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Trainer’s Corner: March 2012

Our focus this month is a universal fire-ground problem: communication. It is impossible to competently manage any emergency incident if your communication is a mess.

March 19, 2012  By Ed Brouwer

Our focus this month is a universal fire-ground problem: communication. It is impossible to competently manage any emergency incident if your communication is a mess.

Weak signals, SCBA-muffled radio transmissions, dead or dying batteries, and attempting to operate a radio with gloves on while looking through your BA mask in the dark all contribute to communication problems. 


Two types of factors contribute to communication problems on the fire ground: hardware and human. Weak signals, SCBA-muffled radio transmissions, dead or dying batteries, and – my favourite – trying to operate a radio with gloves on while looking through your BA mask in the dark.

Firefighters must be trained to speak in clear and concise sentences. They should also be instructed in basic radio discipline, specifically, knowing the difference between nonessential radio traffic and emergency traffic.


At our last practice we experienced waitress syndrome: you know, when dining at a restaurant, and at the exact moment your mouth is full of food, the waitress asks, “How is everything?” Our entry teams were practising bringing a fully charged line up a flight of stairs. Strange, but in both cases, just as the team was three or four steps from the second floor landing, the incident commander called just to see how they were doing. Each time, crew members stopped their ascent, fumbled with gloved hands for the radio, and struggled to make themselves understood.

At our debriefing we agreed to the need for clip-on speaker/mics. I also gave the rookies permission to postpone responding to the IC’s call by saying, “Stand by one,” until they were safely positioned at the top of the landing. Simple, but a big stress reliever.

As we visit other departments with our SOO HOT program, I am continually shocked at the miscommunication on the fire ground. This has nothing to do with hardware failures, and, for the most part, can be completely eradicated with the introduction of one unassuming word: from.

Firefighters must be taught this word during their basic radio communications training. Simply put, when one radio connects with another radio, firefighters should always use the word from. So, if engine one is going to communicate with you, the IC, it should sound like this: “IC from engine one”– not, “Engine one to IC,” which is so often the case.

Very seldom is the fire ground a place of perfect order and tranquility. There is myriad radio traffic, and although you may be popular, it is not all directed at you. Firefighters should monitor background chatter but not necessarily give it their full attention.

All or one of us should be listening for our call signs; in this case, the call sign is IC. Suddenly, amid the ongoing radio traffic, you hear “IC”. Because you are listening for your call sign (IC) you only hear IC – you likely did not hear “Engine one to . . . ” Your typical response will most likely be, “Say again for IC,” or “Who is calling the IC?” However, by always using from, you will know who is trying to get your attention. Hearing your call sign (IC) will get your attention, and as you listen, you will hear, “. . . from engine one”.

Miscommunication on the fire ground can have fatal consequences. You need only read one fatality report to understand that loss of situational awareness (promoted by poor communication) is a major contributing factor to fire fatalities and injuries. According to the book Improving Firefighter Communications, “Good human communications skills and procedures will help promote safety even in the face of technical difficulties.”

It is also important to acknowledge that information was received. Saying “copy” or “got it” is not sufficient. Firefighters must be taught to take the time to repeat information back to the speaker. This must be done consistently during practice scenarios, fire-ground incidents and mop up in order for it to become second nature. An exchange should sound something like this:
“Engine one from attack one.”
“Go ahead attack one.”
“We need 100 psi on line one.”
“Roger that attack one, 100 psi line one.”

By repeating the request, any miscommunication is nipped in the bud. As noted in Improving Firefighter Communications, safe and effective fire-ground communication is a two-way process.

My son Casey bought me a copy of Sherlock Holmes by Arthur Conan Doyle. It was in the first story, “A Scandal In Bohemia,” that I stumbled across a quote that actually describes a fire-ground phenomenon.

Holmes, speaking to Watson says, “You see, but you do not observe. The distinction is clear. For example, you have frequently seen the steps which lead up from the hall to this room.”

 “How often?”
 “Well, some hundreds of times.”
“Then how many are there?”
 “How many? I don’t know.”
 “Quite so! You have not observed. And yet you have seen. That is just my point. Now, I know that there are seventeen steps, because I have both seen and observed.”

You see, but you do not observe. There are many indicators on the fire ground that things aren’t going as planned. We may see, yet not observe. I believe that improved communication skills (speaking and listening) will lead to a higher level of situational awareness, which, in turn, will lead to more effective fire-ground communication.
The forestry service has long embraced the concept of watch-outs for firefighters in our risk/hazard assessment of operations. These scenarios were developed to provide specific instances that firefighters might face where their personal safety could be compromised.
Examples of these watch-out situations are:

  • The fire is not scouted and sized up.
  • You are in an area not seen in daylight.
  • Safety zones and escape routes are not identified.
  • You can’t see the main fire and are not in contact with someone who can.
  • You are not informed of tactics, strategy and hazards.
  • No communication link has been established with crew members or your supervisor.

It would be prudent for us to come up with a watch-out list for structural fire-ground operations. This would certainly increase situational awareness and thereby increase the effectiveness of communication.

The IC must identify and communicate hazardous conditions and indicators so that proper actions can be taken to avoid injury or fatality.

As chief of our wildland urban interface crew, I am obligated to provide a crew briefing before allowing any of my firefighters to partake in suppression activities. Firefighters are great at taking orders; however, they will communicate much more effectively if they know what is going on and why. This will also reduce stress and increase situational awareness, allowing for better decision making and more effective communication on the fire ground.

A 60-second (or shorter) briefing can make a world of difference in increasing situational awareness. Basically, a briefing allows each member to understand the language of that particular fire incident. Think of it as “A Minute To Win It!”

There are five areas we discuss in our briefings:

  • What do we have? Results of size-up observations.
  • Strategy: offensive or defensive, critical life safety information (occupants).
  • Hazards: recognition of the hazards.
  • Give clear fire-suppression directions: assignment of specific task or tasks; identification of hazards associated with the assignment.
  • Questions/concerns: Does everyone know what we’re doing and why? What are we overlooking?

Firefighters have an obligation to themselves and others to provide the best communication possible. Why not start implementing this strategy at your next practice? Victory loves preparation. Until next time, stay safe out there.

Ed Brouwer is the chief instructor for Canwest Fire in Osoyoos, B.C., and Greenwood Fire and Rescue. The 21-year veteran of the fire service is also a fire warden with the B.C. Ministry of Forests, a Wildland Urban Interface fire suppression instructor/evaluator and a fire-service chaplain. Contact Ed at

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