Skip to main content

Let's Talk Fire Drill Time: Communication Is Key!

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

Always work to improve your fire ground communications.

Always work to improve your fire ground communications.

Firefighters: The Reality of What We Do

Let's face some very cold and very hard truths. Sometimes we don't put the fire out and save the day. Sometimes we just are not able to pull that victim out of the fire's throat before it has had its way with them. And sadly, sometimes, we ourselves don't make it out of the beast's belly. What we do is dangerous. I would really advise you to pick up a NIOSH report or one of FEMA's line of duty death reports. I assure you one word will often appear more times than not under the cause heading. That word is communications.

It is a simple word, yet through a lack of training and understanding, we have made it so complex that it becomes more of a chore than a safety obligation. We use it every day, yet when we get on scene, we neglect to use it the right way. Communication can be as simple as talking to your fire crew at the station after a fire or as complex as a full-scale mayday situation. It is, however, a skill we must practice and maintain. Think about it. Would you want to be the guy who has to tell a family their loved one did not make it out because some joker was using the radio for small talk with another firefighter? Or even worse, what if you were that guy?

This time around on Drill Time, we are going to explore two relatively easy-to-perform drills that put focus on good communication skills. They are easy to pull off and will help to mold your firefighters into well-mannered communicating machines.

What You Will Need

  • Several pens
  • Some blank white paper
  • A room with a door
  • Two radios
  • Some pictures (I like shapes)
This would be a good start for the sender to use.

This would be a good start for the sender to use.

Draw This!

This drill will work on the ability of your crew to describe what they are seeing to another crew member. It will seem very easy at first, but soon you will realize just how complex even the simplest of images can become when worded wrong. Remember that interior crews are painting a picture for the outside crews using their descriptive words. If they can not dictate the image accurately, problems can arise.

First, let's divide the crews into teams of two. Each person on each team needs a radio. I usually just use walkie-talkies from Wal-Mart. That way, we are not having our training go out across the radio feed. Scanners are numerous today. Now each team will get a few items.

One member should have a blank piece of paper and a pen or any writing utensil they feel confident with. The other will have a picture of some sort. Keep it simple but something that will provide a challenge at the same time. I like to use several shapes in different locations on the paper. This makes it a more challenging task but not an impossible one. If you give a member the Mona Lisa, they are going to struggle with describing it almost as much as the other member will struggle drawing it.

The firefighter with the blank paper goes into the room and shuts the door. Now we are eliminating facial and body communication techniques. This may not seem like much, but a nod can generate a great deal of action. Now the outside firefighter will use descriptive words to describe the picture he or she is holding. They have to do so in a way that best gives the interior firefighter a means of recreating the image.

There are several key points to getting the most out of this drill.

  • After every radio transmission, the person receiving the message needs to respond with "copy that" if they understood or a follow-up question if they did not. This is a direct reflection of how we would be communicating on the fire ground.
  • The sender can at no time ever reveal the entire picture. For example, the image is several skyscrapers. They will not be able to say several buildings. Each line must be dictated.

This drill is going to foster a programmed response to use the best means to describe what they are seeing and the best way to relay it back to command. I like to use this training by having an interior attack firefighter on the inside drawing and have my pump operator on the outside describing and then flipping them to see how the communication changes.

Scroll to Continue

Read More From Toughnickel

Great Items

  • Aerosol can
  • School box
  • Matchbook
  • Lighter
  • Milk jug
  • Gas can
Gas cans vary in size and shape. Would you know one in the dark?

Gas cans vary in size and shape. Would you know one in the dark?

Drill 2: Communicating What We Can't See

Any good firefighter knows that situations come in which we are going in blind. Smoke makes it impossible to see what is in a room, and then we have to rely on our sense of touch to tell us what we are "seeing." This seems easy enough, but factor in the bulkiness of our fire gloves, and you have a very difficult task.

This drill will focus on improving the ability to communicate things we can feel but can't see to the outside crew. Again, you will need several items.

The key here is to make sure the firefighter participating is not able to see. I like to do this drill in total darkness with the Nomex hood turned backward. It makes it tremendously hard to see. Now place several items on the floor separated by a few feet. The firefighter will crawl into these and have to identify them. They will locate the item and have to tell incident command what they have just found. This becomes a doting task when you find an aerosol can that may feel like a pencil holder or a small box that might actually be an incendiary device. While the stress of this drill focuses on communication, it is also going to work with competency in using fire gloves.

I want to elaborate on this drill in the next section to make it more than just a communications drill but first, try it this way.

Learn the Sizes and Shapes

Deeper Into Drill 2

As I said, the focus is on communicating what you see but we are going to go a step further with this one.

As I said, some of the items you will place will play a more significant role than just to confuse the hands and trick the eyes. Have the firefighter crawl in and find a jug. Is it water, milk, or perhaps an accelerant that poses a huge danger? Now once they feel they have identified the item ask them what they do with it. I can not express how many firefighters have found a can of hairspray and tossed it meagerly to the side. This creates a potential fire hazard and should not be the action taken.

Maybe the firefighter has found a hat in the middle of the floor. That might not seem too unusual, but what is to say the hat does not mean nearby there could be a person who has fallen or passed out due to smoke? Challenge your crew with this drill to not only communicate things clearer but to take actions that better the situation.

Let me give you an idea.

I sent in one of my JR firefighters, and they first found a can of WD-40. They called it a can of hair spray and tossed it to the side and continued to crawl. The next item they discovered was a bottle. It was oddly shaped, but they ruled it correct as a bottle of dishwashing liquid. As they continued, they found a lighter and could not ID the item. Again each of these items is being tossed back into the scene as opposed to being carefully noted and avoided.

In the end, I asked what was in the dishwashing bottle. "Dawn, I guess." Nope. In this situation, it was diesel fuel that was being used to train the fire back to the door. The firefighter identified the item but failed to associate it with any dangers. As always, train to gain, and you will get the most out of these drills.

Always Be a Student

As firefighters, we can not just rest on our laurels and assume we have the skill set to do the job. We must continue to be a student of the fire service and make strides to advance ourselves in any way possible. Communications skills are often overlooked because they don't seem to have the glory of breaking in a door or the honor of victim rescue, but the idea that a lack of communication could be the deciding factor as to whether or not we go home, to the hospital, or to the morgue means we need to put a lot more focus on the subject.

Work with your crews to develop the skills needed to maintain solid and structured communications in your department. Be safe!

This article is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge. Content is for informational or entertainment purposes only and does not substitute for personal counsel or professional advice in business, financial, legal, or technical matters.

Related Articles