Effective Communication Applications for Structural, ARFF Firefighting.

The question is why and how do we improve upon one of the most critical components in emergency response—communications. In this second installment of a multi-part series I will delve into the applications of the fire ground and ARFF communications models and will discuss what common features are present in each application and some differences that may be unique to the ARFF emergency response model.

In order to effectively communicate in the fire service a communications plan is necessary.

This method is commonly referred to as ICS which stands for Incident Command System.  The ICS was developed in the 1970s following a series of catastrophic fires in California’s urban interface. Property damage ran into the millions, and many people died or were injured.

This system evolved into the National Incident Management System and was adopted nationally in 2003 after the 9/11 attacks. It allows all municipalities, no matter their size, to use the same common framework and terminology for emergency response. This enables them to utilize it from small scale events and lets it expand into a complex organization system that can entail large scale, long-term events such as forest fires. The ICS system also allows different agencies to have the ability to communicate effectively using the same terminology and organizational structure to operate together effectively.

Salt Lake City International Airport (SLC) has adopted an Aircraft Accident Tactical Communications Plan to be utilized in the event there is an aircraft crash where the Department of Airports will be involved. It establishes an inter-local agreement with all agencies that may be involved in crash rescue efforts. It includes initial response entities, notifications, and establishes radio communications and assignments.

In conjunction with the communications plan, SLC operates under a Letter of Agreement which establishes operating procedures to be used in an aircraft emergency. This document defines what constitutes the Alert status, discreet frequency, resource identity, and staging areas. 

A communication plan allows all responding agencies and platoons to operate under a common response plan so that everyone is on the same page. It answers the questions: If you have multiple platoons do you all operate under the same game plan? Do you stage in the same pre-ordained spots? Do you refer to resources with the appropriate designation?

In a structure fire the same kind of template is used through our policies and procedures. Incident command is established and utilization of resources follow a common template for effectiveness, efficiency and safety. Response always begins with a pre plan. Are you familiar with your district? What type of occupancy is it? What time of day? Any special hazards to be aware of? These are the kind of questions we should ask ourselves on the initial dispatch. Once you arrive you will give a size up. For structure firefighting this will be the type of occupancy, construction, what is showing, evacuation in progress, and what your tactical decision will be.  We adopt the same approach as the ARFF would as well: Location, nature of emergency, type of aircraft, life safety, what is showing upon arrival, and what tactical mitigation efforts we will employ.

The common thing is we use the same type of communication in both types of emergency. I will give an example of what a typical response to a structure fire would be and then provide an example of an alert emergency for ARFF. Here we can compare both and see what if any elements may be different.

Structural Firefighting: Report of a structure fire at 200 North West Temple in Salt Lake City. The initial assignment is given. Engine 1 is responding. Once the first unit arrives they will establish command. Engine 1 has arrived and this will be North Temple command, Captain Harp will have it. We have a three-story apartment, ordinary construction, smoke showing from the third floor, evacuation in progress. We will have an offensive strategy and will be on fire attack interior from the A side which will be North Temple. Next in Engine secure a water supply. Truck 2 you will be ventilation group upon arrival. Engine 4 you will be search and rescue group 

ARFF Firefighting: We have an alert 2 on runway 34 L. WestAir 1245, a 737 with smoke showing from the #2 engine. 120 souls on board with 5,000 pounds of fuel. “Control, Fire West is responding.” As the responding officer we immediately switch to the discreet frequency so we can talk to the tower and the pilot. ARFF resources proceed to the staging areas and await arrival. Upon arrival the incident commander will conduct the size up. “Control we have a 737 with smoke showing from the #2 engine. This will be ARFF Command Captain Harp will have it. Red 6 upon your arrival I would like you to take the 12 o’clock position and protect egress routes. Red 4 take the 5 o’clock position prepare for a clean agent line deployment and provide protection to ground crews. Medic Unit 12 you will be Investigation/fire attack operating off of Red 4 with a clean agent line.” WestAir 1245 from ARFF Command: “We see smoke from your #2 engine, what are your conditions inside?” Pilot: “I have indication of #2 engine fire. We have activated our bottles and shut off the fuel lines. Cabin is clear and conditions are normal. Do you recommend evacuation?” WestAir 1245 from ARFF Command: “Let’s shelter in place for a moment and I believe we will have extinguishment and control shortly.”

Granted these scenarios could end up with quite different elements and outcomes but an important and essential part of mitigation is proper communication. One of the common things in both scenarios is the establishment of command using the ICS model. The aircraft is a structure. A proper size-up and communication of what we have will enable responding units to know what to expect upon arrival. Both scenarios demonstrate designated assignments by the incident commander. Unlike the structural example, in the ARFF example we established communication with the occupants. It is important that we communicate effectively with the pilot so we can employ the best options for mitigation and ensuring life safety. We want to get as much information as we can to ensure we are doing everything we can to properly mitigate the emergency.  

As with any skill it is important to practice the application of this communication skill through training. At the Salt Lake City International ARFF Training Center we focus a lot of our training on the tactical applications of our suppression units for aircraft-related firefighting. When we transition into interior operations we will utilize many of the objectives of a structural firefighting operation. These include benchmarks such as a “Primary” and “Secondary” search. The fire is “Under Control” and finally a “Loss Stopped”.

As an officer it is your responsibility to communicate effectively and clearly so your objectives and assignments can be understood. As a firefighter it is your responsibility to communicate performed tasks as assigned and objectives as they are reached. A simple way to communicate progress of an assignment is to utilize a CAAN report. Conditions, Actions, Air, and Needs.  For example.  We have a cargo fire on the right rear side of the aircraft. Heavy smoke conditions. Red 6 position for deployment of the HRET (high reach extendable turret). If you’re on air and/or in the hot zone, report your remaining air. Communicate your needs; “I need another crew with a hand line in place to complete extinguishment”.

We benefit by using these methods by not only meeting our needs but by painting an accurate picture for the incident commander and other units on the fire ground. Good communications should be incorporated into a plan and utilized on every incident, large or small, by doing so our fire ground communications will be more effective.


 About the Author:  Captain Michael Harp has been with the Salt Lake City Fire Department since 1997. He has served in a variety of roles within the fire department including Firefighter, Engineer, ARFF Captain, Media Technician and Public Information Officer (PIO). Mike currently serves as Captain working in Salt Lake City and has served as an officer for over 10 years. Captain Harp is an Instructor at the Salt Lake City ARFF Training Center. Captain Harp served with Utah Task Force 1 for 10 years and was deployed to New York following the September 11th attacks.