Effective Communication Is Critical In Scene Operations

Issue 3 and Volume 12.

Mobile communications and command desks can often be located in custom cab apparatus.
Mobile communications and command desks can often be located in custom cab apparatus.
Headsets help drivers have both hands to operate apparatus safely.
Drivers need both hands to operate apparatus safely. Headsets help with the effective relaying of directions.
Using intercom systems in cab interiors can improve communications enroute to incident scenes.
Using intercom systems in cab interiors can vastly improve communications enroute to incident scenes.
One way to improve communications is to install a crossband repeater system in a command unit.
One way to improve communications is to install a crossband repeater system in a command unit.

Communication seems to be a problem when we are operating at an incident scene, whether it is a structure fire or rescue.

When you look at incident reviews and firefighter fatality analysis reports, communication is somehow related to how things went wrong. For those of us in the rescue business, good communication is of the utmost importance.

With this in mind, let’s talk about communication, specifically verbal and technology-based, and by that I mean radio. Those are the two forms we use most and we can improve both.

Ever hear the line, “What we have here is a failure to communicate”?

First, let’s look at the technological side of communication – radio systems. There are a few ways we can help improve safety and operations within our department concerning radio communication.

Let’s look at what radios we are buying and how they are set up. Are we buying the newest and greatest with all kinds of buttons, bells and whistles? How easy are these to operate with a gloved hand? What about programming?

It would be a good idea to have the dispatch channel, or an emergency channel at each end of the channel knob spectrum. That way all one has to do is turn the channel knob all the way to the left or all the way to the right to know someone will answer when they are needed most.

It’s good to have an emergency button and the associated capabilities to track our members when they are in trouble. Most departments these days are using speaker microphones on their portables, which is a good idea.

Another inexpensive item is a good radio strap and case that keeps the speaker-mike secure near your head and mouth for easy access. Speaking of portables, unless you have a really great radio system designed for portable coverage, the use of portables is sometimes less than desirable, especially if you are operating on low band.

Repeater System

One way to improve portable communication is to install a crossband or portable repeater system, which allows you to tie a UHF or VHF portable into your mobile radio. That way, when a transmission on the portable goes out on whatever frequency your mobile is on, it is rebroadcast at the mobiles full wattage, as opposed to the 2 or 5 watts from a portable.

There are various repeater manufacturers. I have had good experiences with Pyramid Communication, Huntington Beach, Calif. They can be found at The company manufacturers a whole host of repeaters that can be married with just about anybody’s radios.

Other good communication tools are headsets for the crews. Such companies as David Clark, Set Com and FireCom produce these systems. These systems allow for good clear communication between the officer, driver and crews.

Headset At The Pump Panel

Make sure there are headset connections at the pump panel, the turntable and other key operational areas for the driver/operator. You might want to install a headset jack in the portable radio to let the apparatus operator work around the rig, an especially important function for people running rescue vehicles.

For command vehicles and chiefs’ cars, headsets are a good idea for use at incident command, especially if the commanders are operating out of the back of a sports utility vehicle (SUV). Headsets will help eliminate background noise and allow for clear communication. Being able to hear the radio and talk without background noise interruption is a major safety issue.

Another concern is communication at large-scale incidents. Multiple agencies and radio systems limit interoperability. It is important to be able to communicate with all agencies in your surrounding area. This may require several radios to be installed in our vehicles.

One consideration may be to install these multiple radios in one vehicle and to set it up as a command post. It does not have to be anything fancy, and a small area in the back of a rescue or built into the crew area is an excellent idea to look at when developing vehicle specifications. Such an area would provide multiple communication tools along with a quiet work area for the incident commander.

Shifting gears a bit, there is more to communication than the equipment in the apparatus. There is also face-to-face communication. One of the most effective ways to improve communication is to become a good listener whether on the radio or in person.

In my experience, and from research on the Internet, there are several ways to improve communication. First, we must be good listeners. Make sure you know what the person is talking about. It is OK to ask someone to repeat. Remember, a miscommunication could cost someone their life in our line of work.

Be A Good Listener

To be a good listener, you have to pay attention. Stay focused on the person, or on the information you are hearing on the radio. Always let the person finish speaking or the transmission conclude before you respond. Interrupting is never a good idea because it means you are not listening. Even more importantly, you will probably miss something that could be critical to the operation.

Experts have found that the thought process is four times as fast as speech. Resist the urge to jump to conclusions or think you know what the person is saying before he is finished. That fact can also work in your favor. You can think as the person speaks.

We need to improve our message sending skills and there are many ways to do that too. Lower voices are perceived to be more authoritative. Try lowering the pitch of your voice by an octave, but don’t go too low as it will sound false and might be difficult to understand.

In stressful or emergency situations, we all have a tendency to speed up our voice. We have lots to do, lots to think about (remember we think four times faster than we speak), and we naturally go too fast. Not only will people perceive you as nervous and unsure of yourself, it might be difficult to understand, especially on the radio; this is when radio transmission clipping comes into play. We start talking before we key the mike, so slow down.

It cannot be stressed enough that we all need to speak clearly and enunciate. Listen to the broadcasters on television, they don’t mumble. You can hear every word they say. That takes practice, and I am not saying you should go to elocution classes, but just watch how you speak. If people say “huh,” or “what” too many times, you’re probably mumbling or going too fast.

It could also be that your volume is not appropriate. Use volume levels that correspond to your setting. If you are at a fire scene, whispering like you have got laryngitis is not going to work. Bellowing isn’t going to make things better either. Just speak clearly, slowly and at a volume so your message is heard, not only over the radio, but also to the people at the scene.

Keep It Simple

Don’t use big words either, especially if you do not know what they mean, just use the right words. When you’re on the scene of an accident, or a structure fire, there’s no one to impress and using the wrong word might have serious consequences. Keep it simple.

Keep in mind that we communicate different ways. Make eye contact and use the right facial expressions to convey the message. Gesturing also helps when appropriate, like pointing in the direction of the way you want crews to proceed, or to point out a hazardous condition.

Some of these techniques and tips can be used back at the station too. Just remember that communication is about listening and effective speaking, whether at the scene of a five-alarm fire, or in your office disciplining a subordinate.

Good interpersonal communication is needed on the scene and at the station if we are to fulfill our mission.

Whether it is face-to-face or technology-based, effective communication is an essential part of a safe and successful operation.

As always keep safe and return to quarters.

Editor’s Note: Allen Baldwin is the manager of operations and incident response for the Pennsylvania Turnpike commission and a volunteer captain with the Gettysburg (Pa.) Fire Department. He has been a firefighter and EMT for over 25 years, once serving as a career fire chief, and is an instructor with the Pennsylvania State Fire Academy and several community colleges.

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