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Working Your Way Through Information Overload

We all know the guy or perhaps you're new and haven't met him yet, but you will: the incident commander who just gets it. The IC whose steely eyed stare — which you can feel even over a handset — just lets you know that he sees the whole incident and that he's five steps ahead of it. It is how we all hope we are, or will be, when it comes to handling the "big ones" that cross our paths.

How does that individual do it? Books have been written, and read, regarding that question; most are well worth the read. It has been my experience that regardless of the incident and how far up or down the IC food chain we find ourselves, communications play a huge role.

How things are transmitted, received and managed can allow you to stay ahead as a firefighter, line officer or chief. Although some are clearly born with a gift, most of us aren't and experience and proficiency arrive through practice (application), review (critique) and refinement. All of these can and do occur both formally and informally, but we must make sure they happen.

The amount of information streaming and sometimes screaming at us, especially for first arriving units, can and have caused mental shutdowns in some fine officers. I have often wished I had some sort of time altering device so that I could analyze everything I see as we're riding down the street to a reported structure fire.

What I have discovered in the officers that I admire is their apparently innate ability to sift through data, and recognize not only its significance but also the priority of its importance. Such a grasp, a situational awareness, provides them with not only the data needed for a solid action plan, but also allows them to set the pace for the remainder of the incident.

Receiving information
Upon arrival we will be receiving and processing information, wanted and unwanted, from dispatch, the crew in the back, neighbors and bystanders, homeowners and of course our own visual and audio input and the memories they grab from our toolbox. Some of that information is accurate, some isn't. Simply being accurate, however, doesn't give the information any value for the crisis at hand, nor for putting together your action plan.

We each need to be able, through practice, to sift through that information and assign it a certain priority. Recognizing the standard requirements of our departments to protect life and property, expanded to protecting our firefighters first, civilians second, the initial property first, exposure properties second, gives us the beginning of a framework for categorizing that influx of information.

As information comes at us, we must learn through practice the ability to assign it into the appropriate level of importance. It's about filtering out and grabbing the nuggets of good information, and not only transferring them into your initial action plan but into effective reports for incoming units of the conditions you face and your initial actions and needs.

Information that will have a direct impact on our actions, such as building construction, extent and veracity of visible fire and smoke amongst and along with other standard size-up information will of course be gathered. But it will not all have the same level of usefulness at every event. Recognizing our core priorities and using these as a touchstone for evaluating the value of information allows us not to be pulled away from important data or information by more interesting but less significant details.

We are also well served by firefighters who understand what we are looking for and what constitutes important information. The concepts of Crew Resource Management make it a certainty that we will receive more information than we have in the past, and that's not inherently a bad thing. However, each member of a crew must have a feel for what information we are looking for. This knowledge allows them to tell the difference not only of useful but questionable information, but also gives them the ability to notice when things don't look quite right.

I don't think anyone is amazed at the number of individuals entering the fire service who have little or no experience in building concepts let alone a building trade. Although easy to get frustrated with, we must teach these individuals both our unique trade and the precepts of buildings and how they react to fire. With this base line information, they can narrow down the flow of information in a positive way and feel more confident in discussing what they see.

As rank and file firefighters become more comfortable with personal size ups, decoding and discussing information with line officers, we in turn will increase our ability to receive and decode pertinent information, increasing the chances for effective safe emergency operations at all levels.

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