By Kenneth L. Erickson
For the past few years it seems that the fire service has placed bigger (and more stressful) burdens on our company-level officers, especially in smaller- and mid-size fire departments. It is not uncommon to see a company officer operating in the position of command for a fairly large operation. When this happens, the officer’s crew is now operating unsupervised or they’ve been assigned to another officer, who now becomes overloaded with too many direct reports. And many times the company officer is not ready for the command assignment, be it for lack of experience or training.
The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) has analyzed and documented numerous firefighter deaths and injuries. One of the leading contributing factors to firefighter deaths and injuries is a lack of command and control. NIOSH further identifies other issues such as lack of accountability, lack of tactical control, lack of staff for critical tasks, officers not directly supervising crews, and exceeding the span of control. All these problems contribute to death and injury, and the root of many of them is officers not directly supervising their firefighters. However, it is not the officer’s fault.
In his book Fireground Command Decision Making, Dr. Richard Gasaway says situational awareness for command staff is lacking because there is lack of staff available to do the necessary work. In addition, he states that stress from incident overload (cognitive saturation) and workload management are major issues for commanders. He states that multi-tasking, working multiple command roles, and lack of command aides all lead to a lack of situational awareness, which leads to firefighters getting in trouble. Multiple command roles usually means you are trying to be command, safety, and accountability–all the while supervising a crew or division. Multi-tasking is a very similar situation, in which officers are supervising and also trying to perform other functions, such as pulling hose, raising ladders, or acting as command.
Medical research indicates that the human brain can only focus on three major items or tasks simultaneously. Therefore, when we ask company officers to supervise their crews and be command we are placing the officers in a situation where they are almost guaranteed to fail due to overload. When we assign crews from one officer to another we place that officer in overload. Forcing officers to multi-task is forcing them to not focus on the critical issues. When we have command officers also handling accountability, water supply, or safety, we are putting the officer into overload. Most fires have a handful of critical issues we must focus on–getting the first hose in proper place, backing up the first hose, getting good water, starting a search, or venting a building (especially in the early stages of the job). The purpose of the incident command system and delegating is to limit or control our focus to the important issues.
THE RULE OF THREE
The U.S. Military, especially the Army and Marines, have conducted extensive research relating to span of control. Both branches currently use the rule of three. They believe that the best span of control in a hostile environment is three to one. Larger fire departments use the basic concept of three firefighters supervised by a company officer. In the military, the lowest level of work is performed by the fire team. A fire team consists of three soldiers or marines and a supervisor. Two or three fire teams then report to a squad leader (usually sergeants). Three squad leaders then report to a platoon leader (a lieutenant). The military has found through trial and error that a ratio greater than three to one is too high and results in death and injury. In the past they operated under four and five to one, but found three to one is much more efficient and safer. We should follow the military’s lead and tighten our controls.
The fire service in general accepts a span of control ranging from of three to seven people to one supervisor, with five people are considered ideal. This concept is reinforced in supervisory manuals and especially under the Incident Management Systems. The five-to-seven range is a good number during routine work environment and works well once a good management system is in place, which usually happens well into an operation. We reinforce the five to one concept in our procedures: Five divisions/groups report to command; after that we add an operations section, with five crews reporting to a division/sector leader; five crews to a strike team; and so on. But I truly believe that a span of control of five to seven is dangerous during hostile and dangerous operations.
In our business, captains and lieutenants supervise companies and crews, and sometimes shifts or platoons; the terms are somewhat interchangeable. Fire officers at this level are responsible for the safety and well-being of their firefighters. Their main job is to lead their firefighters into battle and after battle to prepare their firefighters for the next assignment–supervise and train. Captains and lieutenants many times must operate in a command capacity, however this should be a very short period of time. A higher ranking officer should take command and then let the captains and lieutenants do their primary job, namely leading their crews. In our current world of firefighting, we lack experience at every level. Our company officers need time to become skilled at their basic job before we let them take command roles for large or complex incidents. Officers today want to be in command, and while I admire that initiative, their responsibility is to their crew. Our own studies in Laconia indicate that one of the leading causes of injuries is supervisors not directly supervising their crews; they are either multi-tasking (in command and trying to supervise their crew) or in many cases not working as supervisors (pulling hose, operating nozzles, searching). This is not a reflection on the part of the officers, but rather a reflection of how we staff our department.
THE NEED FOR SUPERVISION
Today’s less-experienced firefighters need their company officers more than ever before. Company officers should focus on guiding and supervising as well as helping get the job done, but they should not get so involved in the work that they lose sight of what is happening around their crews. Officers need to monitor progress, call for resources, monitor smoke and heat levels, monitor air supply, watch for fatigue, push firefighters, when warranted, and pull them back as well. The officers need to coordinate their actions with other crews (if left alone, the back-up crew will very likely pass the attack crew by), and enforce standard operating procedures. The best accountability system is good company officers. Tags and boards will never replace good supervision.
Larger departments assign an officer to every truck and send a chief officer to every significant alarm. Multiple chief offices are assigned to multiple alarms. Smaller departments need to have a system to ensure that more officers of all ranks are responding to potential serious events. This may mean recalls of off-duty officers, on-call status for chief officers, or automatic mutual aid. This needs to be as automatic as possible. The first-in company officer may have to take command, but this should be for just a few minutes. For many of us, the company officer is the second or third person on the attack hose line. The crew cannot function properly if the officer is not with them. If the company officer is command, then the crew is working in a hazardous environment with no one watching over them. This is a recipe for disaster.
We owe it to all our firefighters and their families to ensure that competent people are watching over them, especially during dangerous assignments. We should seriously think about the military concept of three to one. In a very dangerous environment–cutting a roof, searching an upper floor, and advancing a hoseline–we should tighten the span of control. You cannot realistically expect one officer to supervise the “interior sector.”
We will probably never have enough staff to do it as safe as we would like, but we should work to make the incident scene as safe as possible. If things go bad, you will be desperate for chief officers.
So the next time you have a working fire, assign your company officers to their crews. They can supervise a small area of the fire such as the second floor. If you have more than three crews in an area, assign a division supervisor. Use incoming off-duty officers to fill in as needed. Get your neighboring chief officers to respond and assist with command functions. Get a set of eyes to areas that you cannot see. If the incident is escalating, assign the mutual aid chiefs to outside divisions. Neighboring chief officers should not feel embarrassed or underutilized.
We need to teach all officers the fine art of fireground command and decision making, but let’s do it safely. The safety and welfare of your firefighters depends on not getting overwhelmed or distracted.
Kenneth L. Erickson is the fire chief for the Laconia (NH) Fire Department and serves as the city’s emergency management director.. He has 33 years as a career firefighter and spent 20 years as a chief in three New England communities. He has an associate degree in fire science and a bachelor’s degree in fire administration from Providence College. He is a graduate of the Chief Fire Officer Management Program from the University of Massachusetts and the Massachusetts Fire Academy, and a graduate of the Maryland Fire Rescue Institute Command and Staff College. He also has attended the National Fire Academy.