Should there be 'device-free zones' in the station?

How to help younger generation firefighters improve their in-person communication skills


Young people almost never talk on the phone anymore. Compared to those of the same age 30 years ago, they hang out together in person much less. What they do – and do a lot of – is communicate via text and social media. And this fact creates some challenges for the emergency services.

It’s not just young people, of course. Almost everyone with a cell phone is spending time texting and engaging in social media to some degree. The difference is that older people have more experience with other forms of communication, too. For young people, virtual connection is so prevalent that they may feel uncomfortable with face-to-face communication.

Context is key: The importance of in-person communication skills     

The ability to communicate effectively face-to-face is an essential job skill for emergency responders. (Photo/Tina Gianos)
The ability to communicate effectively face-to-face is an essential job skill for emergency responders. (Photo/Tina Gianos)

The inability to communicate well in person is a problem for the emergency services. Fire and EMS response requires showing up, talking to people who are often involved in stressful situations, and gathering accurate and useful information from those encounters. Someone with less experience with this kind of communication may have trouble with this aspect of the job.

The problem isn’t just potential discomfort with direct contact. Emergency responders can learn what to say and do in different situations and can develop good technical skills to carry them through. But effective communication is much more than just saying the right things and recording responses. A lot of what firefighters do on emergency scenes is intuitive, and this is where lack of experience with face-to-face communications can make a big difference.

Researchers say that most of the meaning of communication is conveyed nonverbally. It’s not just the words that are said that matter, but also the tone of voice, the facial expression and the body language that go with those words. This is the context of communication, and it is critical for complete understanding.

In-person, one-on-one communication is usually the highest in context – you get the full range of cues from the other person, both verbally and nonverbally. Electronic communication via text or social media platforms is among the lowest in context. All you have are words on a screen, perhaps enhanced by punctuation or emojis.

The ability to read people is an important job skill for a firefighter. Is someone telling the truth or might they be withholding information? Is someone angry or scared? Does someone’s behavior seem a little off in a dangerous way? All these things can be conveyed through nonverbal signs, but only if someone is experienced enough to discern them. The less experience someone has with face-to-face communication skills, the less likely they are to detect important information that may not be conveyed with words.

How firefighters can improve in-person communication skills

Understanding how communication works and where it can go wrong is a key first step in helping individuals to be more aware and proactive in how they relate to others. Training in conflict resolution can give people skills and strategies that are useful both on emergency scenes as well as with coworkers in the fire station. 

But the best solution is just to practice. Historically, the fire service has been a story-telling culture, and in past years, crews would hang out together around the kitchen table, trading jokes and stories, likely while consuming large amounts of coffee. This interaction wasn’t just a way of killing time; it also served an important function in conveying unwritten rules and norms about the culture of the organization as well as providing a venue for building relationships.           

Firefighters still sit around and talk, but not in the same way they did in past decades. Phones are a constant distraction, so it can be hard to have even a short conversation with someone without succumbing to the temptation to check the phone for notifications. In her book “Reclaiming Conversation: The Power of Talk in a Digital Age,” Sherry Turkle shares that studies show that the average person checks their cell phone at least 80 times per day. And for young people who grew up with the technology, that rate is even higher.

If you want people to talk to one another more, and in the process improve their communication skills in a professional sense, then you have to get people to look away from their phones. This can be done in a number of ways, such as establishing “device-free” zones in the station, which might apply to the dinner table or when talking one-on-one in a formal way. Hands-on projects that involve everyone are another way for people to take a digital break. And it is perfectly reasonable and desirable to establish all formal training events as device-free zones. Such policies are respectful to instructors and insure a higher level of attention and benefit for those who attend the training sessions.

Turkle discusses research that shows that people, even young phone-addicted people, are often relieved to be in situations where they are not tied to their phones every second. People state that they enjoy the experience of focusing their attention on one thing, one person, one conversation. And studies also show that performance improves in every way when people are not multi-tasking and can give their full attention to one thing.

Lead by example: Disconnect from tech

The ability to communicate effectively face-to-face is an essential job skill for emergency responders. Fire service leaders need to create an environment where crewmembers can acquire and improve good skills in this area.

As with all things, the first step is to lead by example. If you want your crew to pay attention, then pay attention to them. Put your phone down. Listen. Create space where conversation can happen.

Editor’s note: Do you think there should be device-free zones at the station? What tips do you have for improving in-person communication among members? Share your feedback at editor@firerescue1.com.

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