The aim at every incident is to integrate communications and decision making between the incident commander and operational personnel.
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.
An incident commander 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 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. Incident commanders should check the other person's understanding of important messages.
The incident commander should be aware of both 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 communication: there are times when direct one-way communication may be 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. But the lack of feedback from the recipient means that they cannot confirm their understanding
- Two-way communication: this offers the receiver the opportunity to feedback to the sender. Information flows between them. Whilst this often takes longer than one-way communication it can be more accurate because it provides an opportunity to confirm the intended meaning
Communication at incidents can occur in different forms: verbal, non-verbal (mobile data terminals, internet, for example) and written (e.g. SSRI, tactical fire plans, standard operating procedures).
The incident commander should consider how people will perceive non-verbal communication. Non-verbal communication is important when briefing crews or liaising with other agencies. They should consider it carefully when they interact with members of the public in an emergency situation as these people may be highly sensitive to the emotional states of others. The incident commander's non-verbal behaviour should match their message.
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 individuals, crews or sectors.
Other parties will also be communicating: Emergency services, assisting agencies and fire control rooms. When assessing the span of control, they should consider how to manage communications, taking into account the pressure this may put on an incident 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 both 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. They should not give individuals so many aspects that they cannot give them enough attention.
Some qualities of effective communication include:
- Information is received and confirmed as being from a reliable and credible source before being acted on
- Information is clear, avoiding ambiguity by using commonly understood terms. This is especially important when working with other agencies. For other agencies some terms might have different meanings
- Information is relevant, appropriate and concise. Incorrect information can overload the receiver and the meaning can be lost
- Information exchange is timely. To avoid distractions from critical tasks, commanders should consider how urgent the information is and the reader's current tasks
- Understanding is confirmed, preventing misunderstanding and differences in shared situation awareness
- Assumptions are questioned. Senders and receivers of information may have assumptions about the information. Incident commanders should question and clear up assumptions. This will help to make sure what they say is what the other person hears and understands
- There is a clear benefit to being assertive to clarify meaning and test assumptions. Both confidence and status can affect the ability to be assertive under pressure
- The environment at an incident can make it harder to communicate. Noise, adverse weather conditions and heightened levels of activity can be distracting and make listening difficult. Preconceptions about the status of the person who is communicating may also affect listening
- Words and behaviours are matched. People are constantly communicating, even when not using words. When verbal and non-verbal messages match, it helps people to make sense of the message. For example, a calm approach reinforces a reassuring message
When establishing an effective communication strategy incident commanders should consider key principles. Because of differing sizes, types and locations of incidents, the format of a communication structure and strategy will undoubtedly differ, but key questions should be considered:
- Is the communication structure and strategy to be applied, appropriate for the incident, effective and resilient?
- Is the information received in support of the incident accurate, appropriate and timely?
- Is the information from a reliable credible source?
- Is there a security requirement of the information received and what is the appropriate method for the communication and maintenance of this?
- Who needs to be informed of the information, and how?
- What is the relevance of the information?
Establish effective arrangements for communication. A good flow of information is one of the most important assets on the incident ground. An incident commander should make sure that they can:
- Gather information
- Issue orders to personnel
- Receive situation reports from all areas, including sector commanders
- Assess and provide for the needs of other agencies
- Carry out a risk assessment and add this to the briefing on arrival. Crews will be briefed about the tasks they need to perform and the hazards and risks they face. Briefing crews thoroughly is essential to share any safety critical information.
Incident commanders may also hold briefings on the way to an incident. The extent of the briefing will depend on an incident's type and scale. Where crews have little experience or there is high risk then a comprehensive brief may be needed.
Debrief crews that have withdrawn from a working area during an incident - debriefs are a good source of safety information and this should not be overlooked.
Incident commanders should also:
- Gather information, issue orders and receive situation reports
- Assess the needs of other agencies and plan to meet them
- Establish suitable arrangements for communications (usually the role of command support, under guidance of the incident commander):
- Establish communication links with fire and rescue service control
- Ensure they correctly assign radio channels and call signs
- Establish communications with other agencies
- Establish communications with sector commanders and other command support functions to receive regular situation reports
- Ensure sector commanders can communicate between themselves
- Use local systems; some new and complex buildings and structures, including those extending underground, have communication systems installed for use by emergency services
Failure of communication
Communication can fail when information is not shared at the right time or is not understood by the receiver. This can lead to:
- Incorrect or inappropriate information being used to assess a situation, resulting in poor individual situational awareness. This can lead to inconsistent shared situational awareness
- Incorrect or inappropriate information leading to a faulty perception of events unfolding. This may result in the wrong decisions being taken for the actual situation
- Failure to co-ordinate team activities, causing task conflicts between fire and rescue service teams or with other agencies
- 'Freelancing' because of a breakdown in leadership and followership
- Increased risk of accidents because risk-critical information is not shared or understood
Throughout all aspects of communication, fire and rescue services and their employees need to be aware of the potential for misuse of information and mindful of the legal requirements placed on them in by the Data Protection Act 1998 and the Freedom of Information Act 2000.