When Minutes Count: Communicating Through Crisis

On July 25, 2008, in the Dutch Creek Incident in northern California, an 8-foot branch fell on an 18-year-old firefighter, crushing his leg and cutting his femoral artery. The subsequent investigation report transcribed the radio communication sent from the accident site: “Man down. Man down. We need help. Medical emergency. Broken leg. Bleeding. Drop point 72. Call 911. We need help.”

However, the message the dispatch operator passed on to the sheriff’s office was, “Sounds like a broken leg.” Because the message was distorted as it passed from one communicator to another, paramedics who arrived at the scene carried only equipment to treat a fracture, not severe bleeding. Although this initial failure of communication was just part of what went wrong that day, by the time the injured firefighter arrived at the hospital, he had lost too much blood and was pronounced dead.

My area of teaching and research, organizational communication, focuses on language use and organizational culture, and the impact of both on organizations, people and work. In my research, I have begun to focus on radio communication within wildland firefighting. Firefighting organizations are called high-reliability organizations (HROs), where even the smallest error may have serious consequences, and where risk is intrinsic to the work environment.

In 2012, through the Slane College of Communications and Fine Arts and the Office of Teaching Excellence and Faculty Development at Bradley, I traveled to Sydney to present a paper on radio misunderstandings at the International Association of Wildland Firefighting. The Dutch Creek Incident described above was one of the radio misunderstandings analyzed in that paper. That led to a journal article and a research grant on which I work with four others: Dr. Anne Black from the Rocky Mountain Research Station in Missoula, Montana; Dave Thomas, former regional fire manager, trainer and consultant in high-reliability practices; Dr. Jennifer Ziegler, associate professor of organizational communication and dean of the graduate school at Valparaiso University; and Dr. Rebekah Fox, assistant professor of communication at Texas State University.

Funded by the interagency Joint Fire Science Program (a research funding arm of the U.S. Forest Service), the grant seeks to benefit members of interagency wildland fire communities and the research community. The goal of our multiple-university research project is to understand how people in different locations make sense of an incident; opportunities and constraints in communicating risk within current radio practices; and how interactions in the field are shaped by available technologies.

This is a productive and busy year for our grant team. In February, we observed an S-520 Advanced Incident Management simulation in Tucson, Arizona, for leaders who seek to become part of Type I Incident Management Teams. We also collected interviews from firefighters from the Coronado National Forest in Tucson. In the summer, we will observe radio communication during an active fire incident. In addition, we will analyze a sample of radio recordings and conduct more interviews with radio users to better understand the context and culture in which the communications occurred.

Analyzing Radio Communication

Helicopters are used to deploy four to six rappellers on wildfires at the Salmon-Challis National Forest in east-central Idaho. While the rappellers work, the "spotter" next to the pilot operates the helicopter radio and communicates with crews on four or five portable radios simultaneously.

Photo courtesy of Dr. Elena Gabor

Radio communication is used in wildland firefighting for strategic, operational and logistical purposes, including coordinating crews, ordering resources, communicating size-ups (initial evaluations of a fire), providing weather updates and reporting status of operations or locations of firefighters. A notable aspect of radio communication in wildland firefighting is that radio is a linear medium, while events in a complex incident such as a large (more than 300 acres) wildland fire are numerous, complex and overlapping, requiring superb communication skills and tools.

In small fires, events are easier to control; however, in large fires, more messages are transmitted over busier channels with more interference and less time to talk. Communications must be transmitted over greater distances and through a number of communicators, thus increasing the risk of messages — and meanings — becoming corrupted. Also, in large fires, multiple channels must be scanned, increasing the likelihood of information overload and messages going awry. Because large incidents last longer, messages may lose relevance, be overrun by events, be forgotten or become more urgent due to lack of timely action.

Optimally, an HRO’s communication tools and practices should help it expertly adapt to the complexity of its environment. Yet, there are few scientific studies addressing how firefighters communicate risk on wildland fires, even though nearly every incident report lists communication as a factor in the unwanted outcome. We hope that our study will lead to improved training in radio communication and message design.

By Dr. Elena Gabor
Assistant Professor of Organizational Communication
Photography by Duane Zehr