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The Next Skill Drill - Communications

On my national and international sojourns I have had an opportunity to see a wide array of fire fighting techniques and training facilities. As an industrial fire and risk management consultant I have also had an opportunity to review plans, procedures, policies and actual incidents. Quite often though, two facts contributing to preventable losses in emergencies are seldom addressed in training. This month's column will focus on communication and accountability, something I continually see as missing or masked components of training.

Poor communications are not just endemic in emergency services. Equally disastrous consequences are seen in the private sector. Some of you are familiar with the low-cost airline JetBlue. I thought this airline really had it together. Until recently it was even profitable. What does this have to do with communication? As this article goes to press, the company, which up until now had a stellar operations record, suffered a significant meltdown. The snow storms affecting the Northeast this February resulted in Jet Blue aircraft stranding passengers on the tarmac for over 11 hrs, without the opportunity to deplane. No food, no water and the toilets were badly in need of being pumped. Undoubtedly, the emergency communication plan failed to address this possibility. Having worked through Hurricane Katrina/Rita, I tell clients to plan for the worst possible scenarios. Given that Jet Blue is based out of JFK Airport in New York, I find it remarkable that their planning and training failed to address a major snow storm.

Fire Ground communications- Examples

Effective communications is critical on the fire ground. The incident commander, who cannot be everywhere, must rely on others to report the layout of the structure, the fire conditions and provide ongoing progress reports in order to form a strategic plan. Without this ongoing flow of information, it is difficult, if not impossible, to develop a plan that takes into account all of the critical factors that will assure a safe operation.

A tragic example of a breakdown in communications occurred in Seattle, WA, in 1995 when four fire fighters lost their lives to a fire in a warehouse.

To help facilitate fire ground communications, every fire fighter in Seattle was equipped with a portable radio. Ironically, much of the communication that took place on the fire ground was "face-to-face," or not over the radios.

The structure on fire was built on a sloping grade, creating a confusing layout. The first-in crews, who entered from the front door, thought they were on the main floor of the building and were not aware of a basement below them. The arsonist had set the fire in the basement, not on their level. Firefighters knocked down small fires on the upper floor, unaware that another crew was confronting a large body of fire one level below them. However, the crew in the basement was not applying water because they thought the first due crews were attacking it from the opposite side and did not want opposing hose streams.

When the crews on the upper level left the building to replace their air bottles they believed that they were suppressing the main body of fire. Conditions improved with only "spot fires" remaining. Unfortunately, these firefighters did not make progress reports over the fire ground frequency indicating this situation. If they had, the crew in the basement would probably have realized that a major "disconnect" from reality was in the works because of the growing fire that they were facing. The first-in crews then re-entered the building on the upper level. Within 36 minutes the floor collapsed, plunging four fire fighters into the basement where they were killed.

Another vivid example of a breakdown in communications occurred in Hackensack, N.J., where two fire fighters died in a collapse inside a bow-string truss building. Trapped inside the building when the roof collapsed, they attempted, numerous times to radio their position to the incident commander. Civilians and police officials could hear the transmissions over their scanners, but not the incident commander or the fire department dispatchers. Calls were made by telephone to the fire department dispatchers to report that firefighters were trapped inside the building and attempting to radio for help. This information was finally relayed to the incident commander, but the two firefighters died before they could be rescued.

When an officer fell through a fire-weakened floor in Washington, D.C., the investigators believe that he attempted to radio his position to the incident commander (IC). However, the IC never heard the transmission, nor did the dispatch center. One of the possible reasons cited in the official report was the lack of a fire ground frequency dedicated to the incident. The frequency that was being used was subject to interference, or "bleed over" from other radio frequencies and incidents. Also, the incident commander had to simultaneously monitor and communicate on two separate frequencies. Besides the fireground channel, the other frequency was the city's primary dispatch frequency that was continuing to dispatch units to other incidents throughout the city. This created a confusing operating environment.

Communications training should be ongoing and address the inherent limitations of communications equipment as well as the process itself. Are your communications protocols confusing? Are you still using 10 codes??

In your next training evolution focus on effective communications. Be sure to evaluate everyone's performance and give critical but positive feedback. If you really want to hone your officers' ability to communicate, practice command functions where the IC cannot see the fireground. Force the IC to use an accountability system and a means of recording what's going on. Roll out all of your fancy toys that you bought last year and train with them! No point in waiting to roll it out at the time of the incident. Use that fancy command vehicle and ensure everyone is able to use the resources available. I've seen too many incidents where the ERT rolls out that latest purchase for the first time at the fire. Everyone is shouting, reading instructions and, yup, looking like complete and utter morons.

If any of you do rescue training, think about how critical effective communications can be. High Angle rescue training requires excellent communication, otherwise someone may end up dead or injured. So why is it that we are so OCD when doing rescue training, but we allow lapses in communications in fire training? Is it any less dangerous? Once again it goes back to your training. If your training is always simulated the focus is entirely on fire extinguishment without using the radios, you really haven't addressed the importance of communications.


Communications is not the only part of a fire ground operation that can break down, contributing to firefighter fatalities and all out chaos. In several incidents, the lack of an established accountability system allowed firefighters to operate independently, or to "freelance," directly contributing to tragedy.

Unfortunately, early in my career I witnessed a situation where fellow firefighters were killed in the line of duty. In Pittsburgh, PA, three fire fighters died in the basement of a home after becoming trapped and disoriented during a fire. All three ran out of air, and not until some time later was it realized that they were even in the building. A similar episode occurred in Branford, CT, where firefighters did not realize that one of their own was missing and still inside a burning building where the roof had collapsed.

There are two basic reasons for an accountability system. First, it reduces "freelancing." Everyone operating on the fire ground must have a specific assignment before entering a structure or beginning any fire fighting operations. The second reason to keep track is to recognize if any firefighters are missing or overdue. Fire departments have instituted various systems to identify their personnel and to ensure that ongoing accountability checks are conducted. For example, the Phoenix Fire Department has instituted a system where a PAR, or personnel accountability report, is verbally transmitted over the radio on a regular basis. This ensures that everyone in the chain of command, from the first-due officer up to the incident commander, is actively involved in the accountability function.

In the industrial setting, particularly in volunteer ERT's, elimination of freelancing is paramount. Freelancing is insidious in this setting because many ERT's wear multiple hats so to speak or have multiple roles and responsibilities. They may not think they are "freelancing," but performing an essential role as a process operator. This is where things become murky, for that process operator/fire brigade member must ensure that his professional judgment does not overshadow his common sense as a firefighter. I often see this on the fire training ground when fighting a flange fire or a pump seal fire. Operators know the intricacies of how a process works and how a piece of machinery operates under normal conditions. Things change when the process is on fire and subject to intense heat and flame. Operators must be trained not to venture out on their own and attempt to solve the problem, even if they are fire brigade members. This can result in the failure of the fire attack or a deviation from the plan which compromises safety.

Reflect on your emergency incidents and training. What role did these factors, communications and accountability, play in the outcome of event?o


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