ISOLATE THE INCIDENT COMMANDER NO MORE
BY TED GOLDFARB
The incident commander (IC) is the information processor in the incident command system. The IC must process information from many sources before he can make vital decisions. Yet, some authorities recommend isolating the IC in a command post vehicle, fire apparatus, or chief`s car. Doing this deprives the IC of vital input that may affect the quality of his decisions.
The proper position for the IC is the location at which he can receive the greatest number of information inputs, especially those derived from the senses–often, this means being at a portable command post in the street in the vicinity of the fire building or other emergency site.
The IC inputs information from many sources such as prefire plans and other hard-copy reference materials; databases, especially when the incident involves hazardous materials; experts on scene or through consultations over the phone; on-scene fire officers` and firefighters` reports; the 13-point size-up; and the commander`s own senses of sight, smell, feel, hearing, taste, and–what I consider the “sixth sense”–intuition.
The information obtained through the senses constitutes an important component of the information the IC uses as the base for his decisions, yet this source of information often is not given much attention.
A few years ago, I had a severe case of bronchitis and was taking a powerful antibiotic. One of its side effects–which I didn`t realize until I went to work one night–was the loss of my sense of smell. The first breath I took at the first fire to which I responded that night caused me to stop in my tracks. I couldn`t smell anything. I didn`t realize how important my sense of smell was until that night. With my sense of smell, I could identify fires involving food burning on the stove, a ballast, a mattress, a clogged incinerator, wood, and probably a dozen other situations as soon as I entered a building. I could walk down an apartment house hallway and tell exactly which apartment had a gas leak without using a detector. Without my sense of smell, I found it hard to function. Luckily, my sense of smell returned when I stopped taking the antibiotic.
The other senses are just as important. With the sense of sight, the IC can put what he sees in perspective in seconds. Getting the same information via a radio report can take minutes; and the IC might get a distorted, incomplete, or inaccurate view.
Senses are part of the IC`s system of controls. They are used to verify reports. For example, if the operations chief reports that the fire is being knocked down on the second floor, the IC should verify this by seeing a diminishing of the volume of fire on the second floor as well as a change in the amount and color of the smoke. How many times have units reported “all fire knocked down” only to find the fire is roaring on the two floors above the one they “knocked down”? Units report they have fire when they have only smoke. An exposure might be described as 25 feet away when it actually is 50 feet away or be described as brick when it is frame. The IC should be the most experienced, knowledgeable, and capable person on the scene. His sense of sight would verify the accuracy of these reports and guarantee the input of correct information into his brain. Keep in mind the cliché associated with computer usage: “Garbage In, Garbage Out.”
The sense of hearing is also vital. Sound can tell the IC that saws are operating and the roof is being opened; a hoseline is advancing or a heavy-caliber stream is striking an obstruction; and a building is creaking or groaning, possibly foretelling structural problems.
The sense of feel also reinforces information for the IC. He can feel the radiant heat of the fire and factor that into his decisions on exposure protection, apparatus positioning, and the need for additional resources. The weather conditions–extreme heat, cold, wind, and humidity–are not just positions of pointers on a gauge, which he may or may not look at in the command vehicle (if it has this equipment) but are constantly reminding the IC of how they are affecting the firefighters and the fire itself.
I haven`t come up with any advantages for the sense of taste other than of being able to know how good the coffee and donuts from the canteen are.
But the sixth sense–the intuition of an experienced incident commander–can play a very important role in the successful outcome of the incident. Intuition is knowing or sensing something without the use of rational processes.
Isolating the incident commander in a command vehicle, chief`s car, or apparatus subjects him to sensory deprivation that can affect the outcome of the incident. And, we are striving for “the best possible outcome” for each incident to which we respond. The best possible outcome means that once we receive an alarm, the result will be the least number of deaths and injuries to civilians and firefighters and the least amount of property damage. The other end of the spectrum would be that “all fires eventually go out.”
The incident commander should be located at a portable command post at a location that provides the best possible view of the operation, the opportunities to use all of his senses, and access to all other information inputs. The IC doesn`t have to be attached to or operate the command post. It should be operated by a support staff ranging from one to more individuals in addition to the IC, depending on the size and type of the incident. The IC should operate in the vicinity of the command post but should not be handcuffed to it. He should be able to step away to get a better or different view of the incident, focus on the incident, and confer with people without interruption. By having a conspicuous portable command post, fire units or people from outside agencies reporting in or needing information will be able to go to the command post, where their needs will be addressed by the support staff; they will not have to go to the IC.
I am not suggesting that there is no need for a command post vehicle or a well-equipped chief`s vehicle that provides additional computer and radio capability, reference materials, stationery and supplies, desk space, weather instruments, a controlled environment, and conference space. There are times when the IC could enter and use these vehicles, especially at long, complex operations. Ideally, however, the IC should spend most of his time outside at the portable command post. The command post vehicle or chief`s car should be as close as possible to the portable command post. Support staff should operate inside the vehicles to maximize their capability to assist the IC, especially with information input. The IC should not be isolated in a vehicle or other location that deprives him of some of his most important information inputs–his six senses. n
TED GOLDFARB is deputy chief of Division 8 and a 33-year veteran of the City of New York (NY) Fire Department. He is the fire science coordinator at Middlesex County (NJ) College and received a bachelor of science degree from Thomas Edison State College.