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Flashpoint: Fire service speak: Always getting it right

Recently, I was editing a video clip of myself setting fire to a couple of burn scenarios and then debriefing the viewers. All of this was set up for a professional development seminar on determination of origin and cause.

September 17, 2008 
By Peter Sells

Recently, I was editing a video clip of myself setting fire to a couple of burn scenarios and then debriefing the viewers. All of this was set up for a professional development seminar on determination of origin and cause. I had to cringe as I was editing because I repeatedly referred to a smoke alarm as a smoke detector. We all have verbal bugaboos that stick with us, and that is one of mine. I know the device is properly called a smoke alarm because it sounds an alarm in response to the detection of products of combustion, but what comes out of my mouth is usually “smoke detector.” I will often correct myself right away but that is difficult to do on video that has already been shot.

Why is this a big deal? Whenever any of us is in uniform in the role of supervisor, spokesperson or instructor, our reputation and professional image is on the line. A large part of that professional image is wrapped up in our presentation. Much is written about projection, pace, eye contact, inflection, body language and all the other elements that make up the non-content portion of our message, but it can all go out the window if the content is wrong. So, when I use an incorrect term (smoke detector) in place of a correct term (smoke alarm), one of two things can happen in the minds of the audience. My credibility can lend support to the incorrect term, or my use of the incorrect term can reduce my credibility. The degree to which either of these effects occurs depends in a large part on the knowledge base of the audience. For example, a class of preschoolers may not catch the difference and may just accept what is said at face value. Then again, kids can be pretty sharp and may not be shy about pointing out an error.

So, the onus is on the speaker to be properly prepared. Practise the technical terms that you know are problematic for you. Make sure you use them properly and in the right context. One of my pet peeves is firefighters not distinguishing between salvage and overhaul. It comes out as one word sometimes –  salvageandoverhaul. This misunderstanding has been fostered over time by the fact that these terms are often taught in the context of being secondary tasks on the fire ground, but they are separate and distinct. Salvage is essentially protective in nature and is often done simultaneously with fire attack (but not always). Overhaul is essentially destructive in nature and is often done after fire attack (but not always). An incident commander or sector officer ordering the application of these tactics should have a full understanding of each one, including the ability to communicate them properly.

Skip Coleman, the retired deputy chief from Toledo, Ohio, did a lot of work on fire ground search-and-rescue tactics. He maintained that search and rescue were separate tasks. You may be searching with the intent of rescue but once the search is successful your task has become rescue. The reason we don’t generally discredit someone who always uses the terms together is that it is the industry standard terminology to do so and there is no real confusion on the intent or context.


We work in a constantly changing field, so remaining current can be a real chore as well. NBC-W (Nuclear/Biological/Chemical Warfare) became CBRN Defence (Chemical/Biological/Radiological/Nuclear) and then CBRNE (Explosive). CFR (Crash/Fire/Rescue) became ARFF (Aircraft Rescue/Fire Fighting). MVA (Motor Vehicle Accident) became MVC (Motor Vehicle Collision). It is interesting to note that each of these changes resulted in a more objective term that more accurately defines our purpose. We respond to nasty molecules regardless of whether they were agents of warfare. The aircraft in which we perform our rescue and firefighting tasks did not necessarily crash. Whether the motor vehicle collision was an accident is not relevant after the fact.

It is not enough to use the right words; we need to pronounce technical terms properly as well. You could be, oh, let’s say, a Harvard MBA but what does the inability to properly pronounce “nuclear” say about your fitness to be a world leader? Don’t you wish that was a hypothetical example? So, repeat after me; defiBRILLator (not defibulator), masonRY (not masonary), and nuCLEar (not nukular). It is less likely in today’s information-age world to find blatantly incorrect terms in print or online but it is still possible. “Masonary” is a good example. I have heard some very knowledgeable people use this term and it can be found in print but the word does not exist. Its acceptance through repeated use does not change the fact that in all instances the correct term is “masonry.”

Most importantly, getting the terminology and pronunciation right indicates a more complete understanding of the art and science of fire fighting in all its forms. One of my captains from my early days on the job would describe something as being “more better” than something else, which just drove me nuts. Eventually I realized that was the reason he did it, but it still makes me cringe.

District Chief Peter Sells writes, speaks and consults on fire service management and professional development across North America and internationally. He holds a B.Sc. from the University of Toronto and an MBA from the University of Windsor. 

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