Back in the days before portable radios, militaries relied on personnel carrying flags or colors in order to distinguish between groups of soldiers. If the soldier carrying the flag were to fall in combat, another in his group was obligated to pick up the flag and continue forward. This gave the commanders who watched over the battlefield an idea of how his overall battle plan was progressing, or not. If the commander could no longer locate a flag on the field, he would assume that particular group had been completely destroyed and would make adjustments to reinforce that position or order a retreat. So, the question remains, which types of incidents require effective communication of information? I think the answer may be quite simple — only the ones we want to go well.
While teaching a Firefighter II course recently, the class and I engaged in a discussion about incident communications. One of the students appeared to be annoyed by the constant progress reports, SITREP (Situational Reports) or CAN (Conditions/Actions/Needs) reports that the Incident Commander (IC) requests, in his words, “every 30 seconds.” The student was committed to the proposition that if the IC would not bother them on the radio for a few minutes, they would successfully negotiate any obstacles and extinguish the fire. Having been on both sides of this particular fence I stressed the importance of communications. I certainly related to the fact that in years past, being “bothered” by the IC while I was trying to perform task level work seemed a bit distracting.
Today however, I have become one of those IC’s who crave constant information about the battlefield. IC’s today cannot see the whole battle field and the flags of those operating on it. The field is frequently blocked by four walls and a roof and the flags have been traded in for portable radios. Therefore, IC’s must rely on effective communications to determine whether they want to shore up their battle plan or order an all out retreat. What I offered to my student, I would like to share with whoever may be reading this. Are you really tired of the IC calling you every five minutes for a PAR check or CAN report? Do you really wish there was a less bothersome way to operate? Well, now there is. Communication is always a two way street.
Consider our medical calls. The overweight 40-year-old who has had three previous heart attacks who is pale, diaphoretic, complaining of crushing chest pain, and states, “I have a real bad feeling” probably does not need a set of vital signs and a 15-lead EKG to determine they are a patient that needs rapid emergent transportation to definitive care. If the patient did not effectively communicate the “bad feeling” or stated, “I just don’t feel good,” we may approach the patient management a little differently, especially if the signs we can see are not present. This patient should provide us with effective communication, and in the absence of this, it is our responsibility as pre-hospital providers to prompt them or question them appropriately to obtain the information we need in order to proceed with our appropriate patient care protocols.
What about Hazardous Materials Incidents? The effective communication of accurate information drives everything that happens at these types of calls (isolation perimeters, suit selection, decontamination methods, evacuation distances, etc.). In transportation incidents, you may be faced with the shipper of the chemical, the receiver of the chemical, the transporter (or the owner of everything below and in front of the kingpin on the trailer), and the trailer owner (of everything above and behind the kingpin on the trailer).
In one hazardous materials incident that involved a multi-jurisdictional response to a burning tractor-trailer, another department contacted the receiver who stated the chemical was one that required a 1,000 feet isolation perimeter. A call to the trailer owner was not immediately received but returned about an hour into the incident. The trailer owner questioned our department about where we were in relation to the release, to which we replied 1,500 feet. The response we got still echoes in my head, 10 years later. The trailer owner stated, “You are too close.” I stated that the DOT Emergency Response Guide lists 1,000 feet as being adequate for the chemical name we were told by the receiver. The trailer owner stated, “I don’t doubt that isolation perimeter is adequate for that chemical, but that chemical is not what is on that trailer.” In this incident, the receiver was mistaken as to the product that was on the trailer. The isolation perimeter was quickly expanded, and thankfully no one was seriously injured; however, it proves the importance of effective communications on these types of incidents.
Some may remember the old game called broken telephone, grapevine, or gossip. In this game, the operator designs a phrase and whispers it to the first player. Players then whisper their interpretation of the phrase to the next player until it reaches the end of the line. The last player speaks aloud what they understand the message to be. According to Wikipedia, the world record largest game started with the phrase, “Mac King is a comedy magic genius” and ended with the last player’s interpretation of that phrase as, “Macaroni cantaloupe knows the future.” This reinforces the importance of insuring that the message is received in the form it was intended.
Imagine if the game allowed for each recipient to confirm the message with the sender prior to transmitting it to the next player. This would likely allow for a much different outcome at the end of the game.
I wrote earlier about communication being a two-way street. It is essential that we use “both lanes.” I have become very fond of the IFSTA Essentials 5 skills handbook. Virtually every skill taught now begins with the first step of confirming the order with command. This is paramount if you are preparing to perform a task that will alter the fire behavior such as venting a window or initiating positive pressure ventilation. By confirming the order to knock out a window for ventilation prior to beginning the task, you are giving the IC an opportunity to correct any misunderstanding in the message they sent. This is particularly important for lengthy orders.
If the IC orders your crew to enter the building through the Bravo side entrance, take the interior stairwell to Division 3 and perform a secondary search, the reply to confirm that order should be just as long (i.e. “Command, Ladder 6 copies, enter through the Bravo side entrance, take the interior stairwell to Division 3 and conduct a secondary search”). A simple “Copy” does not insure that the message was properly transmitted, received or understood and could result in the aforementioned “fortune telling macaroni cantaloupe” or maybe a situation that is not quite as humorous.
So, what do we do with the information hungry IC’s like me and how do we keep me from bothering you with constant PAR checks and SITREP/CAN report requests? Remember that communication is a two-way street. If you don’t want your IC to bother you, give them the information before they have time to ask you for it. I am not suggesting that you report your entrance into the building, your movement through the living room, your passing by the coffee table, couch, love seat, television ... you get the idea. What I am suggesting is that you communicate with the IC, even if things are going well inside and especially if they aren’t. Once you let the IC know you have found the fire and knocked it down, they can compare this audible information with the visible information available.
If they see lightening of the smoke and steam production, they will likely be very happy. However, if they see darker more turbulent smoke after you have reported knocking the fire down, this will likely cause the IC to thirst for more information from the interior crews (like are we at the same building?).
Whenever you are making significant movements throughout the building, are beginning or have completed a task, or you have a free minute between tasks, give the IC your PAR/SITREP/CAN report. By offering the information at your convenience, it will prevent you from having to give the information later when it may be less convenient. Remember to confirm orders prior to initiating tasks to complete those orders. This will prevent confusion or misunderstood directions. Try to speak slowly, calmly, using clear text (words not codes), and at an appropriate volume (no yelling and no whispering). Remember that codes are not uniform between jurisdictions, yelling makes the IC nervous, and whispering turns our incident communications into a game of broken telephone.
Be safe and do good.