Command Post = “Size-Up Post”


Last month, we discussed the four major ways that size-up information is gathered, exchanged, and managed on the fireground. Those methods include (1) previous experience, (2) visual information, (3) reported/reconnaissance information, and (4) preincident planning and familiarity. These four methods closely relate to the position and perspective of the people, places, and things involved in the evaluation and management of what has, what is, and what will happen on the fireground. Each method has its own set of capabilities and limitations, so they must be mixed and matched to gain a complete picture of the incident.

For effective overall incident evaluation, we must position our resources on the fireground to effectively “cover” the physical fire area and significant surrounding places (exposures). Way ahead of the incident, we must use our standard performance management system [standard operating procedures (SOPs)/Train/Apply/Critique/Revise] to develop a size-up game plan with the chiefs and the troops. That basic size-up game plan is based on our positioning ourselves to the best mutual advantage so we can gather and exchange information effectively on the task, tactical, and strategic levels.

Fire companies operate on the task level and are managed by “working bosses” who supervise the manual labor that actually rescues threatened customers and puts out the fire. Firefighters work (physically) in the hazard zone, and this high-risk reality serves as the safety-oriented starting point and major size-up focus for all evaluations and operations. We can only effectively sustain task-level operations where the safety system continually outperforms the rate, degree, and nature of the incident hazards.

The current status of the safety of firefighters must always be the foundation of the overall strategy for every level (and for the four information management methods) involved in the size-up process. Fire companies fulfill their size-up role by directly evaluating conditions close to them and using condition, progress, exception, and completion reports to describe conditions and outcomes in their assigned area/function. These online hazard zone reports become a major source of the overall fireground information management process on every level.

Sectors/divisions/groups (S/D/G) cover the tactical level. They are the “walking boss” middle managers that supervise the geographic and functional assignments around the incident site where extended (and expanded) operations are being conducted. They provide the critical (middle) management connection between the strategy level of the incident commander (IC) and the task level of the troops during larger-scale, extended operations (area/time/complexity) that go beyond the fast action stage.

A major role of these decentralized S/D/G bosses (assigned and working in critical places all around the fireground) is to continually evaluate and inform the IC of the ongoing status of conditions and operations in their assigned area/function. They play a critical part in the ongoing size-up process by connecting active two-way communication between the operational level (bottom) and the strategic level (the top).

The IC is the overall “sitting boss” who is responsible for the strategic management of the incident. The IC is responsible for establishing and maintaining an overall (360°) awareness of incident conditions to establish and maintain an effective operational strategy (offensive/defensive) and to create and maintain an incident action plan (IAP). The IC must keep that plan up to date—i.e., continually matching the IAP to the current and forecasted overall strategy. The IC is typically in the best strategic position to use the “office” advantages of the command post (quiet, sequestered, good communications, command team, etc.) to apply (and balance) the four methods of incident information management.

The IC must assume the strongest possible size-up position (eyes/ears/gut) for a fast, initial evaluation. This requires a certain amount of training, experience, and ability. The IC must be able to consistently obtain good (i.e., timely, accurate, relevant) initial and ongoing information and then translate that information into usable form. The information is used to develop a plan structured around the basic tactical activities involved in rescue, fire control, property conservation, responder/worker safety, and customer service.

The initial evaluation for each incident begins at the time the alarm is received. The dispatch can be an important (reported) information source, including the type of call, conditions, nature of the incident problem, occupancy, general area, and units responding. While en route, the IC can observe weather conditions; note the time of day; and receive additional information, such as reports of persons trapped, fire extension, hazmat details, violence, injured customers, and so on. The IC considers a lot of this information as the beginning of the size-up before arriving at the initial on-scene command location.

While approaching the scene, the IC can observe any signs and signals and add those to the “size-up story,” along with a visible initial impression of overall conditions. Therefore, how the IC approaches the scene can be very important. When possible, the IC should take a route that partially or completely circles the incident.

This 360° drive-by system may delay the IC’s official arrival by a few seconds in some cases, but it may well provide the IC with significant information that is not visible from the command post when the command post is established, generally on the front side, Side A. These facts may often apply directly to the layout of the incident area, access/obstructions, extent and severity of the incident problems, potential structural failure, and rescue problems.

The location of the command post greatly influences developing and maintaining an effective strategic size-up. When selecting a location for the command post, the IC must keep in mind the ongoing view it will provide as operations continue and expand. From the command post, the IC must be able to observe incident conditions, general operational action, and the effect of that action.

The best command (post) placement will involve a view of two sides (generally the front and the most critical side) of the incident. The IC must place the command vehicle close enough to see the operation yet far enough back to afford a wide-angle view of the incident area (out of the way and out of the hazard zone).

Visual observation is an intense, direct, rapid, on-line/on-scene method that is done in person to size up conditions. The IC should continue to attempt to maintain visual contact with the event throughout the operation. The IC has to realize that certain conditions are often visible outside of a structure/area before they are noticeable inside (and vice versa).

Looking out from the command post is an essential data-gathering method, but it is necessarily limited to the field of vision available from that one spot. The visual advantage/handicap can be balanced by the use of preincident plan data and from reconnaissance and operational reports from geographic and functional units and S/D/G assigned and operating all over the incident.

The type of incident will necessarily regulate how the IC must manage information. As an example, in structural fire control operations, the IC will have to rely more heavily on progress reports from interior troops/bosses during offensive interior attacks than from other units operating on the exterior during defensive “surround and drown” operations. Simply, the combination of visual/preplan/recon will be different for every event. The IC must develop an information profile and approach to match the conditions and needs of each particular situation.

Based on the critical need to continually access information, the IC should try to select the best “looking post” position for the command vehicle. How we spot that unit is a big deal because if it is not in a good vantage point position, the IC may get out and go see directly (conditions/action/effect). When this happens, the formerly stationary IC is now roaming around on an open-air excursion to become more visually intimate with the situation. Simply, when the IC gets out of the command post, the IC goes from being a strategic-level boss to a tactical-level boss—now no one is in command and control of the overall incident strategy.

If we want the IC to stay put, we must practice backing the Suburban into a driveway directly opposite from side one, sneaking the Crown Victoria around the big red trucks into a vacant lot across the street from the address side, or spotting the larger command post tank with the windows facing the event.

Sometimes conditions change. The area in front of the command post becomes congested, or a better spot opens up. In those cases, the command post should move to a better place. In other cases, the current IC’s boss arrives in a better, bigger command vehicle and can pick a better command post spot. This gives us another opportunity to upgrade the visual position of the IC. Obviously, it’s not a good idea to move the command post so much that the IC gets carsick, but we should not live with a bad spot if a better one is available.

Although we should always go for the best command post spot, we must also understand that, in most situations, the IC must also combine what can be seen from the command post with reports from those remote, unseen positions (from the command post). In these situations, the IC must use the off-site (from the command post) subordinate officers’ eyes.

Sometimes I hear it said that a good IC does not even need to be physically on the scene to command an incident. This may be okay for Houston Control, but for us locals, it still makes sense for the IC to be both in command and in attendance. Remote-control command doesn’t create much confidence in the troops or the customers.

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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