Command Safety

BY ALAN BRUNACINI

We have been going through a description and discussion of a basic risk-analysis (size-up) and risk-management framework. The structure of the two-sided system we have presented compares typical incident hazards on one end to the items in our safety system at the other end. This balance depends on the incident commander’s (IC) continually evaluating the ability of the safety system to protect the firefighters from the level of hazard present. The IC must translate that safety system/hazards evaluation into the position and function of the firefighters either inside (offensive) or outside (defensive) of the hazard zone.

This model is like a lot of other operational activity where the IC must create an operational response to some fireground condition—generally, with the basic objective of reducing the severity of that life safety/firefighting condition. The IC’s basic job is to convert an out-of-control situation that is ruining Mrs. Smith’s day into an under-control outcome. This requires that the IC assign jobs to fire companies inside and around the hazard zone = “fireground.” Doing this tactical work (i.e., manual labor) requires that the entire team understand and evaluate the hazards present and then automatically use the safety system to protect themselves from those hazards.

The fifth (and last) item on the safety list is the incident command system (ICS). That management system is designed and applied to create and maintain an effective and safe level of command and control. ICS is a major item on the list of causes of firefighter line-of-duty deaths. Some problems like no command/command too late/out-of-balance command are consistently part of the sad firefighter injury-death story.

ICS creates the very practical structure for the IC to perform the critical strategic position/function role. Basically, the position/function thing means the IC moves the firefighters actively toward offensive conditions and cautiously away from defensive conditions. Managing the position/function of the firefighters operating in the hazard zone is how the IC completes the strategic command function (number five).

We will use the eight standard command functions to outline how the IC does the very critical command part of the safety system.

ASSUME, CONFIRM, AND POSITION COMMAND

How we perform at the very beginning of our arrival on the scene becomes a critical part of capturing initial and ongoing incident command and control. How well we do the front-end command tasks will determine how virtually everything after that arrival period occurs. The local command system is designed in most places for the first arriver to become IC #1. When this occurs, we stand the best chance of taking control, maintaining control, and not losing control for the entire incident. Good beginnings create good endings; the opposite, sadly, is just as true. A major capability we set up in the beginning is to apply and manage the dumbbell-shaped safety/hazard model now under discussion.

The assumption/confirmation of command is really simple: The first arriver gives a standard initial radio report that includes “Engine One (E-1) will be Main Street Command.” This is the assumption part. The Communications Center then repeats back over the tactical channel, “Copy E-1, you will be Main Street Command.” This is the confirmation part—short, sweet, and simple. When this occurs, the system knows E-1 (the first arriver) has established command at the very beginning of our operations and that a standard ICS front end is in place.

When command is not initially assumed, for whatever reason, a Communications Center boss or response chief (who will, in a short while, arrive on the scene and inherit an uncommanded mess) must urge E-1 to take command. That moment when we are on the scene beginning to start operations and no one is presently in command is the situation that can initiate a mess. If this mess is not interrupted with effective command and control, it will soon grow into a fully developed mess.

The discussion about command positioning has created an energetic discussion in our business for the past two decades. The current status of the discussion has evolved into many fire departments’ using an ICS where the first-arriving company officer can [within standard operation procedures (SOPs)] combine command and action in carefully evaluated offensive situations. This approach involves that officer doing a rapid size-up, transmitting a standard initial radio report, and assigning (generally) the next engine and ladder company on the rig radio. The three companies form the initial attack team that goes to work on the incident action plan (IAP).

After IC #1 “sets up” front-end command, the SOP allows that company officer to directly lead the team in making an interior offensive attack. In this fast attack/mobile command scenario, IC #1 stays with the crew and communicates on a portable radio. The response chief automatically becomes IC #2, transferring command on arrival (generally over the radio). IC #2 sets up stationary exterior command inside the vehicle.

The interaction between IC #1 and IC #2 creates the (SOP-driven) capability for the team to quickly establish command on arrival and commit in the very beginning to a supervised interior attack team that puts a fast attack hoseline on the fire. We can then back up that hoseline (with the second engine), provide support (forcible entry, ventilation, provision of access) with the ladder/squad, and have the arriving response chief automatically upgrade the overall command capability from a mobile fast-attacking company officer IC to an inside-the-SUV stationary strategic command position.

This basic response will generally put an effective “hit” on room-and-contents events that frequently occur in residences and small commercial structures. We must always remember: When the fire goes out, everything gets better.

SITUATION EVALUATION

This function involves IC #1 doing an initial size-up of the critical incident conditions present on the fireground. A major part of that evaluation process involves our current discussion that compares the severity of the incident hazards with the capability of the safety system to adequately protect the firefighters from those hazards. This evaluation must occur at the very beginning of operations and then continually go on throughout the incident, as long as there are workers in and around the hazard zone.

The quality of the IC’s decisions can be no better than the accuracy of the information on which they are based, so refining the ability to do fast accurate size-ups becomes the foundation of both situation awareness and critical thinking. Major components of that foundation involve a refined understanding of the details, dynamics, and degrees of the typical structural fire incident hazards: structural collapse, toxic insult, and thermal insult. They are the critical conditions that injure and kill firefighters. The IC and the operations team must develop a standard way to evaluate critical factors and exchange information based on an agreement of how critical factor severity is determined and then how the team will effectively react to those hazards.

The evaluation (size-up) of where we can go and what we can safely do in the hazard zone is the result of our understanding the capabilities and limitations of our safety system in relation to the incident hazards present. The IC must know how much water-support work teams of firefighters can do in controlling the fire so the building does not collapse and how the thermal/toxic eliminating gallons-per-minute vs. British-thermal-unit battle actually occurs. The IC must monitor safety SOPs for compliance and must correct any out-of-procedure action that is occurring. The IC must also evaluate and keep score of the personal protective equipment/hazard battle. Developing the ability to effectively evaluate both incident conditions and response safety capabilities requires study, experience, and refinement. Developing these abilities becomes the basic elements (critical factors) in our current size-up school discussion.

COMMUNICATIONS

A major tool the fireground team uses to create effective action and to stay connected involves face-to-face, radio, electronic, and SOP-based incident communications. The IC must depend mostly on the radio to communicate with the outside world once stationary command has been set up inside a vehicle. The IC who opens a command post (CP) “fireground office” and stays put inside has the many advantages that a typical office affords: quiet, office chair (SUV front seat), lighting, out of the weather, staff support, more powerful radios, mobile data/computer terminal, and so on.

Along with all the stationary inside CP advantages, the IC must depend on offsite (from the CP) decentralized evaluators/reporters who must forward critical tactical information back to the IC so the IC can develop, maintain, and revise as required the overall incident strategy and IAP. The most critical part of that active two-way information exchange involves firefighters/officers reporting back to the IC current and forecasted information relating to structural and toxic/thermal conditions.

The next five functions will be described in next month’s column. We are necessarily presenting a brief (very compressed) description of the eight functions. This summary is extracted from about a thousand pages of text in the Fire Command and Command Safety textbooks.

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

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