Engine Company, Firefighting

Think Incident Commander

At “Think Like an Incident Commander,” Chief Thomas Dunne of the Fire Department of New York observed that a common fire service misconception is that the chief running a fire operation is the only one who should be thinking like an incident commander. This is often the case with inexperienced personnel who understandably, are focusing on mastering basic tasks such as forcible entry or hose stretching.

However, Dunne said, the fire service would probably have far fewer injuries and fatalities if all personnel—including firefighters and company officers—developed an incident commander’s perspective. That’s the ability to make fireground decisions based on overall strategy rather than specific individual tasks. Seeing the whole fireground picture and your place in it allows you to consider the ramifications of your actions and creates a more efficient and safer operation. “It doesn’t matter whether you ever aspire to become a chief,” Dunne said.

Dunne addressed this challenge by breaking down the elements of preparation, decision making, communication, and size-up that are relevant for both supervising chiefs and operating firefighters. Using case studies, videos, and fire simulations, he illustrated some of the problems firefighters routinely encounter in the field and offered tools to deal with the confusion, stress, and uncertainties that are typical of most fires.

Stress, for example, affects not only the person under it but influences those around him, too. A firefighter who projects confidence and calm is a positive influence on the fireground. “Just to be around this person makes you feel that everything’s going to be okay,” according to Dunne.

Stress also affects fireground communications, which is the most important element in operations. To deal with stress, he said, you must first acknowledge it and deal with it. Calm yourself, ask for assistance, and delegate as needed.

Finally, when you go home after your shift, “turn the job off” so you can enjoy your time with family and friends.

Dunne encouraged students to quickly evaluate hazards and plan an overall strategy instead just performing a series of unrelated, individual tactical acts; in short, think like an incident commander.
Seeing the “big picture” means realizing that, on the fireground, everything you do affects others, “whether it’s opening a ceiling, pulling a hoseline, or taking a window.” These tasks should be considered in the context of the ultimate incident strategy, Dunne concluded.

Thomas Dunne is a deputy chief and a 28-year veteran of the Fire Department of New York. A regular contributor to the Roundtable column, Dunne wrote “Managing Big Fires 101: Divide and Conquer,” which appeared in the August 2009 issue of Fire Engineering.