Communications Training for Effective Operations

Effective communications are probably one of the most challenging aspects of an Incident Commanders (IC) job. There are many opportunities on the fire ground for a radio message to be missed, blocked, or just simply misunderstood. Take a look over the internet and search for “communications problems lead to firefighter LODD.” This search will lead you to many examples of communications failures. The difficult and troubling reality is that many of these problems can be reduced or resolved by implementing proper communications procedures and providing effective communications training. One of the biggest challenges is getting firefighters to understand how difficult it is for the IC to hear a clear message from interior crews and get them to communicate in a manner which eliminates any barriers.

Getting firefighters to understand the challenges involves reaching the affective domain of the crews during training. The affective domain is the phenomena of the student receiving the information. This process is more than simply listening, we want the student to value the importance of the IC clearly hearing the radio traffic. Once they believe in the value message, the goal is for them to internalize it, and make changes to their own practices to improve communications (Carleton College, 2018). 

The fireground is a breeding ground for distraction’s. Besides all the operational functions that are happening around you, there are far too many barriers to communication, such as; loud noise from apparatus and equipment, PASS alarms, bystanders, radio traffic, etc... Traditional fire training rarely involves inclusion of these communications barriers. Firefighters should participate in drills which include these barriers in order to improve person to person communications.

I recently conducted a training in my department on communications skills. The goal of the training was to reach the affective domain of the participants by focusing on putting the firefighters in the place of the IC. For firefighters to understand the difficulties faced at the command post they must be submersed in the position and the chaos that can surrounds it. The following drill helped us achieve a better understanding of the clear communications.

Barriers to Communications Drill- 3 Phases

Phase #1- No Barriers

 

Communications Drill- No barriers.jpg

Equipment needed

  • 1-2 firefighters (no turnout gear or SCBA) w/portable radio
  • 1 Incident Commander (Should be a firefighter serving in this role for the drill) w/portable radio
  • List of 10 words, terms, and short sentences
    • Example: Fire Apparatus, MABAS Box Alarm Request, E-1 requesting emergency traffic, etc.…

The drill starts with the firefighters standing out in the apparatus bay while the IC will remain in the classroom. The firefighters in the apparatus bay will communicate with the IC and provide the list of terms provided by the instructor over the radio. The goal is for the IC to be able to write out a list of the 10 terms that was provided to the firefighters. This first phase should allow the firefighters and IC to communicate without any distractions.

Phase #2- Limited Barriers

 

Communications Drill-2-Limited barriers.jpg

Equipment needed

  • 1-2 firefighters (Full turnout gear and SCBA/on air) w/portable radio
  • 1 Incident Commander (Should be a firefighter serving in this role for the drill) w/portable radio
  • List of 10 words, terms, and short sentences (should be a different 10 terms)
  • Time-Limit- 3 minutes

The drill starts just like phase #1, except the firefighters will be in the apparatus bay in full turnout gear and SCBA. The IC will remain in the classroom. The firefighter in the apparatus bay will communicate with the IC and provide the list of terms provided but will only have 3 minutes to complete the list. This adds a little pressure but does not contain any major distractions.

Phase #3- Significant Barriers

 

Communications Drill-3-Significant barriers.jpg

Equipment needed

  • 1-2 firefighters (Full turnout gear and SCBA/on air) w/portable radio
    • PPV fan running in the general area of the firefighters in the apparatus bay
  • 1 Incident Commander (Should be a firefighter serving in this role for the drill) w/portable radio
    • Loud dispatch audio playing in vicinity of IC
  • List of 10 words, terms, and short sentences (should be a different 10 terms)
  • (Optional) Time-Limit- 5 minutes

The drill starts just like phase #2, except the firefighters will be in the apparatus bay in full turnout gear and SCBA will have to contend with the extra noise of the PPV fan (Positive Pressure Ventilation). The IC will remain in the classroom, however the instructor should set-up loud audio distractions to replicate that found on a structure fire. I found it useful to look up some good dispatch audio from a structure fire online. Then I will utilize the computer speakers near the IC to create audio distractions and impede clear communications.

This drill drives the point home to firefighters about how difficult it is for the IC to hear clear radio communications. The third phase of this drill can include having the firefighters in the apparatus bay performing some physical activity to replicate someone communicating while they are performing a task. In fact, there are many variables to the drill, but the most important aspect is getting firefighters to the realization that the IC has a difficult job and radio communications issues should not be one of those difficulties. Firefighters should learn to practice slowing down when they speak over the radio, transmitting a clear and concise report, and placing the radio in the appropriate area to speak. Many SCBA’s integrate a speaker system and firefighters should be aware of the proper way to utilize their system.

Depending on time constraints in your training evolutions this drill can be kept short or expanded accordingly. One of the best way to get the most out of the training event is to combine basic firefighter training into the evolutions. For instance, the crew in the bay can be given basic training tasks to accomplish such as raising ladders. Instead of being in the bay the crew can be out on the training ground doing some firefighter refresher training and must perform the same functions outlined in the drill. This allows the instructor to maximize the time they have.

Communications are a vital component of safe operations on every emergency incident. Firefighters and officers must continually practice and improve these skills. Most training drills do not provide the same challenges that and IC will face on real emergency. The training must incorporate a method for firefighters to realize the challenges faced by the IC when they practice poor communications. Its easy to tell crews they are doing something wrong and tell them how their radio traffic should be conducted. However, in most instances this will not bring about a change. The crews need to learn through experience so that they can realize the reality of their actions, experience it in a safe environment, and change their behaviors.

 

 

 

Bibliography

Carleton College. (2018, April). What is the Affective Domain Anyway? Retrieved from Carleton College: https://serc.carleton.edu/NAFTWorkshops/affective/intro.html

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