Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Scene Size-Up and Stress-Tempered Communication

Here's an interesting comment I found in the USFA's Technical Report Series on Improving Fireground Communications (USFA-TR-099/January 1999) (PDF):

"There is a dearth of available literature pertaining to the impact of human facts on effective fireground communication […] while fire departments devote substantial time to manipulative skill training, relatively little training is provided to help firefighters develop stress-tempered communication skills."

What does "stress-tempered" mean?

If something is tempered (like tempered glass or steel) then it is made hard, flexible, or resilient by heat and/or chemical treatment.

Quite simply, stress-tempered communication is communication under stress.

What is stress?

Stress is biological reaction to fear. It's the "fight or flight" syndrome sometimes referred to as the adrenal state.

The adrenal state was quite helpful a million years ago, and in some situations it is still helpful. However, in emergency work the adrenal state can be debilitating.

The adverse consequences of the adrenal state are well documented. They include:

  • Impaired cognitive function
  • Loss of fine motor skills
  • Loss of peripheral vision (tunnel vision)
  • Auditory exclusion (loss of hearing)
  • Time distortions (time slows down or speeds up)

In short, during the adrenal state, your brain reverts to a more primitive mode. I've adopted the term "monkey brain" to describe this phenomenon (credit to Dog Brothers Martial Arts).

When that happens, you fall back on your training. Good habits and bad.

This is one of the main reasons I believe in reality-based training. If you practice without your gear on, or practice without masking up, putting on your flash hood, donning your gloves, checking your partner, flaking out the line, charging the line, bleeding the line, checking the pattern, making entry, controlling the door, popping a ceiling tile, using the TIC, and so on, then you shouldn't be surprised if your crew forgets any of these basics on the fireground!

What does this have to do with scene size-up?

Have you ever wondered why an otherwise good officer arrives on scene and forgets to give a brief initial report? Gives an incomplete report? Forgets to take command? Fails to announce the strategic mode? Doesn't hear the battalion chief calling them on the radio?

It's easy when you're sitting around the kitchen table. It's another matter to be woken up from deep sleep and pull up in front of a raging fire 5 minutes later.

Now imagine a woman in her nightgown reporting a missing child.

Adrenal state? Check.

How do you develop stress-tempered communication skills?

The answer is, you identify the expected performance, simulate the stressful stimulus, and repeat the desired behavior over and over again until it becomes second-nature.

Can you really simulate that kind of stress?

You can come close. One thing I've noticed about firefighters is that they don't want to look foolish in front of their peers.

Collect some photos of fires in various stages of burning. Post them into PowerPoint. Give each firefighter a radio and put them on a "talk-around" channel (this is critical). Tell them that all of the incidents will take place on "Maple Street".

You can find some excellent photos in Christopher Naum's "Five Minutes in the Street" and "Ten Minutes in the Street" series at Firefighter Nation (see examples here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, and here).

When it's their turn in the hot seat, give them 5 seconds to digest the photo and make them give a brief initial report on the radio.

By making them key up the mic in front of their peers, you will avoid the situation in which the firefighter talks to himself.

For example:

"Okay.... let's see.... it's a single story woodframe residential..... Okay...... There's smoke showing...... From side..... Well, fire and smoke...... Would you mention the cars in the driveway?"

Forget all that.

There's no time to talk to yourself when you give a scene size-up on the radio in middle of the night, so when you practice this skill, make them key up the mic and give the complete size-up, warts and all, until they are done! Then discuss what you would have done.

I make each member of my crew hit 5 bullet points in order (this can be customized to your department but you should make them do it in the order you prescribe because it makes them think under pressure and repetition is the mother of learning).

Here are the points I make them hit.

  • Identify your unit
  • What do you have?
  • Establish or pass command
  • Announce the strategic mode
  • Declare a working incident if appropriate

It should sound something like this:

"Dispach, Engine 1 is on location. We have a large 2-story woodframe residential structure with cars in the driveway. We have smoke and fire showing from 2 windows, Division 2, A-D corner. Engine 1 is establishing Maple Street Command. We're in the offensive strategy. This is a working incident."

When they're done, you can critique the size-up based on your departments SOGs.

Make them do it again. And again. And again. Until it's perfect. Then pass the radio to the next guy.

Does this put people on the spot? Yes!

Do firefighters like that? No!

Do it anyway.

I've noticed a dramatic improvement in my crew's ability to give a brief initial report, and I feel better about it, too.

Am I saying that I couldn't pull up in front of a fire next shift and screw it all up? Of course not! There's a fire out there that could make a "monkey" out of any of us.

On the other hand, the odds of my performing a good scene size-up and giving an accurate and concise brief initial report has gone up considerably because I've done my part to help develop stress-tempered communication skills.

Give it a try and let me know your experiences!


  1. This approach is critical to all emergency respodners. It is very easy to take dispatch information and allow it to cloud your mind and give you tunnel vision.

    My time tested mantra is that running will only accomplish 2 things-prove how fat you are and prove the sky is blue when you are on your back facing up. Exit truck. Step out. WALK. Form impression!

  2. Medic(three) -

    Running can indeed prove how fat someone is! :)

    Excellent point!