Communication
Written by Sue Dawson
There is much to consider when it comes to taking calls and dispatching in the fire service.
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 .
Written by Ed Brouwer
My wife and I own and operate a horse ranch in Southern B.C..  We raise Foundation Quarter Horses as well as managing an equine retirement, rescue and rehoming program. I mention that part of our life as a bit of background to this column.
Written by Samantha Hoffmann
There are three fundamental questions that affect all people: Is my home safe? Is my community safe? Am I safe?
Written by Ed Brouwer
Like many of my generation, I type using the hunt and peck method (hunt for the letter and peck at it). Since I type with one finger, there are often mistakes, especially if my brain goes faster than my one educated finger.  So, I really appreciate the Fire Fighting in Canada editorial staff – they make me sound and look good. You should never do your own proofreading anyway. I could easily type “Teh” thinking it to read “The.”
Written by Sue Dawson
Before anyone becomes an emergency-service call taker or dispatcher and fields live emergency calls, you would think there would be a standard level of education, training and certification required. In Ontario, there is not. We are not alone in this situation. There is a movement developing in the United States toward standardized training and certification.
Written by Ed Brouwer
All training officers face the same basic challenge: they have to find a way to actively engage students in the learning process. And since firefighter training is ongoing, training officers constantly have to deal with this particular issue.

Take a hard, brutally honest look back at your last year’s training program. Did it go as you expected? Was it successful? Did you get any feedback (good or bad)? Don’t ask yourself if you could you have done better, because we can always do better. But was there something you tried that worked particularly well, or something that you should never do again? The main question is: were your instructing methods and topics effective?

Training officers have a great influence (good or bad) on their departments. Being an effective trainer takes real dedication. Even after 20-plus years of instructing, I still average two to three hours of prep time for each training hour I put in on any given practice night.

Along with providing a safe and positive training environment, training officers have many training objectives to cover. It is easy to get burned out – even for superhero trainers. My advice is to get some help; find your Robin or Tonto.

Get students involved
Over the years I have noticed that people learn more and retain more if they are more actively involved in the learning process. However, getting firefighters – especially veterans – to engage in the training process can be difficult to say the least. We all know of veteran firefighters who step to the back of the classroom (especially during demos) and disengage from the lesson. Worse yet is when two or three firefighters group together to chat it up or critique you as you train.

The following are proven engagement techniques.
  • Ask a veteran firefighter to help you prepare and present a training lesson. Be sure to give the veteran a copy of the training objectives or any other relevant material several weeks in advance. (Not everyone is comfortable flying by the seat of his or her pants.)
  • Institute a big-brother system by pairing up a veteran with a younger firefighter, and then divide them into teams to deal with training scenarios.
Learning is optimized when students are actively engaged in learning. There is an oft-quoted chart (found through web searches for learning styles) that is cited by learning experts as a solid guide for those who teach. The chart states that we remember:
  • 10 per cent of what we read (taking turns reading training material)
  • 20 per cent of what we hear (lecture)
  • 30 per cent of what we see (video)
  • 50 per cent of what we both see and hear (PowerPoint with a lecture)
  • 70 per cent of what we have discussed with others (brainstorming)
  • 80 per cent of what we have experienced personally (hands on)
  • 95 per cent of what we teach someone else (helping instruct)
Keep this in mind as your prepare for training night.

Gender can play a part in the learning style. If you listen to parents interact with their children, you are more likely to hear a mom say, “Listen to me, and I will tell you how to do this.” Whereas a dad is more likely to say, “Watch me, and I will show you how to do this.” Find a balance between spoken instructions and demonstration. The three-Ds system (describe, demonstrate, do) seems to work well.

PowerPoint can be an effective teaching tool to engage students in learning, if it is used properly. PowerPoint appeals to visual learners and can be a good way to organize a presentation. However, it is easy to misuse PowerPoint. Reading from the slides (especially if you turn your back to the students) is the easiest way to kill students’ attention. With PowerPoint, less is more. Resist the temptation to cram as much information as you can onto one slide. Instead, the words on a slide should be visible from the most distant point in the classroom.

Most learning happens during a discussion of the topic, not from reading the words on a slide. Rely on the discussion to flesh out key points. (You can read more tips for classroom instructors in Chris Davison-Vanderburg’s article “Instructions for instructors” in Fire Fighting in Canada’s February issue.)



Attitude adjustment
One area of instructing that is far too often over looked is the teacher’s attitude. As the training officer, you have a great influence over your trainees. They will, in a very short time, reflect your attitude regarding safety, respect, zeal for knowledge and professionalism in the fire service. When you meet the training officer, you meet the department; simple as that.

Encourage discussion during training sessions by providing a positive environment for all students who participate. This can be difficult, but remember, nothing shuts down a group discussion like the words, “No that is wrong.” Give firefighters opportunities to correct or add to the information presented. Above all, do not make them look bad in front of their peers.

Here are some positive examples:
  • Thanks . . . does anyone want to add to that?
  • Interesting point . . . what do the rest of you think?
  • Good start. Let’s hear some more ideas.
Consider using the rule of 10 and two: for every 10 minutes of lecture, students should have at least two minutes to talk to each other about what is being presented. It is important for students to interact with the material in order to retain the information and become engaged in learning.

Use incentives
It is paramount that training officers continually strive for excellence. Set the bar high and your students will reach for it and respect you for thinking highly of them.

Look for ways to show you acknowledge students’ positive progress. One way we at Greenwood Fire Rescue do that is by giving in-house certifications. Each Greenwood firefighter receives a department training-program certificate. These are mounted in picture frames and hung on the training-room wall. As candidates successfully complete our training sessions they are awarded a coloured seal, which is affixed over that particular topic.

Because this is an ongoing program, each firefighter sees his or her progress within a short time. For example, our first-quarter training session (January to March) covers safety and communications, PPE, SCBA and fire behaviour. Each topic has an exam and evaluation component. In this quarter, there are five basic topics, so in three months firefighters could earn five seals.

The potential for a seal every three weeks is a great learning motivator; this simple acknowledgement has a very positive influence. The certification program is also a great asset for when you are making up future training schedules, and aids in your required record keeping.

Encouragement goes a long way
Every once in a while you will meet firefighters who are hungry for knowledge. They are unusually keen about one area of the fire service (fire behaviour, arson investigation, or suppression, for example). What a privilege to be able to nurture interests and mentor those firefighters to reach their full potential.

I encourage you to help firefighters discover insight into their key topics. Give your students access to your books, videos and internet resources; sign them up for extra training sessions. Do whatever you can with your budget and resources to satisfy their hunger.

Howard Hendricks, a professor at Dallas Theological Seminary, wrote, “Knowledge that is self-discovered is stored in the deepest part of the mind and remains the longest in the memory.” Who knows, you may be training future leaders in the Canadian fire service; or at least your department’s future training officer. Every firefighter has the potential to become an instructor, and the best thing an old firefighter can teach a young firefighter is to become an old firefighter.

As always, stay safe and keep training as if lives depend on it, because they do.


Ed Brouwer is the chief instructor for Canwest Fire in Osoyoos, B.C., and training officer for Greenwood Fire and Rescue. He is also a fire warden with the B.C. Ministry of Forests, a wildland urban interface fire-suppression instructor/evaluator and an ordained disaster-response chaplain. Ed has written the Trainers Corner for 13 of his 26 years in the fire service. Contact Ed at This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it

Written by Gord Schreiner
Effective radio communication is the most important safety factor on the fire ground.
Written by Ed Brouwer
While developing our department’s standard operational guidelines (SOGs), I was shocked to see the scope of duties performed by the training officer.
Written by Mark van der Feyst
Communication plays a vital role in how well a fire department responds, reacts and conducts itself in its daily operation.
Written by Jeff Weber
Radio communications need practice

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