Are phones killing EMS communications and storytelling?

Device obsession harms team building and personal communication, which hurts both EMS culture and performance

I was teaching a class about effective communication recently and we started discussing barriers to good listening. The fact is that none of us are born good listeners; it is a skill we have to learn and practice.

But nowadays there are other things that can make listening and communication difficult. The culprits are smartphones and other types of electronic devices.

It is ironic that inventions that were designed to enhance communication can actually be the death of it in certain situations. There is no question that email, texting, Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and endless other apps have created opportunities for connection that did not exist even 10 years ago.

Personally, I have reconnected with old friends from high school and time spent working in the national parks during college. It's fun to hear about their lives now and then, and who knows, we may even meet again in person one of these days.

But there are real problems with the power these devices have in our lives if we don't make an effort to control them. According to a study done in Great Britain in 2015, the average person between the ages of 18 and 33 checks his or her cell phone 85 times per day.

Assuming that person sleeps six hours, the result is that the average user is checking the phone nearly five times per hour, every waking hour of the day. Some studies show the numbers to be much higher.

Multi-tasking myth

Fire departments have seen the effects. Whereas people once hung out together during down time or meals, talking around the kitchen table, now people are more likely to be separately absorbed with their phones or other devices. The effect can be alienating, damaging to good communication and a negative factor for building teams or community.

Electronic devices are really a killer when it comes to good listening. Everyone who has tried to talk to someone who is partly absorbed with an app on a phone knows how this feels. It is obvious that the person with the phone is not really paying attention.

The person trying to be heard will feel frustrated, even disrespected. And the message that person is intending to convey will not fully get through.

Study after study show that humans are physiologically bad multi-taskers. With the exception of a small minority of individuals, we are not built to focus on more than one complex task at the same time — our attention is actually diminished by the added tasks.

Sure, we can drive and hold a conversation with someone in the car, but only if we are driving in familiar territory and nothing unusual is happening. If you need to figure out where to turn, or if a dog runs out in front of the vehicle, the content of that conversation will be completely lost.

He who checks, washes

That is really the danger of using electronic devices when driving — not just that they may require the driver to take hands off the controls, but also that the driver's attention is not completely on the act of driving.

This shift from group interaction to personal focus is an unfortunate one for the fire service.

Historically, the fire service has been a story-telling culture, one where cultural norms and expectations are transmitted less through direct mandate and more through stories (often hilarious) about past actions of others. These stories convey the unwritten rules and understood values of the organization in a way that an SOP manual never could.

So there is a lot to be lost if firefighters allow that sense of community to be diminished due to available technology. Listening may be less effective, conflict will be more common and less understood, teams will be formed on less solid ground. And critical information may not be adequately conveyed or heard.

The good news is that there is no law that says that electronic devices must replace all interpersonal communication. People can put their phones away, and should do so in many circumstances.

For example, company officers should put their phones down when they are talking with the crew, either as a group and especially one-on-one. Firefighters should put their phones aside when talking with one another about anything of real importance.

I asked the recent class how they are dealing with smartphones and communication within their departments and got some interesting responses.

One firefighter said they have a rule in his station that everyone must put their cell phones in a box in the middle of the table at the start of any group meal. Another said they have an informal policy that whoever is first to check a phone during a meal has to do the dishes.

I'm glad to hear that some crews have recognized this challenge and are addressing it. I also wonder what other ideas and practices firefighters have come up with to manage the distraction of electronics in daily fire station life. If your crew or department has a good approach to this issue, please comment and share it with others. 

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