Firefighters on scene at a fire in Chicago
Photo courtesy of Tim Olk (olkee.smugmug.com)

Establishing and maintaining a strong and active command is essential to safe and efficient operations. However, a number of conditions may occur that cause command to lose the vitality necessary to ensure proper oversight during the course of an incident. The ability to identify these hazards and take action to avoid them is valuable to all levels of the command structure.

Complacency

A complacent attitude may weaken command vitality before and during incident operations. A culture of complacency may develop at fire departments where major operations are infrequent and most incidents are mitigated quickly without the need for rapid decision-making under life-threatening conditions. Members at all levels may form an “it can’t happen here” attitude. This mindset will lead to a lack of preincident preparation and often a weak command posture.

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Conversely, in organizations accustomed to responding to numerous incidents, an air of complacency may arise from the thought that “we have done this all before.” Incident commanders (ICs) and others in the department may be lulled into a sense of security based on repetition. This attitude leads to inattention to detail and short-cuts at all levels, including an inattentive command organization. Loss of situational awareness through this complacency may result in substantial deviations going unnoticed with a resulting catastrophic event.

If complacency is found at the command level, it almost certainly exists to some extent throughout the organization. Some remedies for this blight on command vitality include regular command drills to practice implementing those aspects of the incident command system likely to be used at common emergencies. It’s of course also beneficial to review the larger organizational hierarchy need to oversee major incidents. Practicing for more complex incidents is especially useful to revive the focus chief officers who work at an abundance of similar incidents. This training combined with a regular schedule of preplanning target hazards are actions that will help hold complacency at bay. Often, ICs who are accustomed to running smaller scale incident operations can increase their effectiveness by making sure not to “short cut” command operations. If command operates with proper attention to situational reports, accountability, and benchmarks at small incidents, these crucially important features of the incident command structure will become second nature when a large-scale emergency occurs.   

Side-Stepping

An incident command structure that fails to maintain an alert, active, and vital presence runs the risk of losing a fundamental benefit of the incident command system: the safety and efficiency that results from unity of command. Reporting to and receiving orders from a single supervisor helps to ensure accountability and focus on the action plan organized by the IC. This unity of effort is necessary to maintain progress toward the objectives the IC has identified as achievable with the available resources. When command fails to communicate effectively, assign appropriate resources, and monitor progress, side-stepping at any operational level becomes almost inevitable. Company officers or other resource supervisors may seek out someone else to report to or request resources from. Command may become decentralized and organization may be fragmented, potentially resulting in conflicting tactics initiated by officers in different locations around the incident scene.

Establishing and maintaining a robust command presence in the physical sense and by demonstrating decisiveness and clarity of purpose are excellent tools to maintain a clear line of command authority. With the IC or command post visible whenever practical, an unspoken message is communicated that there is command authority managing operations. Thus, aided by confident demeanor and timely decisions, unity of command is preserved. 

Accountability Slack

Although loss of accountability may be one result of side-stepping a weak command organization, the importance of accountability in all aspects of incident operations can’t be overstated. Maintaining command vitality enhances the likelihood that the incident commander will be situationally aware throughout the life of the incident. Maintaining the location of companies, ensuring that they are operating at a suitable location, and supporting their resource needs can only be achieved through properly communicated situational reports and observations. When command slacks on accountability, the location, conditions, actions and needs (LCAN) reports from deployed units may not be requested or given the appropriate attention when they are offered. With the slackening of accountability, commanders are unable to maintain situational awareness or have the advantage to forecast a potentially catastrophic event. Further, if conditions deteriorate rapidly, the opportunity to withdraw units or send assistance during Mayday events may be severely compromised.

Preventing accountability slack should be part of the daily regime of every member of the fire service. Company officers should instill the importance of maintaining unit integrity to their firefighters; chief officers should insist upon tight units and accountable company officers at every incident. Officers should know that they are responsible for reporting a change in their location, conditions, and needs in a timely fashion. Also, they must constantly work to achieve the next incident benchmark based on their assignment. ICs should also understand that occasionally a company officer may need to be prompted to provide a situational update. It should be understood that command may request a situational report (sit-rep) when a unit has not achieved a benchmark or conditions at the incident appear to be changing. This request is often an opportunity provided by the IC for the officer to ensure his or her situational awareness and clarity of purpose in their assignment.

Mission Creep

Another likely vulnerability connected to a lack of command vitality is the tendency toward “mission creep.” A strong and active command structure will feature a well-defined set of objectives. The incident action plan (IAP) will offer the path to achieving the objectives and allow for continual assessment and revision as necessary within a coordinated framework. When incident operations suffer from a weak command element, objectives may become skewed. This may result in expectations that are poorly communicated or unrealistic. Companies may compensate on their own by adlibbing what they believe are the proper objectives or strategies. A loss of accountability and operational control will envelop the incident as more companies decide to add their own agendas to their assignments.

Mission creep may also be the result of units completing assignments and not being re-deployed, rehabbed, or released. Left without an assignment, units may extend the parameters of the action plan beyond the intentions of the IC. This may result in unsafe and unsupported tactics that stretch the capabilities of resources and the scope of reasonable action.

A IAP combined with resource accountability provide important safeguards against mission creep. When units are assigned well-defined tasks to meet benchmarks and other mission objectives, there is less of an opportunity for the freelancing that may occur below the command level. The IC must also follow standard operating procedures and adhere to the IAP or modify it to address a change in conditions.    

Ignoring Benchmarks

The fire service maintains benchmarks for evaluating progress and ensuring critical tasks are addressed during incident operations. Primary and secondary search, under control, air quality verified, and overhaul complete are common benchmarks for fire incidents. Company officers should begin working toward achieving these goals based on department policy that is applied to the specifics of an incident. There may be instances when units have difficulty attaining these benchmarks or simply fail to report their progress during rapidly evolving operations. Regardless, the IC has the responsibility to verify that each necessary benchmark has been attained. The vitality of command is jeopardized during operations where progress isn’t routinely measured by obtaining timely situational reports and verifying benchmark goals. Without oversight and evaluation, the safety and effectiveness of the entire IAP may be compromised.  

Enhancing the IC’s ability to maintain optimal span of control will aid in maintaining command vitality. Achieving incident benchmarks should one of the foremost thoughts of each company officer. When these assignments are established and assigned by policy, the IC can have confidence in knowing that as long as the responding companies follow this guidance, the IAP can be configured to consider the particulars of the emergency and the primary objectives will be addressed. To help ensure success, command officers should drill with companies on a regular basis with achieving standard fireground benchmarks for incidents they may encounter in the field. In addition, the same approach should be used for small routine incidents that can be viewed as practice for major operations.

Command Exhaustion

Like all personnel, IC require rest and rehabilitation during operations. Command personnel can’t maintain vitality when they are physically and emotionally drained. Smaller jurisdictions that experience a long-term or highly traumatic incident may find all their chief officers and other senior staff deployed simultaneously to manage the emergency. When these personnel become unable to operate efficiently, the effectiveness of the command structure will diminish considerably. In addition, operating as an IC with a maximized span of control or responding to a large number of lower-impact incidents over a long work shift will hasten the onset of command exhaustion.

Organizations must identify and plan for the possibility of a succession of commanders during a high-impact or long duration incident. In larger jurisdictions, there is often the ability to call in off-duty personnel or chiefs working in other areas of a city to relieve ICs who need rehab. In smaller communities, this opportunity may be limited, but the void may be filled using chief officers and other senior personnel form nearby jurisdictions. The process can be made almost seamless by creating conditions under which command resources are automatically summoned and integrated into the policies, communications network, and structure of the incident jurisdiction. Once this concept is initiated, it will require training and full-scale exercises to make deployment of command assistance as efficient and effortless as deploying any other mutual aid resource.

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Maintaining vitality of command during incident operations will help ensure the safety of personnel and promote the success of the mission. The common conditions that may threaten that vitality may be prevented with well-prepared initiatives. These preparations include training, preplanning, policy development, and using each incident as an opportunity to practice and improve our command structure.

David DeStefanoDAVID DeSTEFANO is a 30-year veteran of and a battalion chief with the North Providence (RI) Fire Department, where he works as a shift commander in the Operations Division. He previously was the chief of training and safety, a captain, a lieutenant, a firefighter in Ladder Company 1, and a lieutenant in Engine Company 3. DeStefano is an instructor/coordinator with the Rhode Island Fire Academy and lectures on fire service topics throughout southern New England. He was a presenter at FDIC International 2017 and 2018.