Friday, June 15, 2012

How Do You Communicate

This post came to me while continuing to design my class for the South Atlantic Fire Expo later this summer.   I have always been a huge proponent of calm radio traffic.  The calmer the traffic the better the incident generally goes.  Sure I have yelled on the radio, sure I have said some dumb stuff on the radio, but with experience comes a calm radio demeanor.  This expectation isn't just for the officer either, it should be for everyone who has a radio.  These days audio is broadcast and recorded all over the internet so the impression someone may get of your department may come from a 5 second audio clip.

Almost everyone fireman has heard the old quote from Andy Fredricks: "“The garbage man doesn’t get excited when he turns the corner and sees trash, because he’s expecting it. Likewise, you should be expecting fire on every run."  My colleague Pete over at ELAFFHQ even had a post on it a few weeks ago "Death, Perspective and the Garbageman".  Yet we continue to hear folks on the radio screaming as though they are seeing the apocalypse unfolding in front of them.  I can play you audio clip after audio clip of officers pulling up to the biggest fire they have ever scene and sounding like it just a fire alarm.  On the flip side of that, I can play you plenty of audio where officers pull up to a trash fire and make it sound like they are narrowly escaping the gates of hell.  When I address the topic during training, I always advocate for the use of the 3 C's of communication, Clear, concise, and calm. With these simple rules, communications on every emergency scene can be improved vastly.


 Everyone that as ever listened to the radio knows that quite often you can't understand a word someone is saying on the radio.  I know that some readers who "aren't from round here" would struggle to understand some of the southern dialects we (I) have on the radio here in the South.  This is frustrating for both the listener and the transmitter.  First, the transmitter is upset because no one is responding or comprehending what he is saying.  Secondly, the listener(s) are frustrated because they know information is being broadcast but they can't figure out what it is.  Much of this mistake can be attributed directly to training our members to talk on the radio.

To talk on the radio no matter what the manufacturer, you must place the microphone 1-2 inches from your mouth or voice port.  There are many SCBA accessories that assist with in mask communications, but if you don't have those, ensure you bring the mic up to the voice port at the distance mentioned above.  In addition, normal conversational voice should be used when communicating on the radio.  Some people do have a "radio voice" but we need to ensure that we are using a clear tone of voice and speech.  If we rush words, use improper slang or some code word no one knows it helps no one of the emergency scene. 

Speak clearly by using common department terminology, speak into the mic, and understand how it feels to be on the receiving end of the radio traffic.  When we are in an emergency situation on the fire ground, that is the critical time that we must transmit information clearly and quickly to all members there.   Yelling on the radio only makes your transmission less clear to others.  The loud voice on your end actually makes it more difficult for the users on the other end to understand what you are saying.  With all of that said, there are times where yelling is unavoidable such as fire licking on your rear end etc.


Being concise on the radio is definitely one of the biggest challenges we face when it comes to communications.  We all know the guy who talks the fire out, turns the two car MVA into a three alarm talk fest, or give a dissertation of conditions on a fire alarm.  We all have them in our department, and sometimes I have even been that guy.  We have to realize that only one person can talk at a time on the channel, and that someone else may have something more important to say than what we may be communicating.  In addition, firefighters are no different than children, we have a short attention span.  That fact alone should hit home because we all know we drown out some things after a certain timer goes off in our head.  Being concise should become a habit for all firefighters and officers when we talk on the radio.  never before have there ever been so many radios on the fire ground, so limiting radio traffic is more important than ever. 

Sometime we must understand that less is more.  If we limit the length and the detail of what we transmit, people may get more out of it than a 25 second transmission describing the thread count of the sheets inside the house.  Firefighters need simple information much of the time so our descriptions and transmissions must reflect that.  There are some situations where a long transmission is needed such as a haz-mat scene or even some technical rescue scenes, but not every scene needs to be a talk fest.  Be concise, get your point across and release the button and give up the air time.


As I mentioned above, being calm on the radio is of paramount importance especially when it comes to the first in officer.  The saying goes "How the first line goes indicates how the fire will go".  This holds true with communications as well.  If the first arriving officer screams, everyone will be that much more amp-ed up and excited.  However, if the officer exhibits a calm, no nonsense, and sensible approach to the fire the incoming units will be much more disciplined, calm, and deliberate with their actions after their arrival.  Also, as I mentioned above, a calm transmitter on the radio is much easier to understand.  The louder you speak into the radio, the harder it is for the radio to collect your voice, convert it, and transmit it to other users. 

Some would argue that if you are calm on the big fires people won't know they are big.  Don't believe me, I have heard it from command officers in two departments.  In response, I commented that if they want to know its big come on over to the party and they can find out.  I don't believe it is the IC job to make a fire sound big or small for anyone, it is their job to safely mitigate the incident.  If you have been in the fire service any time, the most successful and respected officers are those who are calm in the eyes of adversity.  Firefighters love to see a calm officer or Chief when the Feces hits the Oscillator. 

To understand how calm affects people in a group, we need to look no further than the military.  All great military leaders remained cool under fire.  You never hear of any that freaked out or locked up, so don't be that IC that does.  Being calm isn't something that just comes automatically to all firefighters.  It takes time, experience, and some mistakes.  I was a radio screamer on two incidents where I was in command that changed me.  I listened to the tapes and laughed at myself sounding like a scared little 10 year old.  Since the last one of those incidents, I have changed.  I'm sure many of you reading this had "those" incidents, the question is did you learn from them, or are you still a radio screamer?

Be The Change

Through some friendships I have forged in the past few months, I have taken a bit of a new philosophy than I once had regarding the fire service.  I have begun to realize that charge starts with me, or in the case of this article, it starts with you.  Practice with your crews some of the items I have discussed, implement a change in yourself, fix it in your station and then the others will follow suit.  If you set the good example, others will follow as they see the positive outcomes that come out of what you have done on scenes.

Communications is the most neglected subject in terms of training in the fire service.  Continuously, NIOSH cites communication as an issue during LODD's.  Make the change in your department and your self to fix some of the communication issues you may have within your jurisdiction.  In the meantime, stay disciplined out there.


  1. Great post and I couldn't agree more. Once additional point would be to stay off the radio - face to face works best.

    How many times have you watched two guys talking on the radio when they are standing less than 30 feet apart and can see each other?

    1. I love having someone call me on the radio and I reply by yelling across the yard to them "Go Ahead". Face to face is very effective so long as you want to actually talk to the person....

  2. I agree with Dave. You have to also practice your communication just like you practice stretching lines, forcing doors and throwing ladders. There are three areas in the brain that deal with speech, and that is before we get into the process of what is being seen and the mind creating the action based on past experience. If you don't know what you need to say, or are planning to say, your speech experiences that same fight or flight problem that the mind does; you'll either freeze up and run off at the mouth.

    1. I have had one of my dear friends tell me, "All I remember about radio training is the antenna isn't a handle". That's part of the problem, we don't sit around and go over the radio like we do our apparatus, tools, or lines. Yet, we use the radio on every call we go on. There are only teo things that we use on every call, the apparatus and the radio....

  3. Great topic to bring up Jonah. I too, agree with Bill and Dave face to face when you are close enough to do so and if it needs to be explained in detail. Some other points to consider. If your FD uses mask-to-radio connections (ie clear commands) speak normal. The mic inside is noise canceling. If you yell you cut yourself off. So key 1 to good communications is knowing your equipment. Another element that makes communications more precise is 3 way communication. Using 3 way ensire your traffic is heard, understood and correct. A few extra seconds prevents unneeded follow up traffic. 3 way sounds like this:

    "Engine 1 pull a 2.5 handline for fire attack and deploy to the Charlie side"
    "Understand deploy a 2.5 line to side Charlie"
    "That is correct."

    Both understood what was expected and if the repeat back included wrong information then it can be correced before the 2.5 was deployed to the delta side and charged. What takes longer to correct the message or moving the line?

    The final pointI want to make is who on your team has a radio? We are getting close to everyone on scene having a portable. So who on your team does the talking? They should be the only member that has the volume turned up. Remember radios still transmit if the speaker volume is turned down. How many transmissions are missed because of feedback? Once again understand your equipment.

    Just like all of our other tools we need to be experts with our radios as well. Great job Jonah.