There are many ways to improve communications. Knowing what filters and barriers affect the flow of information, we can work to avoid or reduce their impact on effective communication. Before we even speak, we can improve our chances at effective communication if we minimize the impact of the filters and barriers. Remember that communication is a two way process, that is to say, the sender is also the receiver and the receiver is also the sender. He or she needs to receive the message that you sent. The only way to be sure of this is through feedback. This is the mechanism used to close the communications loop and allow for the correction or adjustment of information. You may ask for a refrigerator truck, when the Logistics Officer drives up in a truck carrying refrigerators. Your request wasn't clear and he didn't ask for clarification. Whose fault was this?
Secondly, give as many details as you think the person needs. You should know the people working for you. Can you give them a broad objective, i.e. get the floor cleared of debris, or do you have to be very specific in the tactics you want them to follow?
Use all available technology when trying to get your message across accurately. Do not rely on leaving a message on a note pad when you can use e-mail, two-way paging or Nextel' style radio communications. Don't give driving directions when you can send an actual map or diagram. They say a picture is worth a thousand words, this has never been more so when confronting a disaster and chaos abounds. A case in point comes from an actual mass casualty incident in Jersey City, NJ. Two New Jersey Transit commuter trains collided with approximately 650 passengers aboard. Utilizing the Incident Command System (ICS), the EMS system created an organizational chart that showed all of the responding agencies the reporting structure and chain of command. Additionally, 250+ patients needed to be transported to local area hospitals. Many of the ambulances that were called in as mutual aid, were unfamiliar with the locations of the hospitals. Maps were generated and handed out.
Depending on the organizational structure, the message must pass through many layers of managers and the intent is lost once it reaches the intended receiver. Reduce the distance that the message must travel. This can be accomplished by implementing an incident management command system. ICS is a management tool that was originally designed to aid fire departments in the fighting of wild-land fires in California. One of the basic tenets of ICS is the reduction of span of control to a 5:1 ratio. That is, no more than five people will report to any one individual. This reduces the possibility of information overload. ICS has been adopted by most emergency services as a standard. In some cases, such as a hazardous materials response, the Occupational Safety & Health Administration requires the use of a documented ICS.
Just as there are ways to improve communications, there are certain steps you can take to guarantee communication failure. Not listening to progress reports often results in the continuation of tasks that no longer need to be active. This ties up valuable resources and resources have a cost associated with them. Utilizing institution specific radio codes. When dealing with a multi-agency response, everybody needs to be able to understand what everybody else is talking about. This is impossible if you call a 10-85, which means to your agency meet me in the lobby, and to another agency it means your going to lunch. A basic tenet of disaster communication is plain speak on the radio, use regular English.
You can only process so much information at any given time before reaching a point of overload, where you can no longer effectively understand what is being said. You need to maintain an appropriate span of control. This theory basically states that no more than five people should report to any individual in a crisis setting. As you exceed this ratio, you will not be able to give your full attention to any one person or problem. The American Heart Association guidelines state that for the purposes of teaching a cardiopulmonary resuscitation (CPR) course, the ideal student/instructor ratio should be 6:1. When you reach seven students, you should add an additional instructor. In the disaster setting, when you have six or more people reporting to an individual, you should add another link in the chain of command or assign that person a deputy.
Whenever possible, you should use face-to-face communications. This is very important when unpopular policy decisions need to be implemented. This type of communication allows you to receive instantaneous feedback. It also permits a dialogue (the whole purpose of communication) with a group of people, which is often very difficult using radio.
Additional steps to avoiding communication confusion include reducing message overload (talk to one person at a time), determine the most important message to deliver and deliver it precisely, and provide the information in stages. As an Emergency Manager, how do we prevent communication failure?
- Give specific task directives and information
- Give information about organizations procedures
- Provide rationale about the job assigned
- Tell subordinates about their performance - provide feedback
Sometimes it is necessary to criticize a member of your staff. When this occurs make it timely, private, rational, specific and objective. It should never be personal. Do not tell someone that they are an idiot and can't get the job done. Tell them exactly what they did wrong and work with them on finding a solution to correct the problem. Remember, the problem may be you. You assigned them the task and told them what you wanted done. Keep in mind the Peter Principle: people will rise to the highest level of incompetence. You may have promoted them beyond their capabilities, but they are trying their best. Expect feedback. Occasionally, even you will be on the receiving end of criticism and the person giving it may not abide by the above rules.
Therefore, keep your temper, listen carefully, consider the source, evaluate the criticism (that person may actually have something legitimate to say) and keep it in perspective. You may have to still work with this person.
Remember 7th grade English class: Unless WHAT is to be done, HOW it is to be done, by WHOM it is to be done and WHY it needs to be done, can all be effectively communicated, the likelihood of managing the event effectively is greatly reduced.
Peter I. Dworsky has been a paramedic for twelve years in both New York City and throughout New Jersey. He has been involved in Emergency Management in NJ since 1993.