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My life has recently taken on a new role: Junior High volleyball parent. I have two daughters playing this sport for the first time. In fact, 98% of their team is playing for the first time. Which is to say, the team isn’t very good. Success is not being measured in wins but in the improvements of technique and fundamentals.

In addition, I’ve had the opportunity to start “serving my time” as a line judge for some of the games. The chance to be on the court and see the game from a player’s perspectives has opened my eyes dramatically (which is good considering line judges with eyes closed are generally considered ineffective!) Seeing the game from this vantage point has caused me to see a few parallels to firefighting, specifically, in regards to communication.

Communication creates Ownership

With every hit, the word “MINE!” must be heard on the volleyball court. This gives an immediate indication of who is taking ownership of the next bump, set, or kill. It alerts others to give space so that the “new owner” can effectively do their job. Additionally, it tells teammates to take a supportive role or be in a position to do what comes next. If no one hollers, everyone assumes that someone else will handle the situation. Wrong assumptions lead to points for the other team.

On the fireground, when the Incident Commander communicates an order, he is giving ownership to a company. He is telling them what needs to happen on the next “play.” He is also alerting the other companies to give “the owners” space to function or carry out their order. He may directly order companies into a supportive role. Standard Operating Procedures (SOP’s) are another form of communication that shows ownership. The second due engine knows what they need to do (own) in order to continue the fire attack and support the first due.

When players and firefighters do not communicate ownership and then follow through, the ball gets dropped.

Communication should lead to Action

“INSIDE!” or “OUTSIDE!” are the words used to tell the setter where to direct her next hit in order to set things up for a kill. The setter must take action to move the ball in the necessary direction. “LONG!” indicates where the serve is in relation to the boundaries. It communicates to everyone to take the action of staying away so that the ball can land out of bounds, thus giving a point. Each play on the court requires movement; good communication allows players to take the correct action for a successful outcome.

When a engine crew communicates a need for ventilation, they are requesting the truck to take the action needed to relieve heat and smoke conditions. Whether from a hand signal or a horn blown, the communication goes out that the engineer is ready for the hydrant firefighter to actively charge the supply line. As the IC sees changing conditions and different fireground needs, he communicates action steps to various companies so that the mission is accomplished. (Remember the “CAN” report?) With any of these communications, action is the ultimate goal.

When players and firefighters hear communication but don’t take immediate action, the situation generally worsens.

Communication should be Continual

Our girls are MORE than capable of communication, trust me! Having driven van loads of them to away games, I am well aware of their (continual, constant, incessant, unending, good gracious please make it stop!) communication. They may start the game communicating well, but part way through the first set, they stop talking. Players not talking may be wonderful in the van, but it’s a detriment on the court. When things are going well they start thinking communication is no longer necessary. As players start getting tired, they stop talking. When frustration sets in, they clam up. All of these things lead to sloppy and unsuccessful play.

Communication at fires is generally continual. However, there are still periods where it is lacking. As a crew gets tired they stop talking to each other or to IC. When they get frustrated by another company’s action (or inaction) they start withholding information. They fear that IC will order them to evacuate if they communicate the tough interior conditions. This may result in crews staying in places they should not be. As an IC, it drives me nuts when an officer doesn’t communicate that he is doing something different from what he was assigned. I applaud forward thinking and aggressiveness; however, it is critical they communicate their intentions to me. I can either tell them to continue doing what I ordered, or I can approve of their idea and make the necessary arrangements to support them.

When the chatter stops, important messages are lost.

Communication must be Acknowledged

Standing on the court allows me to be closer to the coaches which is sometimes good, sometimes not so much. But one thing I’ve noticed is that a lot of the messages aren’t getting through. The coach can holler, wave their arms, and give good information, but if the players aren’t listening, the coach is just wasting energy. The players who seem to excel are the ones who are developing the ability to hear their coach’s voice over the noise of the crowd and other players. They look to the coach for guidance and acknowledge understanding with either a head nod or movement to the correct position on the floor. The ones who don’t hear and acknowledge are clueless and out of position.

Likewise, firefighters must acknowledge all communications with understanding and movement to the correct position or task. This does not mean that every message is “copied” by everyone possessing a radio. It does mean that the one to whom a specific directive was given hears over the other noise and verbally acknowledges understanding. It means that an officer communicates directly to his crew the actions that other crews are taking and how it affects their immediate assignment. IC, if the crews don’t start taking action it means you either didn’t communicate clearly or they didn’t hear you. Both situations require the communication be rebroadcast.

Say what you want, but if change doesn’t occur, they didn’t acknowledge you were even speaking!

Communication Failure may have Long-Term Effects

An interesting thing occurs when communication begins to fail on the court. As lips stop moving, eyes start rolling. I’m not quite sure of the physiological process here, but it is uncanny. As players stop talking their frustration builds, leading to this ocular movement. They begin to blame others for the missed ball or poor pass. They blame someone else for being out of position. The eye roll says “I can’t believe how bad that other girl is.” These attitudes create immediate consequences in the game, as it is no longer a team sport but an individual one. It can create long-term effects in their relationships off the court as well.

Communication break down can certainly have severe, immediate consequences on the fireground. Lines left kinked because “that is someone else’s job.” Guys getting hit with opposing streams because someone was out of position. Long-term injuries because no one communicated a h*** in the floor or a sagging wall about to collapse. And I think we are all aware of the communication issues that are constantly addressed in NIOSH LODD reports.

One of the most important things a team can have is trust in the others; communication failures erode that trust.

Whether on the volleyball court or the fireground, communication leads to the success of the team. Regardless of the message, proper delivery and appropriate response to it is crucial to the outcome of the game or incident. For the volleyball players, communication issues lead to lost points, sets, and matches. For the firefighter, it may lead to something way more life changing! What steps will you take today to improve the communications of yourself and of your team? Take ownership, take action. Continue to talk and to acknowledge.

As it turns out, volleyball isn’t really that bad. At least not from this line judge’s point of view. And Go Lions!

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