Back to Basics: September 2018

Good communication is key when firefighters are at a scene
September 05, 2018
Written by Mark van der Feyst
This column was first printed in September 2012, but is worth repeating. While communications may not be an exciting topic for hands-on training, it is necessary. It seems communications is always the one constant denominator in every aspect of our job and it is always being improved upon so that it will work without fail.

Good communication is important and plays a vital role in how well firefighters in a department respond, react and conduct themselves in day-to-day operations. A breakdown in communications leads to a dysfunctional fire department or fire ground.

Different types of communications are used in the fire service that we should all be familiar with and well-versed in. They are written communications, face-to-face communications, electronic communications and radio communications.

In the station, we will be exposed to written, face-to-face and electronic communications.

Written communications include memos, communiques, emails, bulletins and so on. These are usually posted somewhere for all to see or may be directed to one person.

Electronic communications will be in the form of an email sent via mobile phone, text message, Facebook posting, or Twitter. These types of communications will be directed to a single person, for the most part, or to a group of people that have access to the media being used.

On the fire ground, we are limited to certain types of communications that can be used, such as radio, electronic and face-to-face.

Communication by a portable radio is the most common method for most firefighters. A portable radio allows a team of firefighters to remain in contact with the incident commander (IC) and each other. It is a lifeline for a firefighter working on the fire ground. Without it, a firefighter would be left to more primitive ways to communicate such as face-to-face. The portable radio gives distance to the working crew by allowing firefighters to be far away from the IC yet still be able to report back or receive messages. Knowing how to use the portable radio correctly is the key to effective fire ground communications.

Of all the ways to communicate with a person or persons, face-to-face is the best. It allows the receiver and the sender to have instant acknowledgement from each other when passing on information, asking a question or giving an order. Facial expressions, as well as body language, are also used in this method as a way to convey or receive a message. There is an opportunity to clarify a message so that a full understanding is obtained. The downside to face-to-face communications is that it reduces the distance a crew can be from the IC or sector officer. Close proximity must be maintained to remain in contact with each other. Same goes for interior crews working with a limited number of portable radios and/or failure of portable radios. Defaulting back to traditional face-to-face or verbal communications will be the only way to communicate with each other. For some firefighters, this is a lost art.  Dependence upon a portable radio is all they know. Training on how to communicate on the fire ground when the portable radio fails or is lost during an interior operation is a good idea. This will reinforce the traditional skills that are needed when such a situation occurs, and it will happen as a portable radio is an electronic device powered by a battery.

When firefighters are using portable radios on the fire ground, communications can become confusing and/or very hard to follow. This can be due to a number of reasons. One reason is the usage of 10 codes. Using 10 codes in the fire service was removed when the National Incident Management System (NIMS) came into existence. NIMS was created and implemented as a result of the tragedy on Sept. 11, 2001. The communications breakdown that day and in the days that followed led to a common plain text language being adopted and used. Plain text language is everyday language that we use and permits people to be able to communicate with each other.

Within NIMS there are also provisions for common terminology to be used on the fire ground. Terms such as sectors, divisions, geographical designations of buildings, Alpha, Bravo, Charlie, Delta, roger, over and acknowledge are terms that are used in an effort to reduce the amount of confusion over the airwaves when trying to communicate via a portable radio or by other means.

Another reason for communication confusion on the fire ground is firefighters yelling into the radio when trying to speak. When a message is being transmitted by the sender and the individual is yelling into the radio, it will be received as a distorted message with the receiver wondering what was said. This can be due to improper positioning of the radio to the mouth when transmitting. Avoid holding the radio/microphone directly in front of your mouth when speaking. Avoid pushing or swallowing the radio/microphone when speaking. Instead hold the radio/microphone on a 45-degree angle about two inches away from your mouth and you will send a clearer message. If wearing a self-contained breathing apparatus, make sure the radio/microphone is positioned at the communication portals on the facepiece, which will allow you to speak clearly and not sound muffled. Holding your breath while relaying the message may also help. Removal of breathing sounds help to amplify the message transmission.

Another method is to hold the radio/microphone directly to the lens of the facepiece when speaking. This requires putting the radio almost at eye level on the outside of the lens. With the radio/microphone in direct contact with the lens, the message comes across a lot clearer for the receiver. Avoid feedback between other radios on the fire ground when transmitting. This can happen when all crew members have a portable radio and one is trying to transmit. The feedback distorts the message. Turn away from other radios when transmitting a message.

Using these simple but basic techniques when communicating on the fire ground will enhance the quality of the transmissions and remove the confusion factor for all.


Mark van der Feyst has been a member of the fire service since 1999 and is a full-time firefighter in Ontario. Mark teaches in Canada, United States and India, and is a FDIC instructor. He is the lead author of the Residential Fire Rescue book. Email Mark at This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it .

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