Canadian Firefighter Magazine

Back to Basics: Desensitizing firefighters – Communication

By Mark van der Feyst   

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Photo: Mark van der Feyst

As we continue to look at how firefighters become de-sensitized, we are going to deal with the topic of communications on the fire ground. This is one main area that always requires constant attention and improvement from all involved. With every LODD Report, one consistent recommendation is regarding communications. Let’s look at some common issues that are consistently present on the fire ground.

Active listening

Active listening is a skill that needs to be exercised when using any type or brand of portable radio. There is so much chatter that takes place over the portable radio that sometimes people tend to miss key information or when they are called by someone else. Distractions can certainly occur on the fire ground which will cause a person to not be listening actively.

When the incident commander is bombarded with calls on the radio as well as firefighters wanting face-to-face time, it is very easy to miss information coming through the radio. On the flip side, when the firefighter or officer is intently focused on a certain task or issue, they too will block out or not hear the radio and will miss key communications.

Active listening requires intently listening to the radio – it is devoting your full attention to hearing what is being transmitted over the airwaves. Officers assigned to a crew and RIT teams will be the ones who should be actively listening to the radio; pump operators/drivers also need to be doing this so that they can support interior crews with what they need before it’s asked for by Command or accountability officers/ISO.


Missing information

Missing information occurs when a member transmits a message but does not include all the information. This can be due to not thinking about what needs to be said before transmitting or from improper keying of the radio which cuts out parts of the message. The latter is the more common mistake made by most users – they start speaking too quickly before keying the mic or they cut themselves off too quickly before finishing.

There needs to be exercised restraint when it comes to using the portable radio by each person.

A good rule to remember is key 1-2-3; key the mic, count 1-2-3 and then start speaking. This will ensure that the entire message will be captured and transmitted.

No control

Ultimately, there is too much chatter on the radio. Some individuals love to talk on the portable radio; every chance they get, they will key the mic and send a message across. Sometimes the message they’re sending is not that urgent or relevant to the situation and yet it gets transmitted, tying up the radio from somebody else who needs to send an important message or request.

There needs to be exercised restraint when it comes to using the portable radio by each person. Firefighters and officers need to learn that the portable radio is not a personal DJ radio mic; it is a lifeline for each person who has one with them.

For those people who are prone to abusing the portable radio, perhaps removing the radio from them is the best solution. This will show them that they need to exercise restraint when using the radio while at the same time freeing up airtime for the remaining members who need it.

The five C’s of radio communications

The essential elements of effective incident scene communications fall into five categories. Understanding these attributes of successful communication and engaging in the suggested strategies will enhance the overall communication on the emergency incident scene.


  • Keep the messages short. This will help in reducing radio traffic.
  • Keep the messages specific. Think about what you want to say before you speak.
  • Condense the message as much as you can while keeping it complete. This will help in eliminating any confusion by the receiver.


  • Use standard terms as defined in your department’s procedures. This will avoid any confusion on the incident scene.
  • Use plain-text language in all radio communications. Avoid using ten-codes, acronyms or technical jargon.
  • Avoid multitasking. Describe and assign one task at a time to company members. Do not overload a company with multiple tasks to be completed at one time.


  • Calmly communicate on the radio. This helps to maintain calmness on the scene and does not create or add to hysteria.
  • Be audibly received. Speak in a voice loud enough to be heard by the receiver. Do not speak in soft tones or yell into the radio.
  • Use a good vocal pitch to communicate, as this will help to be audibly received.


  • Take control of the radio communications on the incident scene. Follow established departmental procedures and protocols.
  • Minimize unnecessary radio chatter. Prioritize messages to be sent and received.
  • Keep your emotions in check. This will help with establishing confidence and allow for more sensible direction to be given.


  • Use active listening skills. Be sure to hear all the messages that are being transmitted to you. This may require being in a quiet place versus being outside near a working engine.
  • Know how to use the communications equipment. Know where to hold the radio or microphone in relation to your mouth, SCBA face piece, or other radios nearby that may produce feedback.

Mark van der Feyst has been in the fire service since 1999 and is currently a firefighter with the FGFD. Mark is an international instructor teaching in Canada, the United States and India, and at FDIC. He is the lead author of the Residential Fire Rescue & Tactical Firefighter books. He can be contacted at

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