By Bud Davenport
I have a friend who played professional baseball at the Major League level. I asked him one day what was different about the majors. He said, “The playing field is basically the same no matter what level you play at. The fences are relatively the same distances, as well as the bases. The rules are equal for all levels, from rookie leagues to the Major League.” He added, “The most noticeable difference in the game is not on the field. The field stays the same, but the bleachers get taller.”
There have been many classes over the years hammering home the importance of incident command. Make no mistake: all incidents need management. Regardless of whether if it is a sick call on an ambulance or a mass-casualty incident with hundreds of patients, the management principles and priorities stay the same. Most ICS classes seem to cater to the mass-casualty aspect. These “what if” scenarios certainly increase our awareness of the proper documentation and prioritization needed to handle the career call. However, they never seem to help us on the everyday routine responses. How can the formal ICS approach and all of its meetings be adapted to the average room-and-contents fire?
Everyone who sits through ICS learns the Planning “P,” a visual guide to the steps involved in planning for an incident. This tool is posted in many command posts throughout the nation. It lays out the schedule of meetings and briefings needed for each operational period. It serves as a reminder of what is coming next in the planning process so everyone can be prepared. We never have a Planning “P” when we are at a routine response. That is why we must commit the invisible Planning “P” to memory.
Sizing Up the Scene
It all starts with the initial dispatch. Information given to the first responding crews immediately starts the planning process for everyone involved. The information dispatch gathers from the caller lays the initial groundwork for a solid foundation. I love the television show The Deadliest Catch. In an early episode, one of the captains talked about stacking the crab pots on the deck of the boat. If the initial layer of pots is off by just a fraction, the stack could be so unstable when finished that the boat could turn over. As with much in life, it all starts with a good foundation. The well-trained dispatcher helps provide that firm footing. One innovative tool some dispatch centers use to strengthen the platform is the fire priority dispatch system. The system, which is approved by the National Academy of Emergency Fire Dispatch, enables the call taker to ask pertinent questions to narrow down the emergency. Any immediate life hazard is quickly dispatched ahead of lower priority calls. The first responders are given an alphanumeric code to best describe the incident. This system allows the responding officers to begin the initial size-up before arriving on scene. If a department has been dispatched to a MVC with subjects pinned on an interstate during rush hour, the officer may request additional resources for scene safety.
Another valuable asset in the initial size-up is the first-in crew’s familiarity with the district. Knowing the existing hazards in and around their response area can help avoid unwanted surprise on arrival. A driver with good street smarts can direct best routes of travel for a quick water supply or to avoid traffic snarls. Firefighters’ knowledge of construction types in the area can help determine the tools needed for initial actions.
This Meeting Is Now Called To Order
The Best-Made Plans
Timing Is Everything
How long should this “P” take? Just like any other system, it has to be practiced. Officers will develop the skills needed over time. Most of the incidents can be put into motion within two minutes of being on scene. There are several variables that need to be tossed around.
- Scene safety is a must. A safety officer should be appointed early in the incident. This person should be involved in all decisions. Safety can become mundane and routine. It is vital that an experienced safety officer can feel the pulse of the incident.
- Will the scene expand? One instructor at the North Carolina State Fire Marshal’s Unified Command and Control Class used to end his tabletop exercise by bouncing a six-foot Godzilla inflatable across the landscape. He reasoned that you never knew when the monsters were coming. All scenes have the potential to expand. If things vary from the original plan, be ready to react quickly to correct the problems.
- Is the main thing the main thing? Books on top of books have been written about situational awareness and avoiding tunnel vision. There are two key things to remember about avoiding the pitfalls of tunnel vision. First, do not focus on one thing for too long. Focus on “the main thing,” but pay attention to everything going on around the scene. Listen carefully to radio traffic. Check in with the safety officer. An IC should ask himself if he is up with the scene activities. The second pitfall is treating everything as routine: Everything gets routine, and the commander overlooks a key discrepancy that ends up hurting responders.
Remember, every call is not a Type III incident, so it should not be treated as one. Safety should always be in the forefront in decision making. Handle the emergency by remembering life safety, incident stabilization, and property conservation. As long as the emergency gets mitigated with no further damage or injuries and every responder goes home, it’s a good day. Treat a Major League call as a Major League call and a Single A call as a Single A call. Leave the bleachers to baseball and get in the game.
Bud Davenport is a 19-year veteran of Garner (NC) Fire-Rescue, where he has served as captain for the past nine years. He teaches ICS throughout North Carolina for North Carolina Emergency Management. He served as the Planning Section chief during the Con-Agra Explosion, which killed four people in 2009.