Over and over again, in critiques of emergency scene operations, in discussions about our bosses and colleagues, and in our lives in general, complaints about communications problems abound: “We never hear anything”; “they don’t communicate enough”; “we get lots of useless memos/e-mails from headquarters”; “all they do is talk”; and so on and so forth.
Communication is key to managing an emergency scene, just like it’s key to managing many other things. Baseball teams have signs—signs from the catcher to the pitcher, from the dugout to the runners or fielders, from the coaches to the batter, etc. And they camouflage their signs by mixing in “fake” signs, making it harder for the opposing team to figure out the plan. Football teams also use signs, and signals are “called” in the huddle and at the line of scrimmage.
When football and baseball teams’ communications work well, it makes for a well strategized game, but when they fail, it can quickly get ugly. The same is true on the emergency scene. Firefighters are doers—we like to get our hands dirty and get stuff done—but we often forget to communicate much about what we’re doing and how we’re doing it. Sure, there are a few people who just like to hear themselves talk on the radio about this or that (I may have been accused of this on occasion), but many others just go in, get the job done, and hope that the incident commander (IC) or group or division supervisor notices the smoke color changing to grey or the victims being carried out the door as their way of communicating progress. The point: We need to do a better job of maintaining ongoing size-up and communications on scene to improve situational awareness—but without jamming up the radio frequencies so no one else can get through.
In this article, I’ll discuss two different types of radio reports that should be made on scene, as well as why these communications are important and how they benefit firefighters on the fireground.
Initial-Arriving Radio Report
Upon arrival, your first task is to conduct a size-up of the incident and report that information back to command. Example: Recently, my department responded to a house/garage fire. The police arrived first and reported the garage to be “well involved.” That was a good start—it gave us an indication en route that this was more than just an odor of smoke or a sparking electrical outlet. It also added a rapid intervention team (RIT) unit and a paramedic ambulance to what some call a “working fire dispatch.”
Shortly thereafter, our deputy chief arrived, conducted a size-up and reported a 4,000-square-foot house with a three-car, attached garage fully involved in fire, with extension into the house. This painted a good picture for me, serving as IC, as to the conditions we were facing.
This particular part of our coverage area does not have hydrants, but it does have many large homes. We already had two tenders on the road headed toward the incident with 6,500 gallons of water between them, but our deputy wisely requested two more—giving us 9,000 gallons between the engines and tenders on the scene and another 5,500 gallons en route. This report also generated automatic “move-ups” by the dispatch center.
The deputy then advised the two engines already on scene to stretch two lines to the interior of the home to cut off the fire spread into the house. He also advised that they put a third line to a window of the garage to knock down the fire there and further protect against fire spread into the home. In short, good initial reporting led to good decision-making and a good outcome of the event. By the end of the incident, our goal of holding the fire to the area involved on arrival was met, with only one very minor injury to a responder.
Why Use Progress Reports?
Progress reports provide three critical benefits during an emergency: First, they allow a firefighter to provide a clear picture of what’s happening in their part of the incident to whoever is listening in on the other end of the radio, which includes all the other units/supervisors that may be monitoring that particular radio channel. This helps everyone on scene get a better handle on the “big picture” and what’s happening elsewhere on the incident scene.
Second, and a somewhat less obvious benefit, is that formulating the report helps the person giving that report to develop a complete understanding of what’s happening. With that understanding, they can organize a clear, concise picture of the incident and the emergency activity that’s occurring, which they can then effectively communicate to their supervisor.
Finally, these reports allow the supervisor and/or IC to continue to gain an understanding of what’s happening so that they can determine if the incident is expanding or contracting, and if additional resources will be needed.
Keep ’Em Comin’
To be most effective on the fireground, ongoing progress reports, or “Conditions, Actions, Needs” (CAN) reports must be given. Many departments use the CAN model and it’s as easy as it sounds. First, report the conditions observed (briefly), then the actions being taken at the time and what you’ll need going forward in terms of staffing, resources, etc.
But remember, firefighters are busy and don’t necessarily like to make the time to talk about what they’re doing. It’s also not easy for them to take their hands off their hoseline, saw, pike pole or other tool to give a report of what’s going on. At the very least, crews performing a specific task need to notify their “boss” when that task is completed. Key benchmarks (i.e., water on the fire, knockdown, search complete, ventilation complete, etc.) might also be useful to communicate, which could be something as simple as, “Engine 5 has reached the 14th floor, hooking up to the standpipe.”
But ongoing, regular progress reports assist the IC in determining what support resources they might need. If crews on the interior are working hard, reserve personnel need to be staged and ready to go to work when the interior crews get gassed and need to come out. If the incident occurs during freezing weather, and water is flowing, salt/sand crews may be needed. Extended operations during any type of extreme weather, particularly hot weather, may necessitate calling for rehab resources. If resources will be committed for any period of time, move-up companies may be requested. If an evacuation is needed, support from EMS and/or the Red Cross will likely be needed, and both of these resources can take time to mobilize. In a rescue situation, where unusual equipment such as a crane is being considered for use, this also needs to be communicated so arrangements can be made to not only mobilize this equipment, but to transport it to the incident site.
When to Report?
Some departments’ standard operating guidelines call for progress reports every 10, 15 or 20 minutes during ongoing incidents that have not yet been placed under control. NFPA 1500: Standard on Fire Department Occupational Safety and Health Program (2007 edition) calls for dispatch centers to make notifications to the IC in 10-minute intervals until the incident is controlled. This notification should drive both incident scene updates and personnel accountability report (PAR) communications.
Once the dispatch center makes the notification to the IC, this can be the impetus for the IC to check with each branch, division or group for progress reports. This helps to ensure that the folks operating on the scene take a moment or two to give an update on their operation and progress.
These simple communications should be practiced in the station, as well as during drills or other training exercises. During these exercises, take the time to discuss the effectiveness of the communication, and coach less experienced members on what you’re looking for in your progress reports.
Over & Out
Radio reports don’t need to be fancy, but they do need to paint an accurate picture of what’s happening. An accurate report will help the IC better organize the fireground, monitor assigned companies (divisions/groups), track accountability and determine support resources. Reports also allow communications centers and mutual-aid organizations to anticipate and prepare for any needed assistance that could be requested.
As always, training is crucial to developing effective radio reports. As personnel improve their progress reporting, departments will find ongoing improvements to their fireground operations.
Make no mistake about it, doing the job is always more important than talking about it. However, providing detailed initial-arriving radio reports and ongoing progress reports should be an integral part of each department’s emergency operations.
Jakubowski’s Training Resources
- The Sourcebook for Fire Company Training Evolutions 3rd Ed.
- FEMA’s Learning Resource Center. This is a great resource to research all sorts of fire service topics.
- NFA Trade Repository