Avoiding Crosstalk On Scene

Major incidents are often confusing. Multiple calls may be received with conflicting information. In addition, it is not yet clear how the impending ability to text emergency calls to dispatch centers will impact communications. While units are responding, and as they arrive on scene, a large amount of information must be gathered and processed with decisions made very quickly on a path to take. Additional units will be arriving and trying to anticipate the tasks they need to perform. They will be looking for clarity on what is going on and what they are to do almost immediately. All of this has to be processed almost instantaneously, with rapidly made decisions that can have a major impact on the success (or failure) of the incident response.
Not only is the processing and decision-making process important but so is communicating the nature, conditions, and instructions related to strategy and tactics to these incoming resources. The size-up and initial strategic and tactical action plan of the first-arriving unit/officer will most likely determine the pace and the ultimate outcome of a serious incident. A key part of the ultimate success, or failure, of the response is the strength of the initial report, as well as collecting updates and giving ongoing progress reports throughout the incident.
What are we saying and why are we saying it? Incoming units are trying to figure out what they are supposed to do. Standard operating procedures or guidelines can help with clearly identifying tasks for the first-due engine, second-due truck, and so on, but if handling a particular situation demands a change in duties, all of the affected companies need to clearly understand the change in assignment. Having a plan is a good thing, but communicating that plan effectively will help to make things happen according to that plan!
First Things First
A brief but informative report from the first-arriving unit passes along many things. It tells other responding units what is happening, what the first-arriving unit is doing about it, and it helps those other responding units to understand what actions they will need to take to support the initial unit. Will the ladder company need to be ready to throw ground ladders, place the aerial in service, or perform horizontal or vertical ventilation? Will incoming engine companies need to assist in establishing a water supply, pull a backup line, or immediately protect an exposure?
The initial report will assist the responding command officer in sizing up the incident and making crucial logistical decisions, and it is an integral part of the incident command system. This report should normally be made by the first-arriving officer, who should assume command, establish the initial command structure, and make it clear for all incoming units. If the initial-arriving officer must be directly involved in incident tactics, he may choose to “pass command” by so indicating as part of the initial report.
An effective initial report can paint the picture for the dispatch center or incoming command officer to rapidly request appropriate mutual aid companies if needed, thereby expediting the application of resources to the incident. This may include the response of specialty and EMS units as appropriate to what is occurring, including rapid intervention teams (RITs). Some jurisdictions have a “working fire dispatch” where additional units, such as a RIT, a medic, and an additional chief, are added on the report of smoke or fire showing. It is preferable to have these units arriving on the scene when needed rather than needing to call for them as things go downhill.
The initial report also assists dispatchers in making other decisions, which can include moving up companies to empty stations; staging areas in anticipation of greater alarms; and notification of other agencies such as the Health Department, utility companies, and Red Cross. Police response can be initiated or augmented, providing resources for traffic and crowd control. Secondary responding companies will obtain valuable information from an accurate first-in report. These companies can begin to make decisions on tasks such as positioning and committing to accessing water supplies. Many departments have standing orders for their companies to reduce speed when the first-arriving company reports “nothing showing.”
Important Information
It is important to understand this so we know to whom we are providing information and what we want to let them know via the initial report. The types of information we should be providing with an initial report includes the following:
  • Who: unit/officer identification (Engine 24, Chief 14).
  • Where: confirm location (2432 River Road). This serves a number of purposes. Occasionally, multiple incidents occur simultaneously in a complex or neighborhood, or multiple locations are called in for the same incident. If the first-in unit does not specify an address, the next-in unit may wind up operating in an adjacent building, go to the wrong address, or pick up the wrong hydrant.
  • What: type of occupancy (wood frame, single-family dwelling), size (two-story, 20 x 50 feet), conditions found (fire showing from two windows on the second floor).
  • How: actions taken (starting offensive attack with  -inch line, Battalion 25 assuming command); recommendations (can handle with the responding assignment or strike the second alarm).
If all of this information is reported quickly and correctly, it will provide a clear picture of the incident to the people on the other end of the radio. In this particular example, the first-in unit would report, “Engine 24 on location, 2432 River Road, with a two-story wood-frame dwelling, 20 x 50 feet, fire showing from two windows on the second floor, going into service with a 1¾-inch line, Battalion 25 assuming command, all units will be committed.”
This communicates to all concerned that the units on the house fire assignment will be used, police will be needed for traffic control, EMS will be needed if not already dispatched, a RIT may be needed, and cover companies may need to be relocated. It also alerts the command officer that additional units may need to be started and that fire and rescue strategies must be established.
The Updated 411
Giving a good initial report can provide an excellent foundation to properly managing a major incident. Ongoing incident management will be more successful when effective ongoing progress reports are provided. Radio reports provide two critical functions during an emergency. The first function is that the report provides a clear picture of the incident to those on the other end of the radio. This includes both units on the scene and those responding. The second, less obvious, benefit is that ongoing reports assist the person making the report in organizing a clear picture of the situation and resource status for the incident. If the incident commander (IC) doesn’t have this understanding of what is happening, he will not be able to verbalize it.
A great tool that can prompt ICs to provide regular progress reports is a prompt (or “time check” or “mark”) from the dispatch or communications center. Many fire departments use such a prompt as recommended by NFPA 1500, Standard on Fire Department Occupational Safety and Health Program. Some may do it at slightly different time intervals, such as every 15 or 20 minutes. In any case, regular time notifications remind the IC that time is passing and progress needs to be evaluated.
At 15 to 20 minutes into the incident, if good progress isn’t being made, the IC needs to think hard about structural integrity/deterioration and maintaining an offensive attack on the incident. Fifteen to 20 minutes might be too long an interval for rapidly expanding incidents. Providing a verbal report to the communications center actually forces the IC to evaluate how things are going and determine if adequate resources have been deployed.
To properly give the report, the IC will need to conduct a status check with each assigned division/group leader and it may be a good time to do a Personal Accountability Report (PAR) check. This helps the IC monitor activities on the emergency scene in an orderly fashion. To ensure the report occurs, dispatch centers may actually request it from the IC when the time prompt is given.
Incident Report Forms
It is suggested that departments develop a form with blanks in it that the IC can fill in on the fly to help provide effective incident reports. Information that can be included in these reports is as follows:
  • Updated/confirmed address.
  • Type of occupancy.
  • Status of the incident: fire, spill or other condition, incident under control or extending, and actions being taken.
  • Units being used on the scene, along with the potential to require additional resources or release resources.
  • Need for supporting units such as air cascade/rehab, support agencies, utilities, investigators.
The “marks” and ongoing reports will also help the IC realize the potential need for rehabilitation and rotation of crews that are operating in the hazard zone. Conducting initial and ongoing incident reports on routine incidents will improve the ability to perform these actions at major incidents.
Clear Communication
Initial and ongoing incident reports cannot be overly complicated or lengthy. Most departments and command officers are probably already thinking through most of this when they arrive at a working incident. However, by verbalizing thoughts, clearer lines of communication are established and set a good example for future officers.
By giving clear reports, ICs are also forced to make initial decisions and start to cover the bases, with incoming more senior officers being able to begin to understand the situation better and bring to bear additional support resources. Take some time to review this with your companies at training or drills. Good initial and ongoing reports will ultimately lead to gaining control of chaotic emergency scenes–which is what we need to be all about.

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