Let’s face it, the U.S. fire service is the most technologically advanced fire service in the world. We have the latest equipment, established incident command systems, set standards, and for the most part, a strong emphasis on training–and yet, a significant number of firefighters are injured and killed every year. Why? Because we’ve failed to understand how human error contributes to mishaps on the fireground.
It has been shown that 85% of all mishaps can be attributed to human error.1 However, there is a way to minimize human error on the fireground: crew resource management (CRM) or threat and error management.
According to the International Association of Fire Chiefs, “Crew resource management (CRM) is the effective use of all resources to minimize errors, improve safety and improve performance.”1 Several books have been written on the subject for the fire service, many of which are based on lessons learned from parallel industries, such as commercial aviation, the medical industry and the military. The wildland firefighting community has also conducted a considerable amount of research and implemented programs to reduce human error during wildland firefighting operations.
So why should we embrace CRM? Point of fact: All of the parallel industries listed above have reduced mishaps significantly by focusing on reducing human error.
5 Critical Factors
The process of CRM focuses on improving five critical factors that can lead to a reduction of errors. Those factors are:
- Situational awareness;
- Teamwork; and
- Overcoming communication barriers.1
Communication is the foundation of an effective CRM process. Communications must focus on the three Cs of communication: clear, concise, with confirmation. Consider the following example:
Command: “Engine 31 from command.”
Engine 31: “Engine 31 command, go ahead.”
Command: “Engine 31, pull a line to the front door and attack the fire on side A.”
E 31: “Engine 31, check.”
What did Engine 31 hear? In this instance, command has no idea if E 31 understood what they were saying. E 31 should have repeated back the order: “Command from E 31, understood; pull a line to side A and attack the fire.”
In their book, “Crew Resource Management for the Fire Service,” authors Thomas Lubnau and Randy Okray describe situational awareness (SA) as “recognizing situations as they actually exist.”2 They go on to say that during firefighting operations, incident commanders (ICs) and officers need to be aware of three things, “the fire, the plan and the people,” and they must develop the skills necessary to maintain SA, which include “monitoring, evaluating, anticipating and considering.” 2
Next, ICs must be able to make critical decisions, sometimes with very little information. To do this well, you must have experience on the fireground and/or exceptional training (simulations and tactical decision games). The use of acronyms, such as RECEO VS (Rescue, Exposure, Confine, Extinguish, Overhaul and Ventilate, Salvage), checklists and timers can also improve tactical and strategic decision-making.
Most experienced ICs use recognition- primed decision-making (RPD), a process that looks for the first solution to a problem. Most of the time, this is done intuitively and based on previous experiences or training.
I think we can all agree that firefighting is a team sport. This concept should be carried over to the decision-making process as well, meaning all players should interact either face-to-face or over the radio, to ensure critical information on conditions, actions and needs (CAN reports) is relayed and fully informed decisions are being made.
On the fireground, everyone must be a safety officer of sorts, looking out for their own safety, as well as the safety of their team. If you believe your safety may be jeopardized or you disagree with an order, however, this doesn’t mean you should ignore the order or circumvent the chain of command. Instead, engage in respectful and heedful interactions, a technique known as advocacy:
- Opening/attention–Say the person’s name.
- State concern/owned emotion–“I’m very uncomfortable with ….” Then state the problem as you see it, real or perceived.
- Offer a solution–“I think we should ….” This is a major key to a successful outcome.
- Obtain agreement– ask “What do you think?”1
This interaction respects and recognizes authority, and works toward a solution to a real or perceived problem. This is critical to effective and safe fireground operations.
Overcoming Communications Barriers
To overcome communications barriers, firefighters must realize that they exist. Conditions during emergencies undoubtedly challenge one’s ability to communicate effectively. One major problem on the fireground is noise, both ambient (sirens, power tools, radio traffic) and internal (stress, physical issues, prejudices and machismo). Most of these exist on every fireground; often, there’s a combination of several noises going on at one time, making communication even more difficult. The question is, how do you overcome it? The answer: Become a proactive listener! Not sure how to do it? Follow these simple steps:
- Use all of your senses to stay focused on the sender.
- Make eye contact with the sender.
- Suppress filters that affect listening, such as personal prejudices, preconceived opinions and gossip.
- Repeat the sender’s message to confirm understanding.
- Create an environment conducive to communication (move away from the command net radios so you can hear a face-to-face conversation).1
CRM is a process that can dramatically improve fireground safety. According to Lubnau and Okray, CRM is a “force multiplier.” It focuses on human factors and improving skills in communications, gaining and maintaining situational awareness, decision-making, teamwork, and overcoming communications barriers.
If you’re unsure about the validity and/or success of CRM and threat and error management, keep in mind that it has been purported by the National Firefighter Near Miss Reporting System as a way to reduce line-of-duty deaths. The message: If you implement these processes into your training programs, they will easily transfer over to the fireground, which will help ensure your safety and the safety of your team.
- International Association of Fire Chiefs. Crew Resource Management: A Positive Change for the Fire Service [Brochure]. 2002. Fairfax, VA.
- Lubnau II, T, & Okray, R. Crew Resource Management for the Fire Service. Tulsa, OK: Penn Well Corporation, 2004.