Firelines: May 2015

Communication is more than operational
April 30, 2015
Written by Dave Balding
Fraser Lake Fire Rescue in British Columbia recently attended a chest-pains call. Dispatch identified the complainant over the radio and a number of us recognized the name as that of a local resident. Instead of listening and responding to the civic address given by dispatch, we headed right over to where we knew the local man lived – only to find no one home. After checking back with a very accommodating dispatcher we headed for the correct address, somewhat red faced. Thankfully the patient suffered no ill effects from our folly, and there was a valuable lesson for all of us who attended.

Communication, that vital tool that is so essential to every incident, often receives less attention than it deserves. More than half of our communication is non-verbal. That makes our most common way of communicating – two-way radio – even more of a challenge. Add in ambient noise, a flurry of information coming and going along with other distractions and we have the perfect storm for missed or misinterpreted messages. Concise messages, clear speech, plain language and paraphrasing messages heard to ensure confirmation all help with operational communications. Another critical piece in the communication puzzle is training. Radios are vital pieces of equipment to us; we must be familiar with every facet of their operation, much as we are with our SCBA and pumpers – whether operating on a digital trunked system, simplex analog or a repeater. Do you hold tabletop exercises? Try bringing a communications element into that controlled environment.

Effective communication outside the fire ground is critically important as well. Post-incident debriefs, for example, provide a valuable opportunity for sharing lessons learned, discussing close calls and ensuring all attending members are on the same page. I believe every incident, no matter how minor or routine, deserves a debrief. Longer, complex incidents, or those that may not have gone well, will require a strong leader to keep the conversation positive and on track. Questions should be asked in a non-accusatory fashion, and active listening – a skill that involves paying attention to non-verbal clues such as body language and confirming statements made by speakers – goes a long way to ensure the experience is positive for all participants.

Communicating one-on-one is perhaps the most vital skill for a chief to hone. When a firefighter enters my office I don’t continue to work, check emails or pursue other distractions as we converse, even if it’s small talk. If I can’t set aside that time for all members of our organization then there’s something wrong.

We are almost always communicating, sometimes in unspoken ways. Consider the message of pride sent to the community when we drive around in a shiny apparatus.

Our individual performances send powerful messages as well. I recently mused with our members about how to encourage healthy lifestyle choices, and considered a fitness standard to promote physical health. It soon became evident that in our volunteer environment there is no realistic way to mandate any particular level of fitness. As in most every facet of leadership, the best way to send a powerful message is serve as a role model. Another message I send when the weather permits here in British Columbia’s Central Interior is for residents passing by the fire hall. Wide-open apparatus bay doors encourage passersby to drop by and see what’s inside. Sure, it takes a few minutes out of my day to chat with Mrs. Smith and her young son, but it’s also a tremendous opportunity to stir up interest in the emergency services and send a fire-prevention message home with them.

Communication continues to evolve in the fire service. Our now ubiquitous smart phones, by example, are a far cry from the bugles we once used on the fire ground. We must embrace new methods of communication as they become viable. I now communicate with our firefighters through texting – with great success. Social media is a far too often ignored communication platform that has its own set of rules. Ignore it at your peril as it has the potential, if unmanaged, to create havoc. Take advantage of this powerful instrument to spread messages about virtually every aspect of your department. It’s another opportunity to get messages out to the public.

Communication has many facets; it is also an oft-cited flaw in most every post-incident review. Like any of the skills demanded of us in our profession, we must continually work on our mastery of communication – both on and off the fire ground.


Dave Balding joined the fire service in 1985 and is now fire chief and emergency co-ordinator for the Village of Fraser Lake in British Columbia’s Central Interior. Contact Dave at This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it and follow him on Twitter at @FraserLakeFire


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