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Trainer’s Corner: May 2013

During our department’s rookie training, I was scheduled to address the chapter on communications and alarms.

April 22, 2013 
By Ed Brouwer

During our department’s rookie training, I was scheduled to address the chapter on communications and alarms. Sometimes, while you are doing those ordinary, everyday tasks, you stumble onto something that works so well that you just have to share it. But before I do, here is a bit of background. The complete rundown on communications and alarms can be found in the Canadian Firefighter’s Handbook (chapter three, pages 42 to 70). I transferred all of this to a PowerPoint presentation and added video and audio clips (some humorous YouTube videos are great to add, including German Coast Guard Trainee and Family Guy – Over). I also included several slides depicting burning buildings to use in dealing with arrival reports, also known as initial or on-scene reports.

It was these few slides regarding arrival reports that caught the interest of our firefighters. So much so, in fact, that at the following practice, we skipped right through the 40-plus pages on communications and alarms to the two small paragraphs pertaining to arrival reports. We spent the whole practice doing arrival reports. The interaction was very enthusiastic and it was a very beneficial exercise. Sometimes keeping things simple is the best course of action. 

The first radio report to dispatch is known as the arrival report. It is made by the first-arriving fire officer, while he or she is still in the apparatus. 

This is a what-you-see-through-the-windshield incident report. To be effective, this report needs to be clear, concise and relevant. 


The report should include on-scene confirmation, incident location, building construction, fire conditions and the establishment of command.

It should also include any and all obvious hazards, such as downed power lines, critical exposures, visible propane tanks, or any other critical safety information.

The on-scene report indicates that command is established and confirms the location of the emergency. There may be times when the initial address given is wrong and the first-arriving officer can correct that in this arrival report. Accurately determining the incident location can affect arrival routes of other responders and apparatus placement.

The first-arriving officer should identify the fire building’s construction type. This gives the other responding units an idea of what actions they can expect to perform, based on the type of fire behaviour common with that construction style. 

The first-arriving officer plays a vital role at the front end of fire-ground operations.

The initial report, although it may be a 30-second investment, pays huge organizational dividends, leading to more efficient and safer outcomes.

There are no do-over options. If the initial incident commander (IC) doesn’t spend the few seconds required to organize the initial attack, it is going to take a whole lot longer to play catch-up.

The IC also has the option of changing the response mode of responding resources. If he gets on scene with no visible smoke or fire, he can choose to have other responders stand down or continue on in Code Two, which indicates a non-emergency situation.

Several years ago, we were the second unit out to a multiple vehicle pileup. Most of us were in our quiet place wondering what we would see when we arrived. Was it one of our neighbours or a family member? I remember the audible sigh of relief that came when we heard:
“Kelowna Dispatch – Rescue 51” 

“Go ahead Rescue 51”

“Rescue 51 on scene of a multiple MVI – no extrication required. Engine 51, go Code Two.”

This type of notification is an extremely important safety issue for those departments that still respond to incidents in their personal vehicles.  

When describing conditions, the first-arriving officer should paint a clear picture for incoming units. How much smoke and/or fire do you have? Where, specifically, is the fire? This mental image you are painting can be useful to incoming units. 

Consider: “We have heavy black smoke showing from the first floor, Alpha/Bravo corner,” versus “We have a fire at 1123 Main St.” The second statement does not tell us a lot, if anything, that we didn’t already know. The point of the arrival report is to tell responders something that they don’t already know. If you need to describe something, use a common reference – “The grass fire is the size of a football field,” is a much better description than “the grass fire is the size of my backyard.” Don’t laugh: that was an actual description given to dispatch by one of our neighbouring departments.

It may help to let dispatch and the other responders know what operational mode you are starting out in – offensive, defensive, investigative or rescue.

There is also an opportunity to get help coming right away; the arrival report can include a request for a second or third page, mutual aid, hazmat, forestry, the RCMP, environmental health and safety or utilities. It is easier to cancel a request than to get it last minute. 
The notification that “command is going mobile,” lets everyone know that the IC is doing a more detailed size-up and that a more detailed report is coming. 

Good on-scene reports don›t just happen. The worst place to learn how to give an on-scene report is in front of a burning building. Keep in mind that the initial on-scene report should be short, sweet and to the point. The more these arrival reports are practised, the better they will become; they will be shorter while conveying more critical information.

Although there are only two small paragraphs dedicated to arrival reports in the chapters relating to communications and alarms in the Firefighter’s Handbook, this is where most successful outcomes are achieved. The first five minutes really are worth the next two hours.
The following is a copy of our arrival report cheat sheet. These are printed on index cards and placed on the sun visors of each unit. 


For our practice, I prepared multiple PowerPoint slides showing scenes of structure fires, MVIs, and even a few buildings with no fire or smoke showing. Each slide had a local address typed at the bottom. Our members were seated in a semi-circle facing the screen onto which I projected these pictures. As each slide came up, firefighters (taking turns) pretended to be the first-arriving officer. The picture was what they saw through the windshield of their unit. We then asked the firefighters to use the hand-held radio to deliver an arrival report to our in-house dispatch.

This became an effective brainstorming session. There was a lot of interaction that led to discussions on fire behavior, fire suppression tactics and strategies, firefighter safety and observation skills. After all, any practice night you can’t sleep through is a good one!  
There is more to this topic, but this is certainly a good start. I hope this information will help your members give solid arrival reports that lead to successful fire operations. 

Stay safe, and please remember to train like lives depend on it, because they do.

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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