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Let's Talk Fire: Is Too Much Communication on the Job a Bad Thing?

Sam has been a firefighter for nine years. He currently serves as lieutenant and public information officer of his city's fire department.

Communication is vital, but like any tool, it can be misused.

Communication is vital, but like any tool, it can be misused.

Is Too Much Communication a Bad Thing?

I always encourage firefighters to crack open a firefighter line of duty death (LODD) report from NIOSH, FEMA, or even a locally investigated one and look for one keyword that almost always appears in the area dictating resulting and contributing factors. That word is "communication." It is usually preceded by words like "poor," "lack of," or "improper use of." How is it that something as simple as talking to each other is killing us off at such an alarming rate? It is disturbing—to say the least.

As firefighters, we know how important a good solid communications plan can be to bringing a scene to the desired close or just for getting the word out that all is clear or a bad day is around the bend. With that in mind, I would like to pose a very strange question. Can communication be a bad thing on the fire ground?

Take some time to think about it, grab a soda from the machine, or read an article in Firehouse and then come back to the question. It's hard to think of too much communication as a possibility, yet alone a danger to us on the fire ground, but too much of any good thing can be a bad thing. Misapplied virtue turns to vice. Communication is a tool, and we need to realize any tool can be mishandled if the proper training has not been enforced.

In this installment of Let's Talk Fire, I am going to demonstrate a few times in my experience that communication turned out to be a bad thing. One instance was a lack of training, in another, it was a bit too much detail in the training, and in the other, it was a case of relativity.

Before we begin, I want to stress how vital it is that every firefighter in your department be on the same page when it comes to communication policies and procedures. They need to know how to call a mayday, how to request mutual aid, and even how to speak properly on the radio to avoid confusion and conflict. These things take practice and are a vital part of a successful fire department.

In a Dark Hollow on a Fiery Night

I was reading a book when tones dropped for my secondary department. (I serve on two volunteer agencies.) We had a structure fire up a very small hollow and the call went out saying flames were visible. I grabbed my gear and headed to the fire.

While en route, I heard a second alarm drop and that was followed by a tone for my primary department for mutual aid for water and man power. I knew we must have a good one going and I did my usual routine of praying for a safe return and for us to save what we could.

I arrived and flames were visible on D side with heavy smoke coming from C. At this point I met with my chief and one of our firefighters and the decision was made to make entry and head to the C/D corner bedroom where the fire appeared to have originated. We packed up and made the appropriate safety checks on our PPE and started to make entry through a side door.

At this point, my primary department arrived on scene and two of our firefighters where assigned traffic duty. This of course is not the glamorous job most new recruits like to do, but they accepted it and set up in their positions. I want to make it clear these were new firefighters and had not had a great deal of time to train on the proper way to use radios at a fire scene.

While inside the structure, we began getting radio communications from the traffic control team. They were asking how hot it was, was the fire out, and other questions. This was both a good thing and a bad thing as they were obviously concerned but at the same time they were using the channel for chatter when we had three men inside the structure and a crew outside just in case things went south.

While inside, one of our crew needed to go get a tool from the truck, so he backed out using the hose as a guide. We were not aware that he had placed his SCBA on the ground to retrieve a tool and check for extensions outside the structure. For some reason, the SCBA was not turned off properly.

Again, the traffic control team were on the radios hot and heavy and we were constantly reminding them it was an emergency frequency and we may need to access it. Then we heard an SCBA low air alert alarm. Instantly we thought our other crew member must still be in the structure, so we began to look for him. The sound got louder and I decided to radio for an accountability check to see if our firefighter was still inside. I could not get out because the traffic control crew were using the radio to talk about cars going by and how some of the drivers were getting angry at them. I was quite mad at this point and we came out to find the air pack laying on the ground by the front of the house.

While we did not lose the structure, and no one was hurt, we did lose a bit of it to the fire in our search for the firefighter. Had the radios not been tied up we would have been fine just radioing out for confirmation on the pack.

I want to stress the firefighters involved in traffic control were new to the service and did not realize what they were doing was bad and even dangerous. They eventually became two of the finest firefighters I have worked with.

Lessons Learned: Radio Use

  1. Always train new members on proper radio communications. Enforce it.
  2. Emergency operations require open radio channels. Never use them for chatter or small talk.
  3. When crews are inside a structure minimize radio talk to avoid conflicting with a possible mayday or request from inside.
  4. If possible, use a separate channel for traffic control.

Don't Overextend

I have to say that over my career I have had some of the best trainers our area has to offer and each of them has made an impact on me and who I am as a firefighter. It is through training we can learn what works and does not work. In one such training, we learned that too much communication can result in some major issues.

We had set up a search and rescue scenario in which the initial crew were going to fail and would need RIT to respond. This was done by using sheets of paper to represent various obstacles inside the structure. The idea was that the interior crew would dictate each obstacle they encountered and a general idea of where it was encountered to the outside crew who would be making a map. In theory this sounds very good, but in practice we learned that it is not an effective way to conduct a search.

The idea of having a map to go by is a very good one, but let's think about some things.

  • It's hard to draw something only by description from someone else.
  • With limited visibility in a fire, how will you read said map?
  • Time going into the radio transmissions and taking away from the search.

What we discovered was that we were making so many transmissions to the outside that our goal became more about identifying obstacles we encountered as opposed to finding a victim in the structure. We also realized very quickly that these repeated transmissions were eating up valuable air from our cylinders and causing us to only be able to advance half the distance we should have been doing.

In hindsight it seemed like a very good idea and something useful for fireground operations but in practice it just did not work to the liking of our department.

Remember that too much radio communication will slow you down and possibly distract you from the task at hand. Firefighters must know when and how to transmit properly and with purpose. We did make a few adjustments in which we only radioed out distance traveled at every 20 feet and any major obstacle that might hinder the access of RIT should they be needed. Our trainer took a unique training session and turned it into a very productive way to make our fireground communications work for us instead of against us.

Lessons Learned: Overcommunicating About Obstacles

  1. Only communicate what really needs to be communicated with outside crews. Couches and chairs that are not obstructing access are not vital to RIT.
  2. Too much radio use consumes air and delays from the task at hand.
  3. Radio communication on the fireground can prove distracting if not focused and on point for the task being performed.
That means tell them only what would actually help them do their job. Don't go into details that are irrelevant to the task at hand.

That means tell them only what would actually help them do their job. Don't go into details that are irrelevant to the task at hand.

Timing Is Key

The best way to train is to do it the way you plan on doing it when the real thing happens, and communications is no exception to that rule. During a session, my primary department was conducting search and rescue training inside a smoked-up structure. We soon discovered that whoever was taking the helm of incident command was actually causing a bit of confusion and delay in the inside operations. Let me explain.

We were maintaining communications with command: basically reporting any changes in the fire, distance traveled, and key obstacles inside the structure. What we discovered was that requests from command over the radio for location and changes in fire activity became more frequent to the point where we were getting a request every 15 seconds. Remember radio communications can be distracting and do consume air, so be cautious about how and when you use them with crews inside the structure.

Regardless of who ran command, we noticed that eventually their desire to know what was happening on the inside led to more frequent request over the radios. It was not a matter of lack of training but it was a matter of relativity.

For those who have seen Deep Blue Sea, this quote will make more sense, but for those who haven't, try to keep up. In one scene, LL Cool J makes a very profound statement about time.

Put your hands on a hot woman and a minute can seem like seconds; put your hand on a hot skillet and a second can feel like minutes. It's all relative.

This holds very true for the fire service. We fail to realize that time is not our friend when we are fighting fires. It is always working against us and in that sense we often lose track of it. For us on the inside, time seems to be moving a bit faster as we are task oriented and should be focused on that goal. But outside, we are not seeing or experiencing what our crews inside are and that makes it seem like time is moving slower. We don't realize it's only been a few seconds since we last asked for updates from the interior crew.

This caused a few issues in the training and it made several firefighters express concerns that too much time was spent on the radios. The solution was easy. Just have the IC count or keep a watch handy to time their transmissions and make sure they were not getting too frequent with the crew inside. It was an easy fix but had it gone unfixed it could have been very dangerous on the fire ground.

Lessons Learned: Timing Communications With Interior Crews

  1. Incident Command must know what is going on inside a structure that a crew has entered. Be sure to make frequent reports of fire changes and location as needed.
  2. Time your responses and request to interior crews so you are not becoming a distraction as opposed to a resource.
  3. Only report what is needed. "We found a vase" is not vital, unlike "we found a person."
  4. Use a watch or timer to know when to follow up with reports.

In Closing

With any tool in our tool box, be it the one on the truck or the one in our head, we must train to get better used to using it. Communications is such an important part of what we do and a vital part of fireground etiquette. Remember, too much of a good thing is bad, and communications is no different than that four-pound bar of chocolate you got for Easter!

Train your department on how to use communication to work for them and not against them. Make sure new members are well-versed in procedure and how to use their radios properly and with no excessive communications. Teach each member when and how to ask for reports from interior crews to allow them time to operate inside and not be distracted. It seems so easy, but you would be surprised to know many departments are having issues with communications (other than lack of communication). Stay safe, my friends!

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.