Command Position

THE TACTICAL DECISIONS WE make and the operational actions we take must be based on sound and accurate information gathered and exchanged among the team members on the three basic organizational levels-task, tactical, and strategic.

Fire companies operate on the task level, where the manual labor we call firefighting actually occurs. They have an orientation and a focus that appropriately revolve around accomplishing the (highly skillful) grunt work assigned to them.

The tactical level-sectors/divisions/groups-serves as the offsite (from the command post) middle managers who supervise a geographic or functional assignment. They are the incident commander’s (IC) eyes and ears and provide a critical tactical level connection between “the work” and the command post.

The IC is the strategic-level incident boss and manages the command post where the basic tactical (not detailed) information is quickly and continuously taken in, processed, and converted into managing the overall incident strategy and the related incident action plan (IAP).

A major safety and effectiveness factor in how well the IC is able to manage incident intelligence is directly connected to the capability and limitations of the position where the command officer IC is physically located. Chief officers typically come in behind fast attackers and should upgrade command into a stationary vehicle.

The ongoing and current discussion (and disagreement) about where the IC should be located started with the initial development of the incident command system (ICS) and has been going on for the past 35 years. Command positioning in the American fire service was founded by our ancestors, who were part of the military. Their orientation was that leaders must assume a very visible upfront position (i.e., physically lead). Early fire service art shows a chief in a red tunic, with a brass speaking trumpet, wearing an ornate white animal skin helmet decorated with a large gold eagle leading the men (all men then) into battle. This open-air approach set the stage for 250 years of command claustrophobia.

We maintained (historically) that effective command required the up-close ability to physically and directly sense the conditions we were managing. This belief (and comfortable practice) caused us to resist anything and anybody who separated the command boss from the work and the workers.

I was very personally involved in this issue as a very young assistant chief (in 1972!) who unsuccessfully attempted to get battalion chiefs (I was their boss) to stay in any one place on the fireground. Finally, in desperation, I changed anyplace to inside your vehicle: ”When you get on the scene, don’t get out of the car; take command over the radio.” That change caused a conversation about my parents, took a long time, created an incredible amount of teaching/yelling/learning, and produced a few retirements.

As we started to do the new routine, we saw that our command capability increased dramatically when the command officer IC stayed inside the car. The ICs could see from their vantage point, think, hear, evaluate, decide, order, and be immediately available to receive and react to critical (and routine) communications. The IC was in a position to actually manage information instead of just react to it. The exterior distraction, confusion, and stress level was reduced significantly. The change required everyone on every level to better understand the system, play their part and help each other. Instead of the boss’ running inside (or really anywhere else) to evaluate, he had to communicate with the Interior Sector and trust what they said.

The new system created a stronger set of relationships where incident intelligence meant the same thing to everyone and led to an agreement on a common reaction. The IC now had decentralized command partners-tactical officers-who were up close and sensing incident conditions and pushing information about those conditions up into the command post.

We changed the symbolic picture of a commander with a speaking trumpet standing in the smoke to one of the IC’s sitting in an air-conditioned vehicle talking on and listening to the tactical channels on a radio and manipulating a mobile computer terminal.

The modern shift in no way disrespects past commanders. They were smart, skillful, experienced firemen (term used in that period). They knew how to put fires out in burning buildings. The basic tactics they developed in the street still work. They got us to where we are today, and we should acknowledge their dedication and contribution. Our challenge today is to take what they did so well and use what they established in the past as the basis of what works today.

As we apply our grandfathers’ tactical procedures, we continue to relearn that they are timeless and still apply where fire and water come together. We have also learned (painfully) by using the ICS that we do not have a strategic level of command until we get an IC physically in a strategic position-that position is INSIDE a command vehicle.

Retired Chief ALAN BRUNACINI is a fire service author and speaker. He and his sons own the fire service Web site

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