4 effective ways to improve fireground operations

Improving fireground operations can be done with efficient communication tools. This ensures that critical information is shared quickly when it's needed.

December 23, 2020

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As you know, firefighting is a vulnerable vocation. According to FEMA, over 60 firefighter fatalities have been reported as of August 2017.

A renewed focus on communication is one way to ensure safety. How you communicate can quite literally be a matter of life and death. For this reason, it is of utmost importance to be strategic when addressing your fireground operations and communications.

Sean Stumbaugh, the battalion chief with the Cosumnes Community Service District Fire Department in Elk Grove, California, says communication is a core aspect of reducing this number. It can also keep your daily fireground operations smooth.

“Standardizing communications is part of the ongoing effort to reduce the 100 line-of-duty fatalities the fire service suffers annually,” he wrote in Fire Engineering Magazine.

“A good communications plan helps us stay out of trouble and enhances accountability, coordination, and fireground skills. Effective communication is fundamental to a coordinated, successful attack.”

One of the most effective ways to improve fireground operations is to leverage new technology.

The right equipment can help firefighters relay important messages and keep track of one another. It can also ensure firefighters go into the situation with the information they need for maximum safety.

Beyond the technology itself, it is crucial to develop clear policies and procedures around its use.

For example, if you have all the latest cutting-edge technology but no one knows how to use it properly, it will do you no good.

Similarly, if you do not train your employees on best practices regarding technology use, you are at risk for compromising safety in vulnerable situations. Only when everyone is on the same page will your department perform safely and effectively on the field.

If you want to improve your firefighting strategies and tactics, start with how you communicate. Here are a few examples of new technology and best practices to help streamline fire communication.

1. Advanced radio technology

Radios have long been essential tools for fireground communication.

However, if departments are unable to communicate well from inside a fire, lives are on the line.

According to the United States Fire Administration (USFA), difficulty communicating with existing portable radios is the number one problem firefighters and company officers report.

Thankfully, new technology is much more reliable. More advanced radios are generally more reliable and able to do far more than just relay messages.

Along with introducing more water and heat-resistant designs, new technology has transformed radios into tools that can help with accountability on the scene of a fire.

Companies such as Motorola have developed radio command systems that can automatically report each firefighter’s radio ID and location. They can also show if a radio gets turned off, automatically inform commanders if a firefighter is in trouble, and allow the incident commander to send out an evacuation tone to every firefighter.


Of course, technology can only be helpful when we use it properly.

Departments should develop policies and protocols for radio use. This should also include training firefighters on the information they should send to command when they arrive at the fireground.

2. Standardized communication practices

More specifically, it is important to develop standard practices when it comes to how you use radio technology.

Radio policies should address standard codes for emergencies, missing firefighters, and other incidents. However, departments should train firefighters on clear communication first and foremost – codes can be difficult to keep track of during emergencies.

According to the USFA, “Fire departments can enhance fireground communication by creating standard message formats and keywords used consistently. Plain English is usually preferred over codes, especially when transmitting a complex message.”

There are many more ways to improve communication via radio.

Stumbaugh recommends developing a communication model that emphasizes confirmation of messages.

This should involve repeating the message to confirm understanding.

“The communicator wants to know not only that he was heard but also that he was understood. The simple practice (and it takes practice) of the recipient’s repeating the main points of the message confirms that the message has been understood,” he wrote.

Keep in mind that when sizing up the scene on your radio, it is important to be as detailed as possible and include action and assignment when you can.

Stumbaugh said another helpful tool for enhancing safety and operations is the acronym “OCAA”:

  • Object that has the problem: single-story residence, multistory, multifamily dwelling, vehicle, etc.
  • Condition of involved object: heavy black smoke, well-involved, nothing visible, etc.
  • Action you and your company intend to take: offensive fire attack, exposure protection, investigation, etc.
  • Assignment of incoming alarm companies to needed tasks: Level 1 stage, water supply, ventilation, traffic control, etc.

3. Incident command and GPS systems

When firefighters use them properly, the latest technology can help enhance situational awareness to keep everyone safe.

Tools like the Next-Generation Incident Command System (NICS) offer a higher view of command than other technology.

The Department of Homeland Security created NICS for rapid disaster response across agencies. Currently, at least 270 public safety agencies in California use NICS, most often for planning for and responding to wildfires.


From an operations perspective, NICS can greatly optimize fire responses.

This web-based tool gives firefighters a centralized location to access data from sensors as well as maps, weather, and infrastructure information. It can also provide real-time location for vehicles, team members and other firefighter resources.

Similarly, firefighters can use GPS systems on the ground during an incident to show routes, locate units and hydrants, geolocate firefighters on the scene, and predict wind and weather patterns. This way, firefighters would know ahead of time if they needed to evacuate.

When disaster strikes, communication within and between agencies is key. NICS is unique because it allows for collaboration.

Much like a whiteboard, any credentialed responder can view and markup NICS maps. This ensures the highest level of safety and the most up-to-date information for everyone involved.

4. Document management software

When it comes to ensuring effective communication on the scene of the fire, preparation is key. Having everything in one place can make a big difference.

Software such as PowerDMS also provides a centralized, accessible location to store building layouts and other firefighting pre-planning information.

Keeping files in a central location makes accessing these crucial documents easier, especially when on the field. It also saves time by preventing shuffling through file cabinets on site.

When firefighters have quick, convenient access to information they need, they will be much more likely to retain important information.

Only when your team knows where to find and how to access documents will they be able to apply it when it matters most.

A document management software can also keep firefighters up to date on policies and procedures by distributing updates, testing understanding and requiring sign-offs.

With this functionality, you will be able to quickly see who signed off on what, ensuring everyone is on the same page.

Document management software like PowerDMS also enables you to train your department.

When you implement new technology or develop a corresponding protocol, you will want to make sure everyone knows how to use it. PowerDMS’ training functionality takes the guesswork out of the equation.

Not only can you train your firefighters, but you can also quickly ensure they retain knowledge by creating custom tests. In addition, you will save on unnecessary expenses like classrooms, instructors and training materials.


A step toward safety and efficiency

Establishing a higher standard of safety and efficiency is important for everyone in your department.

Investing in the right tools can be one way to get there. If you use it well, technology can drastically improve fireground communication, helping departments run smoothly, respond to incidents efficiently and keep their communities and their firefighters safe.

However, it is important to remember that technology is just one step. Only when everyone on your team uses your tools correctly will you optimize operations for everyone.

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