wanted to say, was confident in how my radio worked, and was positive that I was on the right channel. But I still hesitated.

My situation is not unique. Communication failures are a common theme across line-of-duty death (LODD) studies and after-action reviews (AARs). I didn’t want to fail at something that should have been simple – and while everyone was listening. Unfortunately, this fear and hesitancy is common, especially among first responders who do not regularly talk on the radio.

Public safety leaders know the importance of communication interoperability and the industry has made incredible steps forward in improving communications. (Photo/AP)
Public safety leaders know the importance of communication interoperability and the industry has made incredible steps forward in improving communications. (Photo/AP)

Public safety leaders know the importance of communication interoperability and the industry has made incredible steps forward in improving communications. Fire department radios can connect across multiple frequencies, incorporate GPS and LTE, and talk seamlessly with police departments and emergency managers. It seems like there is a technical solution for every communication problem we face today, but without the proper skills and training, failures are inevitable.

HOW YOU COMMUNICATE MATTERS

While the technology itself can still cause failures, the way in which we communicate information does as well. Our communication practices directly affect how our message, whether it’s a request for resources or a mayday, is received and, ultimately, the outcome of the incident. We must work to ensure our communication practices are interoperable in the same way we work to ensure our technology is interoperable.

Effective communication during an emergency incident requires forethought, effective training, and a common understanding by incident personnel. Clear and concise communications across the spectrum of emergency management can determine the outcome of an incident. Our responsibility is to ensure that outcome is a successful one.

Employing a common communication model helps provide that, regardless of the situation or message being sent, all communications happen with a well-practiced cadence. Drilling with this communications method will ensure that communication occurs the same way every time. This predictability means that both the sender and the receiver will know what to expect and how to react so that they can focus on the content of the message rather than the mechanics of the communications.

[Read next: Billy Goldfeder offers A fireside chat about fire radio chatter]

The 4 Cs model

With this in mind, I propose the 4 Cs model to use as the basis for implementing a well-practiced cadence among your teams. Let’s detail each of the Cs:

1. Connect: The sender and receiver establish voice connection, ensuring that both are present in the conversation. For example:

Engine: “Ambulance 8 from Engine 12.”

Ambulance: “Engine 12 from Ambulance 8, go ahead with your message.”

2. Convey: The sender provides the information or command that they need to transmit.

Engine: “Ambulance 8, the patient is non-ambulatory; please bring in your cot.”

3. Clarify: The receiver relays the information back to ensure it is understood.

Ambulance: “Ambulance 8, understood, we are bringing in the cot.”

4. Confirm: The sender provides feedback to the receiver that their understanding is correct

Engine: “Engine 12 copy”

Building this cadence into every single radio transmission and every single communication helps solve part of the problem facing communications in an emergency incident, but not all. It establishes the cadence but does not ensure the message delivers the right content.

The content must be clear, accurate, and understood by the receiver. This can be much more of a challenge. Understanding the correct information to communicate, and ultimately what decisions can be made from that information during an emergency incident, is unique to every situation and learned over time.

THE MESSAGE IS IMPORTANT

A standard communication method to aid in delivering the correct information is the CAN report. The CAN report provides the basic information on the status of your emergency incident that will allow the incident commander (IC) to make informed decisions. The CAN report includes:

1. Conditions: These are the current conditions that you are operating in – your location, what you are seeing around you, and what you are experiencing. This paints a critical picture for the receiver. Providing pertinent descriptions of the current conditions informs the receiver of what you are facing and conveys the importance or criticality of the remainder of your message. 

Here’s an example of a conditions statement: “Engine 52 operating first floor alpha side. We have light smoke but no fire at this time.” Another example: “Shelter A coordinator, we currently have 52 out of 100 possible evacuees present in the shelter.”

2. Actions: This summarizes your current assignment and actions. Providing detailed descriptions of actions as part of your report allows IC to plan for next steps and/or assign follow-on actions.

Here’s an example of an action statement: “Engine 52 advancing a line down the main hall, searching for the seat of the fire.” Another example: “Shelter A continuing to register evacuees and ensuring food operations are ready to begin at 1700.”

3. Needs: The final component identifies any needs or requirements you have in order to execute your assigned task. Ensuring the IC understands the needs or additional requirements of an incident helps them obtain the necessary resources.

Here’s an example of a needs statement, “Engine 52, fire is out. Please ventilate the structure.” Another example: “Shelter A requires an additional 500 water bottles for the evacuees.”

Following a well-rehearsed script that all parties have used in training helps ensure that your message is received and properly understood. These lessons don’t only apply to radio traffic but also to all emergency incident communication, whether it’s over the radio, face-to-face or over another digital system like WebEOC or even email.

[Learn more: How to deliver strong initial on-scene size-up reports]

UPDATE COMMUNICATION PRACTICES AND PROCEDURES

Agencies must focus on incorporating good communication practices with appropriately selected and implemented technology. That combination will always result in the true communications interoperability we strive for.

The Department of Homeland Security has outlined an interoperability continuum to help an agency improve all facets of its communications capability, including governance, standard operating procedures, technology, training and exercises, and usage. Consider each of these elements as you develop your agencies’ communications plans. Building an effective communications plan, implementing interoperable technology, and training all personnel on how to communicate effectively are imperative to ensuring effective communication during an emergency incident.

Talk it out

Practice and experience are the only way to overcome the fear new first responders face when they speak on the radio for the first time. While the interoperability challenge may seem daunting, it is not hard – it simply takes focus and commitment. That effort is rewarded by smoother and, more importantly, effective communications during an emergency incident when those communications are most critical. We owe it to ourselves and the citizens that we protect to ensure that we communicate and act at the highest possible level.

Editor’s Note: What tips do you have for improved personal communication among members? Share in the comments below.

About the Author

Zachary Smith is a volunteer firefighter/EMT with the Vienna Volunteer Fire Department in Fairfax County, Virginia. He is employed as an Emergency Management Specialist with the First Responder Network Authority (FirstNet). In addition, Smith is member of both the Virginia Communications Cache and the National Capital Region – Incident Management Team (NCR-IMT). Connect with Smith on LinkedIn or via email. All views are that of Smith and not any employing organization.

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