Departments of all sizes and functions ask the same question: How many boxes must we fill in on the incident management system (IMS) organizational chart? How many boxes do we have to fill in to put out a fire? Some believe that the IMS can`t work if there are not enough people to fill in all the boxes.

Many myths and misconceptions abound concerning the IMS. Some of these myths, I believe, stem from the very root of the system. The IMS was built and adopted for wildland firefighting. These fires are very complex and expansive, involving dozens of engines and brush trucks, tankers (with wings), water tenders, and hundreds of truly dedicated firefighters with shovels and axes clearing land and brush. Wildland fires, therefore, have set the framework for what was transferred into urban settings.


Although I have never fought a wildland fire that involved more than a few acres, I can put some ideas to rest and draw some comparisons and contrasts between wildland and urban firefighting.

Just as not all urban fires tax the resources of the community or city in which they occur, not all wildland fires tax the resources of rural (or urban as in California and other western cities) departments and jurisdictions. The rule I was brought up to believe goes something like this: “95 percent of all structure fires are handled with one line or less!” I have no statistical data to prove it, but I would guess that a large proportion of fires involving brush, trees, and other vegetation are handled with very little resource allocation.

Most of the “working” fires in urban America are handled with two or three engines, a truck company or two, perhaps a heavy rescue squad, and a chief. In the big scheme of things, that`s not a lot of resources. Again, I would have to guess that most of the “working” wildland fires are handled by a complement of resources (both human and motorized) similar in scope to what is sent to urban fires–perhaps 18 to 20 firefighters or so with two or three engines (if access is available) and some brush trucks and water tenders.

Every once in a while, we hear of those large urban fires on the nightly news, in the trade journals, or on monthly videotape programs dedicated to firefighting. They are vacant warehouse fires, church fires, strip mall fires, school fires, high-rise fires, and so on. These large urban fires have at times hundreds of firefighters and dozens of companies on-scene. And we also occasionally see or read about large wildland fires that also require hundreds of firefighters and dozens of motorized vehicles to contain and control the fire.

I`m going to take freedom with the old fire service axiom “Big fire, big water.” The new saying (for now) is, “Big fire, big resources!” Make sense? Also, the converse is true: “Little fire, little water; little incident, little resources” (and command structure).

I`m sure that at small to mid-size fires in rural America, where the potential for wildland interface exists, not all the boxes are filled.

The gurus of ICS, the wildland firefighters, don`t always fill all the boxes. If they don`t, why does anyone think we have to?


The way I see it, all fires should be fought from within a “realistic” mode. It would not be realistic to send all 103 (or so) firefighters on duty to every reported structure fire in the city, let alone the car, garage, dumpster, and other small fires we encounter every day. It is well within the company officer`s scope and training to have a single company officer handle the needs of the small fire incidents I just mentioned. Likewise, it is also within the scope of a chief officer to handle the needs of the regular single-family structure fire. The objectives in emergency incidents are: (1) to respond with the appropriate number of personnel capable of handling the vast majority of incidents of that type (we send one engine to a car fire and three engines, one truck, one heavy squad, and a chief to a report of a fire in a single-family structure), and (2) to set up an appropriate command structure (the number of boxes) to handle the incident. Herein lies the confusion. No one ever said that all the boxes have to be filled all the time.

NFPA 1561, Fire Department Incident Management System–1995, states that Command is responsible for four functions at every incident–Operations, Planning, Logistics, and Finance/ Administration. Additionally, the standard also identifies the role of Command`s staff as Public Information Officer, Liaison, and Safety. All together, that`s eight boxes (including Command). Nowhere in this standard does it say that all the boxes have to be filled. What it says is that the individual in charge of the incident (Command) is responsible for the boxes–not their occupancy. In a nutshell, if Command does not assign a specific member to one of the boxes, then Command is responsible for the duties of the “occupant” of the box.


As mentioned earlier, usually one crew with one officer handles the vast majority of car or garage fires. The officer responds and–although not “formally”–assumes command of the incident. The officer then directs the crew to handle the problem. The officer is in charge.

Safety. If a power line is down or flammable liquids are spilled, the officer should take steps to ensure the safest conditions possible. The officer is responsible for the safety of the crew and bystanders.

Liaison. The officer also will interface with any outside agencies required to mitigate the incident. If the power to the garage needs to be shut off, the officer may have to call the electric company and explain what is needed. If the police need to be summoned for traffic control or to determine the owner of a vehicle involved in fire, then the officer must work with these outside agencies to meet the needs of the incident.

Public Information Officer. If the news department of the local television station sees the smoke or hears the radio traffic over its scanner and reports to the scene and wants to do an on-camera interview, then the officer may have to meet with the media.

Operations. As far as the incident itself is concerned, the company officer hopefully can strategically and tactically direct the efforts of his crew.

Planning and Logistics. The officer should anticipate the needs of the incident and consider what has caused the problem, the current status of the incident, and its predicted outcome. If the incident presents special needs such as the handling of environmental problems associated with spilled fuels or pesticides in the garage involved in fire, the officer can plan accordingly. The officer should be able to determine the need for and then arrange for appropriate tools, equipment, and services. If, for example, gasoline from a car fire needs to be covered to control evaporation, the officer should arrange for delivery of sand (or absorbents) to the scene. If air for self-contained breathing apparatus is needed after the incident, again, the officer is responsible for the call.

Administration/Finance. The officer is responsible for monetary and administrative concerns. If the incident occurs at or near shift change, the issue of overtime must be considered. Some incidents could be handled by applying costly extinguishing agents or water (although less effectively perhaps timewise). At these single-unit responses, the officer determines the financial needs of the incident along with the associated paperwork or any injuries to crew members.

The illustration above depicts an incident management flowchart for an auto or garage fire handled by one crew with one officer. The boxes (functions) with solid lines have a specific officer or unit assigned (in-cluding Command). They should have a name or unit designation of the officer or firefighter in charge of the function. The boxes in dotted lines (which I call “ghost sectors”) represent functions for which Command is responsible. Normally, these functions are at the strategic level of the flowchart, not the task level.

This is a simple yet ef-fective way of indicating what activities or functions Command (either informally or formally) is handling by himself and which have been delegated to others. The above paragraph explains how, at the majority of incidents to which we respond, one officer fills all the boxes, probably without realizing it. Nevertheless, the officer operated under the constraints of the incident management system in its simplest form.

At larger, more complex incidents, such as single-family residential fires, the “formal” incident commander still performs all of the above-mentioned functions probably without realizing it–one firefighter simply doing his job: directing crews at an emergency while focusing on the needs of the incident while attempting to carry on the fine tradition of the department by pleasantly and successfully interacting with outside agencies. Again, if Command has not delegated the function, Command is responsible for it (dotted boxes).

The IMS is expandable. At large incidents, one individual cannot handle all of the functions and still focus on the incident as a whole. To successfully mitigate these large incidents, the incident commander can delegate some or all functions (except the command function). In these situations, Command becomes an overseer or director of the command post and the incident itself, but his only formal task is to ensure that all the staff and functions represented at the command post are operating well and in good order. This may require more than seven additional members (Safety, Liaison, Information Officer, Operations, Planning, Logistics, and Administration/ Finance plus any aides or staff assistants) to operate at the command post.

However, usually within one-half to one hour–even in rural America, with mutual aid–there will be plenty of people to fill all the boxes at these large, expansive incidents, and there will be enough human resources left to handle the fire. It may take an hour to build the appropriate team. As more resources arrive, there are more resources for hoselines and staff functions. Not every box needs to be filled immediately. Nor does every window need a hose stream through it.

Fill the boxes that the incident requires. As chief officer, you don`t hesitate to get more help for the crews. Take one or two (or more) responding chief officers for yourself when needed. Remember: “Little fire, little organizational structure; big fire, big organizational structure.” n

Click here to enlarge image

Garage fire prior to the assignment of Engine 9.

JOHN F. (SKIP) COLEMAN has been a member of the Toledo (OH) Department of Fire and Rescue Operations for 23 years and is currently deputy chief of operations. He has been an instructor at Owens Community College, one of Ohio`s largest community colleges, for more than 10 years. Coleman is also a contract instructor for the National Fire Academy`s Command and Control of Fire Department Operations at Multialarm Incidents course and annually conducts a course in incident command for industrial fire brigades at the Ohio State Fire School. Coleman is the author of Incident Management for the Street-Smart Fire Officer (Fire Engineering, 1997). He is a graduate of the National Fire Academy`s Executive Fire Officer Program and is working toward his bachelor`s degree at the University of Cincinnati. He is an editorial advisory board member of Fire Engineering and the FDIC.

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