Solid Briefings Help Fire Teams Execute Plans, Manage Objectives

The fire service is a complex system that often operates in a chaotic environment. Emergency scene tactics and strategies, practical hands-on training and daily routine operations all require effective communication of a plan to the people. This is called “the briefing,” and it’s the first step—one that shouldn’t be overlooked—to successful execution. Simply put, “We execute the brief.”

How often do you give or receive a briefing? Not only are briefings an effective way to disseminate information, whether during a morning briefing or just seconds before entering a burning building, they also allow leaders and teams to exchange important information, build trust, generate ideas, plan or review projects, make decisions and resolve conflict. They’re where everyone learns how they’ll carry out the plan and what they’re looking to achieve. They hold everyone accountable, and provide an opportunity for questions to be answered. Briefings are a valuable method for managing objectives as well as activities.

In this FF-360 column you will find some useful information and techniques to help you communicate better by way of briefings. First, we’ll explore using daily briefings as a tool to help nurture teams through trust building and idea generation. Second, we’ll examine briefing specifics in complex and dangerous environments, and how briefings can help gain control of the chaos and lead to safer and better plan execution.

The Daily Briefing
How much time do you spend with your crew each shift briefing the daily objectives? Ten minutes? Thirty minutes? Do you have briefings daily? How and where is the briefing done? Following are some suggestions on how to lead a daily briefing.

Schedule the Briefing. Daily briefings should not take a lot of time; 15 to 30 minutes is enough. It’s not the time spent on the briefing that’s important, it’s what’s accomplished that makes the difference. Trying to communicate too much in too little time defeats the purpose. That’s why it’s called a briefing! Try to schedule briefings at the same time each shift, and consider holding them at the beginning of the shift to help them become a habit. It should be mandatory for everyone on the team to attend.

Prepare the Briefing. Have clear goals in mind and list specific objectives you want to accomplish, while also making sure they’re doable. Prioritize the objectives, beginning with the most critical, and provide any information or materials needed to complete the activities. For example, if your objective is to complete a pre-fire plan, it helps to provide previous inspection and pre-fire plan information and the forms to complete it.

Conduct the Briefing. Effective communication during the briefing improves your chances of accomplishing the objectives. Encourage open communication by listening and providing feedback. Make available information regarding your discussion topics. Using tools such as dry-erase boards (if meeting in person) or computer conference-call programs (such as WebEx or GoToMeeting) enhances information delivery and provides documentation.

Guide the Briefing. Work hard to ensure that all suggestions and concerns are heard. Limit the time of discussion on one topic or between two people. The goal is to keep the briefing productive and efficient. Make sure everyone understands who is responsible for specific tasks. Record the briefing and make the notes available to everyone. These notes can later be used to review future progress and completion.

Conclude the Briefing. Complete the briefing by reviewing all of the action items, who is responsible and when they are due. Make sure there are no unanswered questions or confusion, which makes everyone accountable. Lastly, always leave the briefing on a high note. Leaders with a positive mindset create an environment of motivation and teamwork.

The Mission Briefing
In the words of James D. Murphy in his leadership guide, Flawless Execution, “Do not issue marching orders to head for the finish line until you have told your team where the finish line is.” Briefings at emergency scenes are different from those at the station. They are not informal meetings where ideas are exchanged, but rather critical to strategy and communicating tactic details. In a mission briefing, emergency responders are informed about the mission that could save lives, or cost them their own. It’s the time to really pay attention.

Emergency scenes can be complex, confusing and dangerous. They’re dynamic, often changing rapidly while creating numerous unexpected obstacles. The better a team understands the plan, the better chance they have to accomplish it.

Following are important things to keep in mind when delivering the mission briefing in the fog of combat.

1. Timing is everything on scene. When, where and how the mission briefing is completed dictates the outcome of execution. Sloppy briefs deliver sloppy execution. The first-due officer communicates the first briefing: the arrival report. It gives vital information and direction to incoming units, and gets the entire operation moving in the right direction. The next briefing occurs when the officer takes 10 seconds to relay the tactics to crewmembers, which helps visualize the team objective.

2. The mission objective is critical. Not only does it set the tone for the operation, it should also be the one phrase that’s clear, measurable, achievable and believable. Engine 1 will advance a 1¾” line from side Alpha to the kitchen. This explains what tools will be used and where the objective will be carried out. Engine 1 will confine the fire to the kitchen while Rescue 1 starts a primary search on floor 2. Here, the secondary objectives are laid out. Both primary and secondary objectives are essential for successful execution.

3. “Red flags” can require on-demand briefs. Red flags are the external threat observations noted through situational awareness. The fire is in the kitchen on floor 1, and floor 2 is wood frame. Briefings on external threats include matters such as occupancy, hazards, locations of fire and occupants, building access and exits, as well as the fire’s effect on the building—all important considerations in executing the mission.

Communicating effectively, whether regularly in daily briefings or efficiently in mission briefings, enables teams to better understand what might otherwise be unclear or impossible. Help your team build trust and confidence by delivering the right message. Brief them on the mission.