Deciphering information is challenging for first responders during emergencies. Mistakes are often made during radio-transmitted mayday calls.

Blog by Dr. Richard B. Gasaway, CFO, EFO, Fire Chief (ret.)

When you are listening to an audible message, be that face-to-face, over the telephone, or over the radio, your brain processes audible messages into visual images. Essentially, the message comes into the ears via sound waves.

The sound waves are transformed into electrical impulses in the auditory control center of your brain. Then the messages are sent on to the visual control center to be processed into visual imagery.

Imagine you are talking to someone on the telephone about their recent vacation. In that conversation they vividly describe pristine blue water and beautiful white beaches. Your brain processes the audible message and sends it on to the visual processing center where you formulate images of beautiful blue waters and white, sandy beaches.

Visual Processor Overload

Problems with communications can occur when you are exposed to too much. Your brain can get overloaded. When that occurs, bad things can happen. Think of your visual processor working like the processor on your computer. Your brain and your computer, in reality, don’t work anything alike, but let’s go with it for a moment. When your computer processor reaches its capacity, it slows down. Then, it freezes up. If you’re on a PC, you get to see the hourglass on your screen. If you’re on a Mac, you get the gyrating psychedelic spinning wheel.

While the processor is at capacity, there is nothing you can do but wait. If you’re typing a document when the processor reaches capacity, the keyboard stops working. You can bang on it all you want, but your processor is at capacity. Anything you try to enter at that point will not process.

Let’s apply this example to your brain. Your visual processing center, like your computer, also has limitations. When those limits are reached, it stops accepting new information. Your ears are still working fine. So is your audible processing center. But the visual center is overloaded. When that happens, you get the proverbial cognitive hourglass (or spinning psychedelic wheel). Nothing else is getting in until the current load is cleared.

When there is a lot of radio traffic, it is easy for your visual processing center to get overloaded because there is so much information coming in. Unfortunately, unlike written information, there’s no shortcut to processing audible information. If you look at a written document, you can visually scan it and get right to the heart of what you want to know. Not so with audible information. You have to listen to it all. THEN, and only then, can you determine what was important and what was not. But it still requires the full attention of your visual processor to make that determination.

Too Much Radio Traffic

Excessive amounts of radio traffic can inhibit your ability to process information. Which information do you listen to and which do you discard? Unfortunately, your brain is not that good at deciphering and prioritizing. It’s a common misconception that a first responder will hear the critical radio traffic because the “stressed voices” of those who are in trouble will alert the listener. Seems plausible … until you evaluate how many times radio-transmitted maydays are missed the first time they are called.

About the Author

Dr. Gasaway is widely considered one of the nation’s leading authorities on situational awareness and the human factors that complicate first responder decision making. In addition to his 30-plus year career in the fire service, including 22 years as a fire chief, Dr. Gasaway has a second passion: Uncovering and applying research in brain science for the benefit of first responders. His website, Situational Awareness Matters ( welcomes 50,000 visitors a month from 156 countries. He can be reached via e-mail at