By Mark J. Cotter
Went to a multiple-family occupancy as part of our standard structure response for a report of "smoke in the building." Occurring on a weekday, in the early evening, the increased chance of residents in peril was matched by the ready availability of responding apparatus fully-staffed by volunteers from our three stations. The duty officer arrived first, reported nothing showing, established command, and then began the tedious task of giving assignments to each of the nine responding units (3 Engines, 2 Quints, 2 Medic units, a Rescue, and a Squad).
Arriving on the second-in piece, a Quint, we were assigned the Truck duties of search – for the source of the smoke and potential victims. We discovered almost immediately that the "smoke" was actually neither caused by a fire, nor even hazardous (Note: The details of this call have been blurred to protect the participants, including this writer). Still, by the time our company officer could report this finding, all of the units on scene or still responding were engaged in performing, or at least preparing to perform, one or another of the other "standard" fireground tasks (utility control, ventilation, water supply, etc).
De-escalation of the incident was a lot like trying to stop a toilet from flushing after you push down the handle.
Notifying, regrouping, and withdrawing multiple teams of firefighters who seconds before had been intent upon carrying out what they believed to be a vital portion of an incident action plan took more than a few minutes, and was met by more than a little grumbling. Operating units had been focused on their assignments, and the fact that there was no fire evident did not slow their intensity, nor should it have. The effect, though, was to leave firefighters confused, and a little angry. After all, to be given a specific assignment usually means that there is something specific to be done.
On paper, the results of the incident were excellent: cause of problem quickly found; no injuries to civilians or firefighters; and minimal property damage, none of which was caused by firefighters.
Why then, the discontent amongst the troops, and the mention in this column? Firefighters are only annoyed when they respond to an alarm that is determined to be unfounded, primarily because those calls are initiated by automatic devices or civilians that do not know any better. However, being given an order by one of your own officers that is incorrect, or even just unnecessary, actually shakes firefighters' confidence in Command. Eroding such trust can cripple fireground effectiveness, and eventually unbalance an entire fire department.
In the initial, critical moments of this incident, our IC had attempted to control the multiple companies responding by assigning each to one on a list of tactical components, which, in turn, was intended to ensure that all potential tasks would be carried out. Unfortunately, this was done prior to the performance of an adequate size up. That is, one that was not necessarily complete (and they are never, truly, complete), but an assessment which would have provided a better idea of what type of emergency was present, and hence which control measures were indicated. While the IC devoted his time and attention to giving every responding company a specific task to perform, additional information came to light that changed, or should have changed, the overall strategic focus. By that time, companies had been prematurely, and needlessly, committed.
Though this behavior was misguided, it is understandable. In fact, when responding as an officer, the torrent of information that must be collected, analyzed, and reacted-to is almost infinite. (Look at any firefighting textbook or article on size-up that discusses the parameters to consider at an emergency incident, and you will find a list that is at the same time exhaustive yet incomplete; logical yet totally unrealistic.) Add to this the extensive menu of tactics available to an IC, and the process can seem overwhelming.
Many Incident Command experts recommend using a checklist to ensure that each piece of data is collected (time, address, responding units, known hazards, etc.), and that each of the standard functions (Search and Rescue, Ventilation, Water Supply, etc.) is assigned. Realistically, though, unless the completion of such a chart is delegated to an aide, it cannot be performed without taking away from the ability to maintain scene observation. An IC can fill in a grease board, or actually evaluate the incident as it plays out, but usually, at least early on at an incident, not both.
Also, attempting to manage the chaos of a fireground by giving orders only looks effective. Launching companies toward an incident with specific assignments works if those assignments are correct, but the action ordered must be the right thing, at the right time, in the right place. Such an assessment cannot be made without a fairly thorough analysis of the situation. Therefore, assignments must come after size-up.
An alternative strategy for an IC overwhelmed at an incident, when responders can be more plentiful than information, is to stage all but the first-in Engine and Ladder, waiting to assign the other companies until after it is determined what specific actions, if any, are needed. Upon response, staged units stop at least a block from the incident, remaining available to continue in to their usual, or to another specifically-assigned, position. With this procedure in place, companies are pre-positioned for ready deployment, while apparatus congestion at the incident location is minimized, allowing flexibility when alternative actions are indicated.
Like many other departments, mine utilizes standard assignments for each responding unit, based on type of apparatus and arrival sequence (e.g., First-in Engine performs fire attack; Second-in Engine performs water supply; Second-in Ladder goes to the building rear, etc.).
The beauty of this method is two-fold: each responding unit has a pretty good idea what their assignment will be, and the IC has a plan already outlined and rehearsed, requiring only some tweaking to allow for the specific circumstances at hand. Staging units in our jurisdiction merely requires the IC to transmit that order, effectively suspending, for a time, the on-scene positioning of most apparatus and personnel.
As demonstrated at the incident above, spending an inordinate amount of time and attention filling in fireground organizational charts does not serve the best interest of the troops or the community. While checklists are great for assisting with the size-up process, caution must be exercised so that they do not become a distraction. Also, it is the responsibility of the IC to control the rush to work so typical of firefighters. Officers need to be willing to stage units; units need to be willing to stage.
My department is blessed with experienced and dedicated officers, and all of the firefighters in my department, including this writer, are confident of their abilities, follow them willingly, and value their leadership. In order to carry out their primary function, though, which is to ensure the safety of their crew and the public we serve, they need to pay more attention to what is happening, and less to a checklist.