Effective communication: People at risk

Control Measure Knowledge

Effective communication is essential to ensure people at risk are provided with clear and direct information and instructions.

Fire control personnel should provide only factual information to the person at risk, such as information received from the incident ground. Any reassurance provided should not lead the caller to develop a false sense of security. It may be inappropriate to offer reassurance to the caller if the only course of action to save their life is to attempt evacuation. On such occasions, the advice must be both clear and robust in its delivery, leaving the caller in no doubt as to the seriousness of their situation.

The use of appropriate techniques when communicating with people at risk can support:

  • The gathering of accurate information
  • Building trust and confidence, which may help people at risk to follow the advice and guidance they are being given
  • People at risk remaining calm
  • People at risk clearly understanding the risks they face and the actions they should take
  • The prevention of putting more people at risk

It should be recognised that, despite fire control personnel adopting a range of appropriate techniques, people at risk still may not follow the advice or guidance given.

People at risk may be emotionally distressed, worried, confused or afraid. Repetitive persistence is a tool that can be used to calm emotional callers by using repeated phrases in a firm, even tone. It involves repeating a question using the same words but accompanying it with a reason for the request, for example ‘Tell me where you are, so that I can tell the firefighters your location’.

Should the person at risk be verbally abusive or aggressive, fire control personnel should remain calm and explain why the questions are being asked and how they are going to help. Remarks should not be taken personally, and fire control personnel should not react with a matching response. Using different questioning styles and displaying empathy may help in these situations.

Fire control personnel may need to adapt their communication technique during emergency calls to overcome any communication barriers. Example techniques include:

  • Using different questioning styles
  • Listening effectively
  • Displaying empathy
  • Providing appropriate reassurance

Building rapport

To encourage people at risk to listen, trust and follow the advice they are being given, fire control personnel may need to establish, build and maintain rapport with them. Elements of building rapport include:

  • Approachableness – Being calm and open
  • Sharing knowledge – Giving information about what is happening. For example, ‘The firefighters are on the way’
  • Empathy – Tone of voice
  • Providing advice – ‘Keep away from the building’

Building and maintaining rapport may help to develop trust with people at risk. This can help to break down barriers and give people confidence in the advice they are being given and the actions they are being asked to take, however this should be balanced with the need to avoid leading the caller into false sense of security.

The sharing of names may help to personalise a conversation, build rapport and add individuality to the call. Asking for the caller’s name and using it throughout the call may help the person at risk to feel that they have the full attention of fire control personnel.

Where possible, the vocabulary that fire control personnel use should match that of the person they are communicating with. Where people at risk use specific words to describe something, fire control personnel should use the same words when relevant and appropriate.

When appropriate, fire control personnel may consider having a conversation with the person at risk that is unrelated to the incident, for example asking them about themselves, their family or work. This may help to keep people calm.


Having empathy for people at risk can also support effective communication. Empathy can be described as the ability to share someone else’s feelings or experiences by imagining what it would be like to be in that person’s situation. Developing empathy is crucial for behaving compassionately.

Compassionate empathy is about feeling concern for someone and either taking action or helping a person to take action to resolve a situation. Compassionate empathy when communicating with people at risk and during survival guidance situations is crucial because fire control personnel will be encouraging people to take action.

Demonstrating compassionate empathy and building rapport will help to gain co-operation and build collaboration between fire control personnel and people at risk.

Empathy can be displayed by being natural and calm when communicating with people at risk; adopting a natural tone and a less formal way of speaking will help to achieve this.

Using empathetic language to clarify the situation that people at risk are experiencing may help to establish effective communication. Phrases such as: ‘I want to make sure that I really understand what you’re telling me, and I’m hearing that…’ will help to ensure that fire control personnel have accurate information and give people at risk the opportunity to correct them.

Examples of empathetic statements include:

  • ‘I understand this is not easy for you, but you are handling it well’
  • ‘This must be difficult for you’
  • ‘This must be distressing’
  • ‘I can hear it in your voice that you are anxious’

People at risk may disengage during continual reassessment of the situation, becoming frustrated by the ongoing questioning. This could be because they do not understand why the questions are being asked or why specific advice is being given, or they believe that the questions are delaying help being sent. Fire control personnel should ask clear and relevant questions about the caller’s circumstances; explaining why they are asking questions and giving advice may support people’s understanding. For example questions refer to Control measure – Situational awareness: People at risk.


Reassurance means providing words of advice and comfort to make someone feel less worried. Reassurance given by fire control personnel to people at risk who are receiving survival guidance may help to put them at ease and should be used where appropriate, however it should be factual and should not lead them into a false sense of security.

Phrases such as ‘I am going to give you advice to try and keep you safe’ and an explanation of ‘what I am doing to help you’ are examples of compassionate and attentive language. They provide an explanation of what action is going to be taken and help provide reassurance to people at risk. Phrases such as ‘I can appreciate how difficult it is to…’ create trust and mutual understanding and may help to break down barriers.

Support and encouragement should be given to the caller throughout, however this should not result in people at risk being led into a false sense of security. Over-reassuring people at risk may lead to complacency and over-familiarity, possibly resulting in the caller having a reduced understanding or awareness of the severity of the situation they face. Fire control personnel should aim to adopt communication techniques that balance the need to be calming and reassuring while being honest, leaving the caller in no doubt as to the reality of the situation. An honest and authoritative approach may be needed when people at risk need to take specific actions to increase their chances of survival.

Because situations can change rapidly and affect the risk level at incidents, it is vital that fire control personnel continually reassess and review the information gathered for accuracy to maintain situational awareness, including when reassurance is being given to people at risk.

Informing people at risk that operational personnel are on their way may also provide some reassurance. However, there may be occasions where operational personnel will not arrive imminently, therefore consideration should be given as to whether informing people at risk of the exact location of operational personnel will have a negative impact on them.

Fire control personnel cannot guarantee the rescue, safety or survival of people at risk, so they should not make any promises. Information regarding deployments of operational personnel to attempt to rescue people at risk should be shared with fire control personnel to enable them to maintain situational awareness and to provide an update to the caller when appropriate. It should be recognised that the deployment of operational personnel does not guarantee that they will successfully arrive at the location of the person at risk.

In rare circumstances operational personnel may inform fire control personnel that a person cannot be rescued, and it is possible that they may not survive. Such situations should be handled sensitively and with compassion. Words of comfort such as ‘I’m here for you’ or ‘It’s ok to feel scared’ may be appropriate. Effective emergency call supervision should be available to support fire control personnel during such situations and to help to establish when it may be appropriate to end the call. More information can be found in Fire control command guidance – Emergency call supervision.

Consideration needs to be given to the welfare and mental health of fire control personnel following calls from people at risk. The use of trauma support mechanisms should be considered to support the mental health of fire control personnel following the handling of emotionally distressing calls. For more information on welfare arrangements for fire control personnel see Fire control command – Risk assessment of fire control activities.

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