A process by which information is exchanged between individuals through a common system of symbols, signs, or behavior. It can be categorized into four types including verbal, non-verbal, visual and written. The answer? Communication. Firefighters are surrounded by all forms of communication and quality exchange of information can drastically change an outcome of a call. Just the same, miscommunication can have grave affects on the outcome of emergency situations. When picking up take-out food that was previously called in, it has become standard to check the order before leaving the restaurant as miscommunication during ordering is not uncommon. While this example is perhaps insignificant in the grand scheme, the same simple miscommunication of even one word between emergency personnel can be detrimental, causing events to spiral. For example, what could be the difference between hearing pop the door when the message was stop at the door. It should not be a goal to ensure quality communication on the fire-ground but should be viewed as a lifesaving necessity.

A fire scene consists as multiple people, of multiple ranks, and multiple tasks being done simultaneously requiring coordinated efforts and effective communication. To ensure effective communication, consistent training is imperative. One break in the chain, which could be one change in the personnel (possibly a new hire) can alter the communication link. Simple differences in people such as gender, age, and education can alter communication skills – both giving and receiving.

To maximize communication, the sender of information should consider the three C’s – clear, concise, and complete. Using these tactics can simplify personal biases and barriers as mentioned above. Clear communication is establishing words, signals, and gestures that are understood by the person giving the information as well as the person receiving the information. Concise is the amount of words, signals, and gestures in order to relay information. Complete communication emphasizes the message is understood ensuring everyone is on the same page. Parroting the message is essential for confirming the communication is complete; in other words, repeat the message.

The truth is, we all acknowledge communication is imperative and while communication suggestions can be researched, the barriers of personal biases and regional differences will alter suggestions of those communication tactics. The best way to perfect communication within your department is training. The best way to train to improve communication is by playing games of course! Most training officers focus on the meat and potatoes of training – ladders, ropes, and hoses but communication training should be considered just as important. There are many communication game ideas’ out there but here are a few that have been proven to be helpful as well as fun, and they are at little to no cost.

Communication origami
Hand out a blank piece of paper and have everyone sit in the same room where they cannot see others paper. Give a series of instructions, without allowing any questions to be asked, including but not limited to fold your piece of paper in half, turn it upside down, fold one corner to the opposite corner, etc. After several folds, you will find the papers may look differently. Pass out a second sheet of paper and this time, give very specific instructions, such as fold the paper in half long ways from left to right and allow questions from the participants. The goal is to have all the papers look the same.

Lego Language
This game can be developed from simple and complex. Start by crafting a Lego model and do not allow anyone to see the finished design. Separate into teams of two or three and provide each team with necessary Lego’s to complete the model. The person that constructed the model will them give the teams instructions to build the model by radio, not sharing what the final product should look like. The person giving instructions will realize their instructions, thought of as clean and obvious, can be taken in more ways than one.

Lego Language 2
This time separate into three groups in which one group will be the command center, the second group is logistics and operations are the third group. In preparation for the drill, create a structure using the Legos which will be given to the command group. Provide the logistics group with the same Legos that were used to build the model but in single form. (Option: give additional Lego’s to the logistics group that isn’t used to build the model). Separate into different rooms and only communicate by radios. The command center and logistics cannot communicate with each other. The operations team communicates with command to receive instructions and communicates with logistics to place orders. (Option: only allow 5 pieces to be ordered at once and/or limit the amount of orders). You will find the shapes, sizes and colors of the Lego pieces will cause confusion.

Shape Communication
Separate into teams of three or four and identify one team member as the command center, the rest as the entry team. Set up this drill by using duct tape to create 4 symbols on the floor of a room or bay in the firehouse, not allowing anyone to see the design prior. The symbols are a triangle, square, circle and X. Make the symbols at least two feet by two feet and all similar in size. Give the command center a piece of paper and pen and separate them into another room only having contact to the entry team by radio.

Allow the entry team into the space where the symbols have been taped on the floor. Inform the team they are in a building fire with thick smoke and cannot see anything other than the floor where the symbols are. They cannot orient to windows and doors or use cardinal directions. The entry team must describe what they see, and the command center is to draw symbols being described on the paper.

Shape Communication 2
After completing the task above, add location points onto the command centers drawing, one on each symbol by placing a dot on a corner of each. Give the entry team four traffic cones. Request the command center instruct the entry team to place the cones on the location points.

Allow your team to discover what communication style, method and language works for them. You will begin to better understand what does not work, such as using clock positions, left/right or directions such as north/south followed by developing a method that does work.

These games may seem simple but they will emphasize the importance of effective communication. When a situation ends badly, it almost always includes lack of communication. In firefighting, this can be devastating – if not deadly.