A Firefighter's Communications Experience


Effective communication is important in every walk of life, but it is never more important than in the life of a Fire Fighter.  It may save the life of the Fire Fighter themselves or those individuals threatened by a fire.  The Center for Error Management addresses  poor, good and effective communication.  The ultimate goal, of course, is to communicate in such a manner that the command is properly received and acted upon as intended.

Dennis Rubin, recently the Fire Chief of Roanoke Virginia, and a long term advocate of Crew Resource Management within the fire fighting profession ( author of five articles in "Firehouse Magazine") wrote a book entitled "Rube's Rules for Survival. The book is a collection of case studies covering the first 10 years of his career.  One particular case illustrated  an incident of miscommunication in which he was involved.

While serving in an engine company in Fairfax Virginia an alarm for smoke in the attic of a very large, multi-occupancy building, was received.  When they were about 2-3 minutes away from the location they heard the call, "Battalion 43(Code sign for Battalion Commander) to Engine 43 there is smoke in the attic - bring a hand line"!

After laying out a water supply line from the corner of the block about 300' away from the fire address, Dennis carried a 250-ft 11/2 "hand line" up three flights of stairs.. When Dennis reached the top  he found Butz, his Battalion Chief, nicknamed, "Buns", standing there in his white shirt with  attached gold badge..  Thinking "Buns" would be glad to see an extra set of hands, dressed in proper protective gear and holding that all important requested item - the "hand line", his proud thoughts were quickly snuffed out. . ----- Buns, wanting a "hand light", and  was curious to know what  Dennis was doing with a "hand line", and summarily admonished Dennis for not following orders!

During questioning that followed three other lieutenants recalled distinctly hearing the request for a "hand line" over the radio.  In addition a fourth lieutenant who was not responding to the call also remembered hearing the term "hand line".

Because of this lesson in miscommunication Dennis became passionate about assuring good communication  and instilled the use of a "communications order model". The model requires that each instruction from the sender be followed by a repeat of the instruction by the receiver.  A similar model is promoted by Crew Resource Management is used by an aircrew.  For those who criticized the model, saying it takes too much time, Dennis's counter is that in most instances there  isn't an opportunity for a second chance to get the communication right.  The need to attain the intended outcome is paramount.

The Center for Error Management introduces effective communication tools similar to the model instituted by Chief Rubin that are designed to help your team improve effectiveness .   For more information about this communication management area and other Error Management training areas see the page entitled "training".

© The Center for Error Management 2004-2011