Frictions: Uncertainties that complicate communication

Everything is very simple in war, but the simplest thing is difficult.
–Carl von Clausewitz

Prussian military thinker Carl von Clausewitz, dead for almost two centuries, continues to be one of the most important strategic theorists of our time. His thoughts on how humans develop strategies are studied by military education institutions, business schools and other organizations concerned with human competition and conflict. Clausewitz used the term “frictions” to describe the uncertainties or the mechanisms that complicated warfare. Modern military officers most often refer to his concept of a general friction as the “fog and friction” of war.

Frictions are the constant stream of obstacles thrown in the path of progress. They can cause any number of unpredictable effects in any number of situations. Each friction, or challenge, becomes a diversion from the planned objective. In this FF-360 column, I’ll analyze communication frictions and how they hamper emergency operations—and how to prevent them and improve performance.

Case Study
A NIOSH report on the line-of-duty deaths of a captain and firefighter in 2008 found radio communication problems to be one of the contributing factors and identified numerous communication frictions, some of which are excerpted below:

Report Investigation

  • The excited homeowner directed the captain to the front door and indicated where the basement stairway was located. (Note: The actions of the homeowner may have distracted the first-arriving crew from doing a proper size-up.)
  • Victim #1 (captain) made several attempts calling for water but was not heard by the pump operator; FF#1 radioed for water and was heard.
  • L25’s captain (C#2) and crew member, with a thermal imagining camera (TIC) in hand, went to the front door and pointed down the hallway. The TIC registered a white screen indicating very hot temperatures.
  • C#2 went to the front door and yelled through his mask, and C#1 radioed E102 to get out and go to the rear, but received no response.
  • At this time, fire in the basement was heavy and command asked DC#1 if they had verbal or visual contact with the interior crew. DC#1 replied that they had neither form of contact.
  • FF#1 re-approached the basement stairway and saw the captain (Victim #1) at the stairway door trying to use her radio. FF#1 heard Victim#1 calling mayday, three times, but getting a busy tone, then she told him to get out.
  • As he entered the front yard through heavy smoke, he reported to the IC that he lost his crew and that Victim#1 was trying to send a mayday. The IC made several attempts to contact the interior crew with no response.

Report Recommendations

  • Fire departments should ensure that radio operability guidelines follow best practices recommended by the IAFC.

-The fireground communications process combines electronic communication equipment, a set of standard operating procedures and the fire service personnel who will use the equipment.
-To be effective, the communications network must integrate the equipment and procedures with the dynamics of the incident site, especially in terms of the environment and the human factors affecting its use.
-The incorporation of radio headsets may have improved communications. The IAFC has released an interim report concerning possible communications problems involving digital two-way portable radios in close proximity to common fireground noise.

  •  Fire departments should consider dispatch information regarding the call, such as fire location and if the building’s occupants have exited the structure.

-Information given by the caller or asked by the dispatcher, such as anything unique about the location of the fire structure, if the structure is occupied and possible location of the seat of the fire, can be passed on to the arriving units and speed up response time and influence the tactics to be employed.

First responder radio manufacturers, research/design facilities and standard-setting bodies should continue research and efforts to improve radio system capabilities.
-The use of personal protective equipment and an SCBA make it difficult to communicate, with or without a radio. Several NIOSH Fire Fighter Fatality Investigation Reports have cited issues with portable radio communication.
– NIST has recently tested portable radios in simulated firefighting environments and has identified that radios are vulnerable to exposure to elevated temperatures. Some degradation of radio performance was measured at elevated temperatures ranging from 100° to 260° C (212° to 482° F).

As seen from this NIOSH report, a combination of problems with equipment, human factors and the environment created communication frictions at this incident. Important information was not relayed to first-arriving crews. The fire was difficult to access. Firefighters experienced elevated temperatures. Noise levels from fireground operations made it difficult to hear. Some equipment may not have operated properly because of high temperatures. All of these frictions created unexpected obstacles for effective communication.

Many Causes
There are many causes for communication frictions. Some of the more obvious ones include:

  • Ignorance of the big picture. This happens at every level, from the frontline crews to command. It’s difficult in the midst of the operation to know everything that’s going on around us. It’s easy to become fixated, or focused on one task to the exclusion of others.
  • Conflicting orders place an immense burden on officers and crews trying to follow them. Sometimes they come from different directions and in rapid succession, causing confusion and misinterpreted information. Although the responsibility for clear communication rests on the person originating the order, the practical effects fall upon the person trying to execute it. The bottom line: Messy orders lead to messy execution.
  • Uncertain instructions may not convey the intended meaning for completing specific tactics. If left unclear, crews may carry out what they believe is the intent of the mission.
  • Insufficient instructions may leave out important information or may contain useless information. The lack of information, or addition of too much information, will further erode the value or intent of the communication.
  • Orders, or directions, with difficult prerequisites may feed too much into the “we can do it” syndrome. Orders must be achievable and reasonable.
  • Task saturation leads to a loss of situational awareness. Military pilots, highly trained in operating in complex environments, use the expression “helmet fire” to describe the mental state of unusually high-stress situations that can lead to task saturation. The pilot is undergoing so much stress that they feel like their head is on fire and smoke is coming out of their ears. Helmet fire happens frequently in the midst of chaos on the emergency scene. Effective prioritization of tasks and management of resources is required to prevent task saturation.

Strategies & Countermeasures 

As problems with digital radios show, technology may solve one set of communication problems, but it often creates another. Therefore, relying on technological solutions to communication frictions is dangerous.

We will have more successful outcomes if we attempt to manage and control error on the firerground Helmreich’s Error Management Model—avoid, trap, mitigate—is used by the Air Force to assist pilots in overcoming frictions in communication. Let’s look at how it might be applied to the fire service:

1.    AVOID frictions by ensuring that your department’s radio operational procedures follow accepted best practices. Ensure that your communications plan integrates your equipment and procedures with the changing and challenging dynamics of an emergency scene, especially how it affects the human element. Ensure that crews receive all relevant information regarding the incident. Purchase the best radio equipment you can. Radios, like SCBAs, are essential for safe and effective operations.
2.    TRAP developing frictions before they occur by practicing situational awareness and following disciplined communication procedures. Use Chief Mark Emery’s 4-C Communications Model:
·    Connect: Ensure that you are talking to the right person.
·    Convey: Communicate a clear, concise and easy-to-understand message.
·     Clarify: Repeat the message to establish that the message received is the message that was conveyed.
·    Confirm: Confirm that the message clarified is the message that was conveyed.
3.    MITIGATE the consequences of any frictions that were not trapped. This last layer of defense requires teamwork and the appropriate tactics. Training as a company will enhance individuals’ ability to quickly recognize frictions and mitigate them. Example: When a radio message isn’t clarified, the person conveying the message communicates the message again for clarification.

A Final Word

Emergency incidents are complex and chaotic. Communication frictions can occur at every stage of an incident (as seen in the NIOSH report above). Emergency operations can be strained from messages composed with conflicting instructions, vague directions or dual meanings. Messages can be misunderstood by recipients, and disregarded protocol or confusing terminology can create problems. How well you communicate is a result of how well you understand the communication process and the uncertainties that complicate it. There are numerous opportunities for frictions to occur in communication. The challenge for firefighters is to overcome the fog and eliminate the frictions.

Should officers take 10 seconds to relay the details of the tactics of what they want executed? The next FF-360 column on communication will explore the briefing, which is one of the key factors in directing and communicating an action plan.

Until next time, get prepared, be ready and stay safe!

Billy Schmidt is a district chief assigned to the 3rd battalion with Palm Beach (Fla.) County Fire Rescue. An adjunct instructor for the department’s Training and Safety Division, he has a master’s degree in organizational leadership, a bachelor’s degree in human resource management and an associate’s degree in fire science. He’s a member of FireRescue magazine’s Editorial Board.