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Communication in crisis with Plant Tours

March 14, 2024

Rick Davies, Outreach Manager at Plant Tours, explores how clear, effective communication is crucial in the high-stakes world of fire safety operations

From the moment a citizen calls for help to the coordination among emergency responders at the scene, effective firefighting relies on effective communication.

Ineffective communication can not only hinder a team’s ability to put out a blaze, but can also put lives at risk.

In fact, the National Institute for Occupational Health and Safety found that communication failures were a leading cause of firefighter deaths.

Clear and effective communication is critical for fire safety operations.

Through a combination of reliable technology and consistent training, these kinds of communication failures can be prevented.

Communication challenges in high-stress environments

Firefighting is not just a physical endeavor; it involves the exchange of key pieces of information in order to make quick decisions.

The types of information relayed to and among firefighters during a response include details about the incident, potential hazards, status of building occupants, tactical decisions, whereabouts of individual firefighters, requests for additional resources, progress updates, and more.

Is it a structure fire, a hazardous materials spill, a wildfire, or a medical emergency? Are there safety concerns at the scene, such as downed power lines, structural instability, or the presence of hazardous materials?

Information about changing fireground conditions, like fire spread, smoke behavior, and the condition of the building or structure, is continuously relayed to responders to help them adapt to the evolving situation.

If there are unexpected changes in conditions, such as a firefighter in distress or a Mayday situation, immediate communication of the emergency is crucial to initiate a rapid response and rescue effort.

In high-stress environments like firefighting, effective communication is paramount, yet it is often challenged by high-stress circumstances.

These situations demand split-second decisions and precise coordination among team members.

However, excessive noise, encumbrance of heavy protective gear, and intense time pressure all hinder verbal communication.

The challenge intensifies during large-scale incidents, where multiple agencies and teams may be involved, each with their own communication systems.

In high-stress environments, a communication breakdown can lead to panic, chaos, wasted resources, and life-threatening mistakes.

It is critical that emergency response teams have a reliable system for communicating clearly, concisely, and completely.

Enhancing incident response through communication clarity

Fire service and response teams use a wide variety of verbal, nonverbal, written, and visual communications to convey critical information with one another.

From the training setting to the scene of an active blaze, clarity in these communications is essential.

 Clear communication enhances situational awareness, enabling firefighters to adapt to evolving fireground conditions swiftly.

In an emergency, every second counts, and the absence of ambiguity in communication can be the difference between a successful response and a potential disaster.

Using standardized terminology is one way fire response teams can help ensure the clarity of their communications when it matters most.

Investing in robust, reliable technology and training for firefighters and fire command centers can also improve the clarity and effectiveness of emergency communications.

Leveraging technology for communication resilience

With the aid of technology, fire safety teams can bridge communication gaps, streamline operations, and ultimately safeguard both responders and the communities they serve more effectively.

For example, two-way communication systems can allow members of a fire response team to communicate over headsets or radios.

Response teams can use two-way communication systems to set up fire command centers near fire department response points.

These centers serve as centralized control points for monitoring and transmitting critical information related to fire emergencies.

Two-way communication systems are superior to one-way systems in emergencies because they facilitate bi-directional information exchange.

The commanding fire official relies on real-time data from the front lines, while responding personnel in the building require an overview of the situation from the command center.

Moreover, the use of two-way communication systems are advised by the National Fire Protection Association and state-specific building codes, emphasizes their necessity for immediate coordination during fire emergencies.

These systems must be durable, easy to use, and capable of transmitting clear audio even in challenging conditions, making them indispensable for effective fire response strategies.

Their ability to facilitate communication in both directions—allowing command centers to receive real-time updates from the front lines and vice versa—further underscores their value in ensuring the safety and efficiency of fire safety operations.

Interagency collaboration: communicating across fire safety teams

In many fire safety operations, especially during complex incidents such as wildfires, industrial accidents, or large-scale urban fires, multiple agencies and teams are often involved.

In his October leadership message, International Society of Fire Service Instructors President Seth Barker emphasized the importance of collaboration among fire response agencies to solve problems and serve more effectively.

Collaboration offers a promise of better solutions, but it also can present some challenges.

How can teams ensure that they are on the same page, speaking the same language, and avoiding duplication of efforts? The success of any collaborative effort hinges on communication.

To facilitate communication between different agencies, the use of standardized terminology and procedures is essential.

Agencies may have their own jargon and protocols, but during joint operations, everyone must speak the same language.

The National Incident Management System (NIMS) and the Incident Command System (ICS) provide a framework for standardized communication, ensuring that everyone understands the roles, responsibilities, and terminology used in a multi-agency response.

Effective communication in interagency collaborations isn’t just about equipment and technology; it’s also about the people.

Cross-agency training is invaluable in familiarizing responders with the communication systems, tools, and practices of partner agencies.

This training fosters trust and cooperation, enabling team members to work together smoothly in high-stress environments.

 

The future of fire safety communication: trends and innovations

Several emerging trends and innovations are poised to transform the way fire safety agencies operate, respond to emergencies, and protect communities.

These advancements promise to enhance the efficiency, safety, and effectiveness of firefighting efforts.

The rollout of 5G and future generations of wireless technology will provide faster, more reliable communication for fire safety agencies.

Artificial intelligence will help analyze data from various sources, such as weather patterns, traffic conditions, and historical incident data, to provide predictive insights into fire risk and behavior.

Augmented reality and virtual reality technologies will offer immersive training experiences for firefighters, enabling them to practice in virtual environments that closely mimic real-life situations.

Wearable technology and nanosensors are another solution that can alert the wearer to signs of exhaustion and other dangers, with the aim of saving firefighters’ lives.

 These technologies will help in skill development, decision-making, and resource management among firefighting teams.

This article was originally published in the March 2024 issue of Fire & Safety Journal Americas. To read your FREE digital copy, click here.

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