Question: In your department, what are the actions of the first-in officer at a fire? What should the officer do? Where should he be?
Things aren’t what they used to be in the fire service. (Picture an overweight, smoke-wrinkled old fire officer!) “When I came on, son, officers were officers! They went in with their crew and did what had to be done! No standing outside with a radio in your ear. Just get in and get-er-done!”
When I came on the job, officers always participated with their crew-even if they were the first on the scene. Size-ups were given, and then the crew (the entire crew) went in and did something. Then, slowly, like a reverse sun rising (from west to east), this incident command thing came along and changed the face of fireground operations. Gone were the days of the first-in officer’s participating with his crew. Gone were the days of an officer’s doing what he knew needed to be done. Gone were the days of only the chief’s standing outside, barking orders like a drill sergeant.
Today, after the arrival of the first-in officer, I expect a brief initial size-up-nothing too elaborate, but something that paints a picture for incoming units. “Dispatch, this is Engine 7. We have heavy smoke from a two-story house. Engine 7 is Command.”
Under most circumstances, I feel that’s adequate. From that point on, the officer assigned to Engine 7 is the incident commander (IC) and not part of Engine 7. He still has an engine and one or more firefighters (depending on staffing) to start something (pull a line, acquire a water supply, or pop a door). The officer now should assign other incoming units as procedure or the incident dictates until the incident is over or he is relieved by higher authority.
Note: Never say “always”! There is an exception to this “rule.” If known rescues are present, the officer can and should participate with his crew and command should be established by the next-in officer. This fact should be transmitted over the radio as soon as it is known so the next-in crews know what’s occurring.
I’ve run fires both ways-allowing the officer to participate and not allowing the officer to participate. I’d never go back to the old days.
–John “Skip” Coleman, deputy chief of fire prevention, Toledo (OH) Department of Fire and Rescue, is author of Incident Management for the Street-Smart Fire Officer (Fire Engineering, 1997) and Managing Major Fires (Fire Engineering, 2000), a technical editor of Fire Engineering, and a member of the FDIC Educational Advisory Board.
Thomas Dunne, deputy chief,Fire Department of New York
Response: In FDNY, the first-arriving officer immediately transmits a “10-75” radio signal to the dispatcher indicating a working fire. If a structure is involved, he also includes the type and height of the building along with the fire’s floor location.
Following an initial size-up, an engine officer directs his chauffeur to establish a water supply at a hydrant (leaving the front of the building clear for ladder apparatus positioning). He then supervises his three or four additional firefighters in stretching and positioning the first hoseline.
The officer’s position is fluid at this time. If possible, he will check the floor below the fire as a guide to determining the layout of the fire floor. Once the hoseline is in place, he positions right next to his nozzle and backup firefighters. The officer then determines when to charge the hose and commence the fire attack, relaying conditions to the IC as he supervises and encourages his crew.
The first ladder officer sizes up and immediately enters the building with his two-member interior team, forces entry to the occupancy, locates the fire, and initiates search. He also coordinates his three-member outside team by radio as the members ladder and vent the exterior of the building.
In our department, all personnel have fireground radios. The first-in officer in an engine or a ladder unit receives a great deal of radio input from firefighters inside and outside the building, giving different perspectives of the fire. The officer’s ability to use this information to develop a “six dimensional” view of the fire, adjust tactics as needed, and communicate effectively with the IC often determines the safety and success of the operation.
Craig H. Shelley, fire protection advisor, Saudi Aramaco
Response: In our department, the first officer on the scene performs an immediate size-up based on visual indicators and alarm information, secures an adequate water supply, and most importantly gathers additional information from the industrial plant personnel. In an industrial setting, it is imperative to consult with the plant operations personnel to gather additional intelligence regarding the process involved, rescue actions needed, actions taken prior to the fire department’s arrival, and actions that need to be taken.
Many times, the fire department’s first priority is exposure cooling. Industrial fires require that the process unit be shut down; this may take time. An uncoordinated shutdown of process equipment may create additional problems in other sections of the plant. Plant operations personnel perform shutdown and isolation activities. While awaiting this shutdown, the cooling of exposures is essential to prevent the spread of fire and the heating of exposed structural elements or overpressurization of pressure vessels by increased heat.
It is imperative that the first-arriving officer coordinate the fire department’s activities with those of the plant operation’s personnel. While performing size-up, the mnemonic “COAL TWAS WEALTHS” (construction, occupancy, area, life hazard, terrain, weather, auxiliary appliances, street conditions, water supply, exposures, apparatus and staffing, location and extent, time, height, and special conditions) is also effective on industrial incidents, with slight modification to meet the needs of the industrial setting.
John O’Neal, chief,Manassas Park (VA) Fire Department
Response: The actions of our first-in officer depend on the circumstances found on arrival, daily staffing levels, and apparatus available at the time of the alarm. At structure fires, when the company arrives with a three- or four-person crew as a single company, often the company officer performs a size-up and, based on conditions, takes a mobile commander stance while participating in fire attack or other tactical priorities until relieved by the next-arriving company or a senior command officer.
If the company officer arrives at a working incident with a crew of five or six personnel on two apparatus, the company office should have a strong command presence until relieved by a senior command officer. Again, this is a dependent situation: If the incident is better served by the company officer’s participating in the initial attack because of life safety concerns, the officer can operate as a mobile commander passing command to the next company or chief officer on arrival.
Jeffrey Schwering, lieutenant,Crestwood (MO) Department of Fire Services
Response: The main priority for the first-due officer at any incident is the health and safety of the crew. In my department, the first-arriving officer at a fire scene, regardless of the type of fire, must do a complete and comprehensive size-up and take a quick lap around the involved structure to make an educated preliminary decision on fire attack and determine if additional help is needed.
After size-up, the officer orders the appropriate size lines placed into service for an offensive or a defensive attack. If the incident proves to be a working fire, the officer is left with two options: aggressive interior attack or take command and initiate a defensive attack.
If the attack is offensive, the officer should go with the crew and initially operate under a working command until additional resources arrive. If a defensive operation is initiated, the officer remains outside supervising until a chief officer arrives. When a chief officer arrives, the first-due officer does a face-to-face with the chief so everyone is on the same page. This will continue to ensure the safety of all members operating on the scene.
We usually have at least two officers arriving at the same time. With both chiefs living in town, our command structure is rapidly placed in service to protect all members operating at the incident.
Mike Mason, lieutenant,Downers Grove (IL) Fire Department
Response: The first-in company officer-whether arriving on an engine, a truck, or a squad-has a significant impact in setting the stage for an incident’s outcome. He must provide a complete size-up; make sound tactical and strategic decisions; and understand the importance of the bread-and-butter tasks at the beginning of fire suppression operations, offensive and defensive, along with the more complex incidents that may involve technical rescue and hazardous materials.
The size-up delivers appropriate information through radio communications for the remainder of the arriving companies-in other words, it delivers with clarity and conviction the officer’s intentions and the resources needed to get things started on the right foot. It should be a clear and decisive action plan that makes all at the scene aware of what the initial approach will be. Offensive? Defensive? Is rescue involved? Are officers assigning incoming units in a manner that will enhance and guarantee the success of the initial action plan?
Our officers are expected to perform a 360° size-up, when possible, to collect valuable information related to fire location, rescue, and safety before committing a hoseline or to an action in a specific sector of the building.
For the engine officer, committing that first line and its size are of utmost importance. In many situations, it may entail the officer’s entering a structure with a thermal imaging camera, if possible, to acquire information on fire involvement and location. What are we going into here? What are we truly seeing and committing to? This ability to acquire accurate information moves the direction and speed of interior lines more efficiently and safely.
For truck and squad company officers, it means collecting information on and anticipating ventilation, forcible entry, and life rescue as they relate to the incident. The location of the fire along with operations entailing vent-enter–search procedures are extremely precarious, necessitating that the officers of these companies uphold safety and accountability to the utmost.
Our officers are expected to operate efficiently regarding hoseline advancement and placement and job assignments on the line to support the hoseline. This ensures its movement and integrity from the pump to the seat of the fire. Truck officers are expected to anticipate construction endangerments as well as specific ladder operations and the need for vertical and horizontal ventilation when appropriate.
All officers are to be aware of the relationships of their tasks and objectives and the importance of good communications between outside and inside companies while continuously supplying command and sector officers with clear and updated information. Officers are to strive for progress and forward motion that support fire suppression efforts and to report any emergency traffic information that jeopardizes members’ lives.
Departments should know what is to be done on the fireground, how, when, and by which of their company members. This information and the overall task-oriented assignments being observed and heard over radio communications keep the officer and company members completely aware. Officers should know the consistencies and usual fireground operational formats. For example, truck companies usually support engine operations when the hoseline is committed, not the other way around. Simple concepts that are firmly rooted provide for consistency and safety on the fireground.
The bottom line is that fire service officers should be deeply committed to the protection and safety of their crews. They are to ensure that the command section of an interior or exterior operation is completely informed through concise and frequently updated communications.
Gary Seidel, chief,Hillsboro (OR) Fire Department
Response: I would expect the first-in engine company to give a complete size-up, painting a complete picture of the incident to the best of its ability: “Engine 1 is on the scene of a two-story, single-family residence, 2110 NE Grant Street, with heavy smoke coming from the A/B corner of the first and second floors. We have a report of occupants still inside.” We have just evaluated the environment we are now in and described the incident, the conditions, location, percent involved, and life safety situation.
In addition, the engine company officer would call additional resources, if needed. Next, the officer describes the action being taken by his crew: “Engine 1 has taken the hydrant and is deploying the two firefighters to fire attack.”
As far as taking command, our fire officers have two options: assume or pass command. I respect the decision the company officer makes. The officer either assumes command, as in the case described above, or passes command and with the two firefighters takes fire attack, which might be the case if there is a life safety priority involving people inside. If the officer passes command, he must be with his company.
Company officers need the ability to make “incident-specific” decisions based on what they are confronted with and to implement tactics to support those decisions. If the officer assumes command, he is generally located outside the incident at a vantage point to command it. The company officer, or IC, at this time is responsible for the incident’s outcome. This officer must be given the latitude to make the required assignments; he has the best information available. This information, coupled with training, experience, and “known priorities,” enables the company officer to make the best decisions for mitigating the incident.
When relieved by an officer of higher command, the officer briefs the incoming officer and takes the assignment he is given. It all begins with the first company on the scene. Allowing our firefighters to establish the incident’s priorities and to accomplish incident objectives based on the exigent circumstances with which they are confronted during the scope of the emergency usually ensures a more successful outcome.
Christopher J. Weir, division chief,Port Orange (FL) Fire & Rescue
Response: The first-in officer sets the tone and pace relative to the success or failure at a fire scene. This officer establishes command, provides a complete and concise size-up of the conditions, establishes if there is a working fire, and estimates the resources needed to control the incident (greater alarm call, specialty teams, RIT/RIC/FAST crews, and medical units).
The first-in officer effectively establishes the first-in hoselines necessary to provide the setting for two-in/two-out or fast attack objectives while remaining on the Division A side communicating tasks to incoming companies. The objective of remaining at Division A is to remain visible and to enable the IC to direct companies to their assigned divisions. Moreover, remaining relatively stationary allows for an effective transfer of command once the battalion chief arrives on-scene and establishes a face-to-face information debriefing. The officer then returns to his crew in their assigned division.
The officer also includes all objectives to ensure total safety through teamwork, communication, scene accountability, and leading by example so everyone goes home after the incident is completed.
Bobby Shelton, firefighter/EMT- I,Cincinnati (OH) Fire Department
Response: As someone who is not an officer but does on occasional ride in the “seat,” I have made it my business to learn from company officers I respect a great deal. One of the things a first-due officer must provide is an accurate size-up of the event. This is invaluable for resource management as well as for letting responding companies know what they have. More than once, I have heard the size-up cited as “working fire.” That’s it, nothing else. So the first-in officer needs to provide an adequate and accurate size-up.
After giving the size-up and taking a quick walk around the structure, the company officer can begin functions with his company (engine or truck). At the same time, he can be monitoring the radio for any hazards or changes that may be encountered while he is in the structure working. Once the district chief arrives on-scene, he automatically assumes command and calls in a second size-up of the structure as well as the activities of companies and the progress being made. For a “standard” structure fire, there is no face-to-face passing of command. Since our response for the first alarm is two engines, two trucks, one rapid assistance truck, two district chiefs, one medic unit, and one squad, the command structure is there. All companies will have at least a lieutenant in charge and, depending on what shift is working, the company commander of that fire company (captain) may be there as well.
When it comes to where that first-due officer should be, I have read much that says he should be in a central location until relieved of command. As long as the ICS is in full effect and the event is being managed, we have found it works well having the first-in company officer go to work with his company and the district chief being kept abreast of the situation; a face-to-face with that officer is not necessary unless things go awry or no progress is being made.
Billy Jack Wenzel, captain,Wichita (KS) Fire Department
Response: In Wichita, the vast majority of structure fires are in single-family, wood-framed residences. Most of these fires can be controlled with a single attack line if the line is placed in operation quickly. For this line to be deployed quickly, the first-arriving companies must accomplish several fireground functions. We station a three-person engine company and a two-person squad in a firehouse. At our routine “bread-and-butter” fire, these two units usually are first on the scene. The following describes the standard operating procedures for the first-arriving companies using a three-person fire attack.
The squad arrives and positions itself away from the scene. The officer gives quick orders to his driver and provides a brief size-up (OSCAR-occupancy, size, conditions, actions, resources). Then in full protective clothing (gloves, SCBA, and masks on), the squad crew and the firefighter from the engine pull an attack line and a rapid intervention company (RIC) line from the arriving engine. The squad should have the lines fully extended and be prepared to make entry (this includes carrying additional equipment: light, ax, pike pole). When the attack line is charged, the interior fire attack can be initiated.
The engine arrives immediately behind the squad. The driver positions the apparatus in the prime location considering where the attack line will be deployed and the location of the potential water supply. The driver then engages the pump and sets the brake before leaving the apparatus. The driver charges the attack line as soon as possible and then charges the RIC line. The driver is in full protective clothing and ready to respond as RIC. The firefighter in full protective clothing is immediately assigned as part of the squad crew and assists with the deployment of the squad’s attack line, making sure the bed is clear and the line is not kinked. The firefighter then assists in deploying the RIC line and prepares to make entry. The engine officer quickly gives orders, takes command, and provides a detailed size-up and assignment information over the radio. The officer in full protective clothing recons the structure, noting the possible fire location, the location of crews, and any potential hazards. The engine officer/IC is the initial RIC officer. The RIC officer ultimately positions himself at the fire attack entry point and monitors the progress of the fire attack group.
If an engine company arrives first on the scene, the squad driver joins the engine officer and firefighter as the fire attack group. The squad officer becomes the IRIC officer with the engine driver. As additional companies arrive (generally within three to four minutes), augmenting RIC and establishing a stationary command post are tactical priorities.
Roger A. McGary, chief,Silver Spring (MD) Fire Department
Response: Response to structural fires in Montgomery County is governed by the “SOP for Safe Structural Firefighting Operations.” This policy mandates a variety of requirements such as appropriate personal protective equipment (PPE) in immediately dangerous to life and health (IDLH) atmospheres, use of two-in/two-out, and transition to rapid intervention.
The first-arriving officer is required to provide size-up information through the Initial On-Scene Report (IOSR) that details the arrival side of the building; the number of stories; the type of occupancy; conditions evident on arrival with associated geographic location using ICS terminology; a request for additional resources; and, if deviating from the SOP, designating other unit assignments.
After the initial size-up, the first-arriving unit gives a situation report, advises other companies what the initial actions will be, designates the standby team (two-in/two out) and the point of entry, and indicates the command mode.
To establish command and control of the fireground before the arrival of a command officer and engage in critical tactical operations, the first-arriving unit officer operates in one of the two following command modes, which must be announced as the unit engages in operations:
Investigative Mode-the first-due officer has command by radio while investigating, and
Attack Mode-the situation found on arrival requires immediate action. The company officer’s assistance is required, and that officer must be directly involved with the attack. The company officer supervises the crew and has command responsibility by portable radio. This command mode is limited to a few minutes and ends when the situation is stabilized, the situation is not stabilized but the company officer withdraws to the exterior and establishes a stationary command post, or command is transferred to another company officer or to a command officer.
In addition to all of the above, the unit officer must initiate a water supply and connect to the building’s standpipe or sprinkler system, if present; report deviations from the SOP; provide water supply instructions to other units; follow IDLH operations requirements; advance a handline to the fire floor; and begin fire attack/confinement. The outcome of an incident is driven by the actions of the first-in unit officer.
P.D. Hoyle, lieutenant,Portsmouth (VA) Fire Department
Response: The responsibility of the first-in officer at any incident in our city is command. Whether the incident is a working structure fire, a service call, or an EMS response, if the first officer on the scene fails to effectively initiate incident command, the incident can escalate beyond its initial parameters. This officer has a couple of options based on experience and our SOPs. If the district battalion chief is not the first-arriving officer, he probably will be on-scene quickly. Thus, on a bread-and-butter fire call, the first officer may take command while initiating an interior attack, turning command over to the battalion chief when he arrives. If the officer has a large enough crew, he may establish a street command, allowing the rest of the crew to initiate the attack. On a more complex incident, he will generally establish a street command.
Whether the arriving battalion chiefs assume command in either of the latter cases depends on their comfort level with the incident and the officers’ experience and competence. In many cases, the battalion chief will allow the initial officer to remain in command while serving in an advisory capacity. This allows inexperienced officers to develop the skills and confidence they need to handle increasingly difficult incidents while at the same time having a senior and experienced officer available to take command if necessary.
Where officers position themselves is largely up to them and is driven by the circumstances of the incident. Most choose a street command in an area within view of the incident but far enough away to be safe and out of the “crowd.” Some, particularly the battalion chiefs, choose to remain with their vehicle. At high-rise incidents, they will usually establish command in the lobby of the affected building. In any case, a command board is established to assist with incident management and accountability. Depending on the severity of the incident, they will flesh out their command structure, filling operational and staff positions as necessary.
Portsmouth’s fire, rescue, and emergency services enjoy great success in their response to fire calls within the city. We are aggressive in our attacks, which results in saving the majority of the structures to which we respond, many of them of historical significance. We accomplish this safely with few fireground injuries. We attribute this success to a strong ICS that is an inherent part of our culture.
Christopher Fleming, lieutenant,Portland (ME) Fire Department
Response: Our department uses the National Incident Management System at all incidents where three or more units are working. The company officer of the first on-scene unit is required to provide an initial radio report with the address, conditions, assumption of command (or passing thereof), and command mode: Command, Mobile Command, or Fast Attack. Mobile command is used mostly on “Nothing showing” incidents. Fast attack is used on bread-and-butter fires (usually one- or two-family dwelling room-and-contents fires). For more complicated incidents or larger multiple dwellings, a stronger command presence is typically used. As most of our companies respond with an officer and two firefighters, command has the following options at a working incident: remain outside as a strong command presence and limit crew to operations outside the IDLH zone, enter with the crew and pass command to the next-due unit, or remain outside as command and assign his crew to another company officer. Many of our company officers have found the latter two options work for our “typical” fires and the first option works in complicated jobs or defensive fires.
Anecdotally, assigning crew members to another company works best when possible. For example, a three-person engine and a three-person truck are first on-scene at a working incident in a triple-decker (one apartment on each floor). The engine officer establishes command and assigns the nozzle firefighter to work with the truck crew. This leaves three firefighters to stretch a line under a supervisor who can report interior conditions.
Once the line is in place and charged, the door can be forced, and the officer and three firefighters can move in, knock down any visible fire, and commence a primary search. Meanwhile, the engine officer assigns the remainder of the companies. When the deputy chief arrives, the formal transfer of command takes place, and the officer can rejoin his company.
The company officers are given the latitude to make the decision as to how best to run each incident. What is important is that command is established, companies are assigned, and firefighter safety and accountability are maintained by having everyone work for a supervisor.
Will Anderson, lieutenant,Euclid (OH) Fire Department
Response: The first-in officer is responsible for accurately sizing up the fire, establishing the ICS, and stating which mode will be undertaken. Although we’re considered a small department, we have two engines, one ladder, one medic unit, and a platoon chief responding on a full-alarm assignment for a total of 12 firefighters. Our engines and ladder are staffed by a minimum of one officer and at least two firefighters; our medic units have two firefighter/paramedics. The first-in officer is usually the IC only for a couple of minutes, because the platoon chief is usually only a minute or two behind and will assume command for a working incident. In the meantime, if the first-in officer feels the incident is beyond the capability of incoming units, he can request additional resources in the form of remaining on-duty members and mutual aid.
If the first-in officer states he is going “fast attack,” he will be going with the nozzleman, and the platoon chief will assume command once he is on-scene and is given an up-to-date report from the first-in officer. If the first-in officer reports to dispatch and incoming units that nothing is showing, the officer and his crew investigate the source of the problem while the platoon chief stands by on the exterior awaiting word from the officer and letting that officer remain as the IC; other responding units will stage accordingly. Finally, he can assume formal command if he has determined that it would be more beneficial to stay on the exterior while giving assignments to units once they arrive on-scene instead of taking part in the attack.
John W. Shiflett, captain,Prince William County (VA)Department of Fire & Rescue
Response: One of the first decisions the first-in officer makes is to ensure that a plan is started for water supply. This could be in the form of laying a line from a hydrant or another object for a rural water operation, spotting the hydrant with the attack pumper, or having another pumper perform a reverse lay. This information is radioed so all responding units know the water supply plan. In addition, the officer is to radio an on-scene report that clearly paints the picture, including building description and visual indicators of a fire for all incoming units. After exiting the pumper, the officer walks around the structure and develops the initial action plan. This plan is to be relayed to the responding units by radio or face-to-face to those units already on the scene. We have in place a procedure titled “Standardized Strategic/Tactical Activity Guide for Structure Fires” that outlines the basic operations for all first-alarm units according to the structure type. This alleviates the need for the officer to give directions to each unit as it arrives.
Relative to the location of the officer, he is expected to be on the line with the crew directing the operation. We also have a procedure that states the first-in officer is in charge regardless of whether formal command is established. Establishing formal command is the responsibility of the officer on the second-arriving engine or the battalion chief, depending on who arrives first.
Randall W. Hanifen, lieutenant,West Chester (OH) Fire-Rescue
Response: We have a written SOG that dictates the actions of the first-in officer. Some of the tasks assigned to this officer are to locate the fire building, provide a size-up of the incident, and transmit a radio report. The officer is responsible for locating a water supply and consulting on the preplan, if available. Once at the scene, the officer must establish the ICS, develop an operating strategy, and employ tactics to support this strategy. Use of the mnemonic FOBLARAS (fire, occupancy, building, layout, available water, resources, actions taking place, and special circumstances) aids the first-arriving officer in computing all of the necessary variables for employing the correct strategy and tactics. In our department, the first-arriving company officer is a working officer. In addition to being the initial IC, he must work with his company to employ the tactics needed to meet the selected strategy. The officer ideally should be at the rear of the crew so he can oversee the members and check the environment for safety concerns, such as rapidly changing fire conditions. Although we have clearly defined expectations in the SOG, there is leeway for the officer to employ the strategy and tactics that best fit the incident at hand.
David Polikoff, captain,Montgomery County (MD)Fire and Rescue
Response: Size-up of the incident is critical; the actions taken in the initial minutes of a fire may dictate the incident’s outcome. That being said, the first line officer on the scene of a fire must take an appropriate position on the fireground. An engine company must establish a water supply and ensure that the responding units understand the water supply instructions. If the ladder truck arrives on the scene first, the unit must be positioned to raise ladders, ventilate, and use the aerial if necessary. The first-arriving officer must paint a mental picture for the incoming units as well as the IC. This includes any address corrections, the side of the building at which you arrive, the size and type of structure, what you see, your action plan (offensive, defensive), instructions to incoming units if you need to deviate from the SOP, establishing command, designating your two-in/two-out, and any additional resources needed.
The above is what my county has established as an initial on-scene report. We use two modes of command-Investigative Mode (nothing showing) and Attack Mode. The first unit will have command briefly until a command officer arrives on the scene. Command will then be transferred over the radio, and the unit will be assigned to a group.
Palatine (IL) Fire Department
Paul Wallis, lieutenant, Palatine (IL) Fire Department
Response: I was promoted three months ago, and in the time leading up to it, I asked this same thing of our company officers. Our department uses three-person engines and does not have a set procedure for being first in at a fire. These actions are at the discretion of the officer. Our newer officers are now being taught the actions that should be taken.
The officer should first walk around the structure, if possible. Our community is largely residential, so it is often possible to accomplish this. We have received training from our experienced officers on “reading” the building to get an idea of the layout. Walking around may also help locate victims or the fire.
After completing the walk-around, the officer joins his crew for line advancement. Our department also has a squad or ambulance with two members from the still district. It is common practice now that they join the first engine crew so the officer has three members to direct.
The officer’s tool is the radio. The officer must be constantly watching out for the safety of the crew. It is also his responsibility to make sure the crew gets what it needs to assist in its tasks.
Our department will be losing a great number of experienced officers over the next few years. Listening to and heeding the lessons they have learned the hard way will benefit everyone, especially the new company officers. History and experience are the greatest teachers.
Anthony Avillo, deputy chief,North Hudson (NJ)Regional Fire & Rescue
Response: It is critical that initial scene operations be assigned prior to the response by SOP. Generally, the more a department can do to address first-alarm apparatus positioning, initial actions, and communications, the more effective and safe the early scene operation will be. Without some early structure to the operation, the harder it will be to manage and the more unsafe it will become as it escalates. Operational safety is based on command and control. Command and control start with organization. Anyone who believes otherwise is just “winging it,” a potentially deadly mindset.
We have an initial scene assignment SOP that directs the actions of the first to arrive. If the first on-scene officer is a chief officer, he remains at the front of the building, establishing command and directing operations. If it is a company officer, after giving an initial radio report and establishing command, the tasks he has depends on whether he is on a ladder or an engine company.
On a reported fire, we dispatch four engines, two ladders, a battalion chief, a safety officer, a command technician, and a rescue company. If it is after 2000 hours, a deputy chief is also assigned on the box. Prior to that time, he has the option to respond for a reported fire. On confirmation of a working fire, he must respond. At that time, we also dispatch a RIC team and what we call a “fifth engine,” normally a squad company. This front-loading of companies has proved effective. With all this apparatus responding, if we did not have a solid initial scene assignment protocol, initial operations would be difficult to coordinate. Large department or small, or whether two or 20 companies respond, there should be a policy in place to organize personnel and give them the best and safest chance for success.
Also, regardless of rank or company designation, the first-arriving officer is also charged by SOP with broadcasting an initial radio report to dispatch. The policy driving this report is specific as to what information is included, and a template is laminated and glued on the dashboard of all apparatus. This is so that if an acting officer is working, he can get the proper information to dispatch and the incoming companies correctly. As a result of this policy and its enforcement, responding personnel are conditioned as to what should be included and what they should expect to hear. When the report is not proper, it usually gets corrected at the scene and reinforced later. Haphazard and unenforced policies or, worse yet, lack of policy on what to say when the first company gets on the scene helps no one.
Included in the initial radio report are the following: the address, construction, occupancy, height of the building, whether it is attached and where, whether the roof is flat or peaked, the arrival conditions, the initial actions taken, and the establishment of command. If done correctly, it is a neat little bundle of information that tells the story as it stands on arrival. A sample report follows: “Squad 1 on the scene, 5212 Bergenline Ave. Have a four-story mixed-use residential over commercial occupancy of ordinary construction, flat roof, attached on the Delta side. Nothing showing. Squad 1 will be investigating. Establishing Bergenline Ave. Command.” This report is brief yet comprehensive and paints a good picture of arrival conditions. This officer may also strike an additional alarm as the situation dictates.
When there is a working fire, after broadcasting the initial radio report, the first-arriving company officer usually uses a mobile command as the battalion chief often arrives soon after him and assumes command. Staffing is such that we cannot afford to have a company-level person standing in the street, regardless of rank. This firefighter has to go to work, hence the need for a mobile command. If the officer commands an engine company, it will operate as the attack team and stretch an attack line to the seat of the fire, assisted by the second engine on-scene. The second engine also provides water to the first. We generally ride three personnel to an engine company, so marrying the first two engines puts four people on the first line while each engine’s chauffeur handles the water supply duties. This concept basically combines the personnel of two understaffed engines to get the job done as one properly staffed company.
If a ladder company is first on-scene, depending on the narrowness of the block, it may elect to wait for an engine company to arrive before committing to the block. If the street is wide enough, it will enter the block. With regard to command duties, the ladder company will operate in the same manner as the first-arriving engine officer, using a mobile command. The first-arriving ladder company will usually operate according to the type of roof the building has. As mentioned earlier, we respond two ladders and a rescue company on each reported fire. If the roof is flat, the first ladder has the roof; the second ladder works with the attack team. If the roof is peaked, the first-arriving ladder works with the attack team while the second ladder operates on the exterior, providing ventilation, rear recon, and upper floor vent-enter-search (VES). The rescue company operates mainly as a third ladder company and generally operates on the floor above the fire or gets plugged into whatever hole the IC needs to address. This may change based on where the alarm is in the region and on whether the rescue arrives before the second-due ladder. In that case, it will usually work with the attack team, and the second-arriving ladder will work the floor above the fire. As we often operate with three personnel on ladder and rescue companies, personnel stay together. We do not split a three-person team. No one operates alone at any time. Company integrity is preached and enforced at all times.
These operations have served us well. The bottom line with regard to initial scene operations, however, is that they should be assigned in advance and known to all. Adopting and adhering to an SOP and training on it works best. Waiting until you get on the fireground to “wing it” is unacceptable, encourages freelancing, and almost always will result in uncoordinated operations.
Carl J. Mack, lieutenant,Elyria (OH) Fire Department
Response: Our fire department uses incident command and risk management to assist the first-in officer on initial actions and his working location at a fire. While en route, the first-in officer performs the usual prearrival size-up, such as time of day, occupancy type, and dispatch information received. This officer must also consider the estimated length of time his first-in company will be the only fire department resource on-scene (our engines have 750-gallon water tanks).
Once on scene, the first-in officer must give an accurate size-up to minimally include construction and occupancy type, size, and number of stories and what is confronting him (smoke, fire, location, amount, exposures, life safety). After proper placement of the apparatus, this officer must make a quick 360° survey and relay the following to incoming units: the mode of attack he is taking (offensive, defensive, marginal) and the type of command and actions taken: investigate, fast attack, assume command.
Investigate. The first-in officer assumes mobile command and passes command on arrival of a chief officer (on-duty assistant chief for us).
Fast Attack. The first-in officer goes to the interior with the rest of the company. This is used when the first-in officer feels there is a reasonable chance that the actions of the initial company will positively affect the operations; he maintains mobile command until command is passed to a later arriving chief officer.
Assume command. The officer assumes command on the exterior (usually side 1) and begins a setup mode for operations.
By following the above-mentioned procedure, the first-in officer at a fire can follow the rules of risk management, life safety, incident stabilization, and property conservation. This guide serves to assist prioritization and decision making involving actions taken for initial strategy and tactics as well as a smooth transition of passing command.
Brian K. Singles, firefighter,Hampton (VA) Fire Department
Response: In Hampton, the actions of the first-in officer depend on his level of confidence and experience. A level-headed experienced officer once arriving on the scene of a working fire has the choice of staging outside of the building and directing incoming crews to critical tasks or advancing inside with the attack crew, directing them to the seat of the fire. Some officers don’t mind giving up the nozzle to a firefighter, which should be happening anyway. The officer should be the last one in and the last one out, making sure that his crew is always safe and accounted for in case things go bad.
An officer who refuses to go in and get dirty, smoky, and sweaty during the firefight alongside his crew shouldn’t be a suppression officer. Being a fire officer is a huge responsibility: Fire officers make all kinds of decisions in the course of the shift. When it comes time to making decisions on the fireground, their first one might not be the right one, but at least they made it. When they do make the right decision, things go a lot more smoothly: The fire goes out, occupants are saved, property damage is held to a minimum, and all the firefighters go home safely.
The most important place for the fire officer to be, whether in the station or on the fireground, is always beside his crew, no matter how good or bad things seem to get. That’s how they earn respect from their crew and the battalion chief.
James Rhodes, lieutenant,Ft. Huachuca (AZ) Fire Department, U.S. Army
Response: The first-in officer at a fire should first size up (IDLH factors, utilities secured, call for additional resources if needed); determine if there are victims still inside (rescue); consider going defensive if conditions are extreme; and maintain good communications with the IC.
Matt Rettmer, lieutenant,Castle Rock (CO) Fire Department
Response: The first-in officer has numerous duties and responsibilities when arriving at an incident. As many departments, we focus on the three incident priorities: life safety, incident stabilization, and property conservation. The first-due officer’s actions set the tone for the rest of the incident. It is clearly understood in our department that the first-due officer radios a thorough size-up of the scene or incident. A 360° is performed if possible; it may not be done because of the size of the building or limited/no access around the building. The first-due officer then directs the first handline and assists with interior actions.
The officer is the eyes and ears of the fire attack team and assists with locating, confining, and extinguishing the fire. As this line is advanced, a primary search is also conducted unless a second team/unit is available to search. It is our practice to have the officer back up the nozzleman or be up front near the nozzle team. This is the best place to evaluate the conditions and determine the best course of action for the fire attack team and evaluate what additional assistance may be needed. Because of our limited staffing (three on engines), our officers do get hands-on. The officer must assist with forcible entry, advancing hose, conducting search, and removing victims if encountered.
The first-due officer has a huge responsibility when arriving at a fire, one that I and some of my fellow officers thrive on.
Paul J. Urbano, captain,Anchorage (AK) Fire Department
Response: If you’re fortunate enough to have been to this location before whether during previous alarms, area familiarization, a quick action plan, or a drill, you already may have valuable information that can help set the stage for a more successful operation.
Our first-in officers are expected to give a size-up (initial radio report) to include what they see; declare a working fire (where it is and percent involved); establish command; and formulate/communicate an action plan, tactical assignments, and strategy. Additional size-up information may be added after making a walk-around to gather more of the story.
As firefighters, we are trained to do something. As officers, we have to know when to go and when to say “whoa.”
On most fires, our engine company officers go in with their company to make a “fast attack.” If our first-in officer is on a truck or rescue company, he will give a size-up as described above but may not go in until a line is stretched from the first-due engine; however, if a rescue is indicated, he will perform accordingly.
If the situation is complex and no chief is on-scene yet, the first-in officer may choose to stay outside and be in “command mode.” This isn’t always popular with company members, but sometimes it’s the right thing to do.
Finally, our first-in officers are charged with making a decision and acting appropriately to save lives, protect the environment, and save property.
Ron Hiraki, assistant chief,Gig Harbor (WA) Fire & Medic One
Response: We have trained all of our members to perform and transmit a standardized size-up report. As a combination fire department, the first-in member may be a new volunteer firefighter or our most experienced battalion chief. In any case, the first-in officer must transmit a good size-up report that “paints” an accurate and concise picture of what is occurring. Additionally, the size-up report must include the actions being initiated and what needs to be done. In our rural areas, there are many long narrow roads or driveways, and there is no second chance or room for “adjustment.”
Except for the size-up report, we empower our first-in officers to take whatever action they think will be the most beneficial to the firefighting operation, as long as they follow the two-in/two out rule. This may range from making a known rescue to establishing command and setting up master streams for a defensive fire attack. In between those actions, the first-in officer may direct members to start laying hoselines while the officer conducts a 360° inspection of the structure. We do expect an officer who establishes command and designates a command post location to be at that location. We have instructed our members not to play IC if they are unable to command (because of performing urgent tasks) or are not in a location to command (directing incoming units).
Ed Federkeil, battalion chief,Broward Sheriff (FL) Fire Rescue
Response: As most departments, we have written SOPs on incident command, but in most cases circumstances will dictate procedures. There are still definitive actions we expect from our first-due company officers.
It would be very unrealistic to expect a first-arriving company officer of a three- or four-person company to position himself in front of the fire building and to establish command only until relieved by a battalion chief. In some cases, the battalion chief can be 10 minutes behind the first-due, and many essential fireground functions need to be completed before the first-arriving officer may be relieved by another company officer or the battalion chief.
The initial sequence of events should be automatic for the first-due officer. Establishing command is the first action along with giving the size-up. We would then expect him to do a 360° of the fire building to check all sides for fire conditions and possible victims. He then needs to formulate tactics and apply them with his crew, in conjunction with directing the incoming companies and assigning tasks that need to be completed, such as water supply and ventilation.
There might be times where the first-due officer might have to be involved in rescue or suppression activity before command can be passed to someone else. Although holding command in a smoke-filled hallway is not an ideal situation, there are many times that the benefits outweigh the negatives if a rescue is involved or the fire is rapidly spreading and could extend.
All in all, we are asking our company officers to do more and more, and quite often that first-arriving company officer scripts the outcome of the incident. We need to provide our officers and officer candidates with as much training as possible to ensure that they are prepared to do the job. Our department has initiated an officer development program to help accomplish this. We are already starting to see results from this type of training.
Rick Lasky, chief,Lewisville (TX) Fire Department
Response: We expect our first-in officers on arrival to feel free to make the decisions needed to handle the incident. Those decisions should be based on good information, common sense, training, and gut feelings.
We have SOPs and SOGs. Our procedures cover more of the administrative side of things; guidelines cover more of the incident-related end of things. We expect our first-in officers to make those decisions based what they feel they need to do right now; those plans can deviate from what’s in writing and can change from incident to incident based on what the officers are presented with each time. There are no repercussions for deviating from “the plan.” As long as they use good common sense and logic, that’s all we expect. We don’t want to have a policy that takes thinking out of the picture; we would rather have our officers think on their feet and feel free to do what they think is best.
The first-in officer, who has been trained and taught to preplan, is expected to do the following:
- On arrival, provide a quick size-up of the incident-information that describes what they have, what initial actions they are taking, and what they are they looking for from the next-arriving units, such as a supply line, a backup line, or a RIT.
- Part of the size-up is to try and catch all three sides of the building (obviously depending on size and other factors) and to get a read on the rear of the building as soon as possible. Not taking a look around back can leave a huge piece of the puzzle missing (fire conditions and location, building construction features like high-security issues, or a walk-out basement).
- If need be, the officer assumes command until it can be passed to another officer. Part of this is putting together the incident action plan, even if it’s in the officer’s head at this time.
- Inform all incoming personnel of anything out of the ordinary, particularly conditions that might pose additional hazards.
- It is expected that the officer will work with his company or in close proximity. He can still function as command (he has a portable radio), and we are fortunate to have units fairly close, so help is usually just around the corner.
Probably the most important thing we expect from our first-arriving officers is that they decide whether to go in and attack the fire or not go in (the whole offensive/defensive thing), hit it from the outside first, or do whatever it takes to keep their people as safe as possible. The first-in officer can make or break an incident. There is no doubt that a high value needs to be placed on this position, its role, and the effect it can have on the outcome.
Mike Gurr, lieutenant,Pompano Beach (FL) Fire Rescue
Response: The most important thing the first-due officer does is give an accurate size-up of fire conditions and building size and type, and establish command. The officer must stay calm and speak clearly. This sets the tone for the rest of the operation. A weak size-up and no command presence equal disaster. Like most other departments, we run understaffed with only three people per rig. Thus, the officer must work while trying to supervise. The officer should do a 360° of the building, if possible. At a minimum, you can get three sides if your driver pulls slightly past the fire building on arrival. RECEO should be the order of priorities along with getting the first hoseline into play. At this point, command is in a mobile position because of a lack of personnel. I give out priority assignments as I push into the fire building with my firefighters. I try to transfer command to the next-due apparatus or battalion chief as soon as possible so I can focus on the task at hand.
Billy Gillam, training officer,Lake Nacogdoches (TX)Area Volunteer Fire Department
Response: Our department SOGs state that the first member on the scene shall give a size-up of the incident and relay that information to the responding units, establish command, and be positioned at the A-B or the C-D side of the incident.
Matt Rettmer, lieutenant,Castle Rock (CO) Fire and Rescue Department
Response: Our department is very disciplined: our battalion chiefs/chiefs remain at the command vehicle. Of course, there may be an occasion when they will have to leave the vehicle; however, when this occurs, there is still someone left at the command vehicle. The vehicle is equipped with four mobile radios, reference materials, command board/passports, and a variety of other resource material. The main reason for remaining at the command post is so on-scene personnel can quickly locate it for a face-to-face meeting or to refer citizens to a safe zone. A moving command post can cause (and has caused) problems if the scene becomes complex. The exception to this may be a wildland fire. During wildland incidents, our command post tends to remain stationary; however, conditions may dictate that the command post move.
Our policy states that the location of command shall be announced when the first-due unit arrives. If the command location changes, this information is announced to all personnel.
Stationary command has worked well for our operations. Our department emphasizes an ICS/incident management system, which has helped us to successfully manage our incidents.