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by the NFCC

Interpersonal communication

This section should be read in conjunction with the control measure: Interpersonal communication

The purpose of communication is to provide another person with information. This typically involves three factors:

  • The meaning of the message from the sender
  • The actual message passed
  • The meaning of the message as understood by the recipient

The commander should be aware of their own assumptions and those of the person with whom they are communicating. They should test assumptions and make information clear. They should make sure the other person has accurately understood the message.

Communication at an incident may be one-way or two-way.

There are times when direct one-way communication is appropriate. The sender will deliver a message with no opportunity for feedback. This form of communication is rapid and puts the sender in control of the message. However, the lack of feedback from the recipient means that they cannot confirm their understanding.

Two-way communication offers the receiver the opportunity to feed back to the sender; information flows between them. While this often takes longer than one-way communication, it can be more accurate because it provides an opportunity to confirm the intended meaning.

It is important to maintain open and effective communications. There may be many lines of communication and they are a major aid to control. Examples include direct or indirect reports from personnel, crews or sectors.

Other emergency services, assisting agencies and fire control rooms will also be communicating. When assessing the span of control, the management of communications should also be considered, taking into account the pressure this may put on a commander. It is critical to share communications in a way that will support a common picture of the incident.

The commander should be able to cope with the flow of information. It is important to limit direct communication and information flows to manageable levels. Failure to keep communication manageable can have a negative effect at an incident. It could result in poor communication of risk-critical information, or overlooking it.

It is best to keep the span of control for tactical roles as narrow as possible. Commanders should limit their span of control to the number of individuals to whom they can give enough attention.

Effective communication is fundamental to achieving successful and safe resolution of incidents. It provides the commander with knowledge about the situation and progress of tasks. Obtaining accurate and timely information is crucial to underpin situational awareness and subsequent decision-making. It helps the commander perform the role in a confident and determined manner and thereby assert their leadership and authority.

Communication is vital for co-ordinating activities, completing tasks and handover of command. Sharing accurate and timely information is also critical for helping others to have a common understanding of the situation, what is happening and what needs to happen next. Even the most effective plans will only work if the people putting them into practice understand them.

Communication helps develop and maintain shared situation awareness across a command team and with responders from other agencies. For example, a common understanding of the situation, what is happening, and what needs to happen next, is particularly important at major incidents involving multiple agencies. Likewise, it is important to obtain an accurate assessment of the needs of all agencies to develop an effective incident plan.

As well as exchanging information, good communication helps to establish trust and build relationships. This is important to enable individuals to be effective in carrying out their tasks to resolve the incident. Commanders should be aware that effective communication is essential for good leadership and makes it easier for people to follow instructions, understand briefings and have confidence in what is being stated.

The manner in which a commander communicates influences the perception of their competence, confidence and trustworthiness. A commander who communicates confidently and in a calm manner when under pressure will instil trust and confidence in others, enable them to understand the situation they are confronted with, make them more resilient to pressure and less likely to operate outside of the incident plan.

Even the most effective plans will only work if the people putting them into practice understand them. Commanders should be aware that messages are not always understood in the way they are intended. Problems with messages arise because the sender often assumes the person receiving their communication has gained the same understanding. Sometimes this is not the case, because the person receiving the message extracts meaning in a way that makes sense to them.

Fire and rescue services must provide effective training and development programmes to ensure commanders are able to develop and practice their interpersonal communication skills. Assessment processes and exercises should assess the effectiveness of an individual's ability to communicate effectively and provide constructive feedback to promote learning.