Incident Commander Checklist: A Quick Reference Guide


When I was first promoted to battalion chief in the Virginia Beach (VA) Fire Department (VBFD) in June 2001, I experienced new concerns about the operational process in terms of incident management. I had been “in command” of incidents before as a company officer and as an acting battalion chief, working my way through the process. Also, I had served as the department’s health and safety officer and as safety officer and public information officer (command staff positions) at various incidents. I felt extremely uncomfortable in that I was overlooking something as an incident commander (IC) in terms of quality incident management. I wanted to ensure that I was able to effectively and safely manage an emergency incident regardless of the risks generated by the incident. Experience is a wonderful teacher, but I didn’t want to make mistakes that could jeopardize the safety and welfare of the firefighters operating at the incident or the customers we serve.

The department had offered training for command officers, but we had not started with a defined curriculum such as that offered by the National Wildfire Coordinating Group or now offered by the National Fire Academy (e.g., ICS 200, Introduction to Incident Command System; ICS 300, Intermediate Incident Command System; and ICS 400, Advanced Incident Command System).

I have been a member of the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) Fire Service Occupational Safety and Health Technical Committee since 1986. One of the committee documents, NFPA 1561, Standard on Emergency Services Incident Management System, 2008 edition, provides the components for developing an incident management system (ICS). This document was developed under the direction and guidance of then-Chairman Alan Brunacini, chief (ret.) of the Phoenix (AZ) Fire Department. Stephen Foley was the chairman of the first task group that generated the first edition of this standard in 1990. The task group was made up of some folks who were involved with the ICS from its inception. Being able to listen and to learn from their guidance and direction was priceless.


During my time as a battalion chief with the VBFD, we used a Chevrolet Suburban with a command board in the rear (photo 1). If the weather was inclement, we used the front seat. We learned from the Phoenix Fire Department more than 20 years before that the IC needed to use a command vehicle as a means of effectively managing, communicating, and controlling the incident. Also, this venue was a way to effectively operate a personnel accountability system, which is an essential component of firefighter safety. An IC needs to be operating from a command vehicle with the proper resources (e.g., radios, tactical worksheet, preincident plans, and a personnel accountability system).

(1) Photo courtesy of Martin Grube.

To help me in the IC role, I conceived the idea of creating a guide or checklist (cheat sheet) I could carry with me at all times as a command officer—a one-page sheet to which I could refer during incidents to ensure that I was not overlooking any essential command structure issues. This guide would contain information I had gathered from my experiences and from reading or listening to folks who had been operating within the incident command system a lot longer than I had. Laminating the checklist enabled me to make notes on the sheet during an incident.

My goal was to develop a link between an incident’s strategy and tactics component and the overall incident management process. I developed this guide or checklist for fireground operations, which I felt generated the most risks and greatest need for effective incident management. (See “Incident Commander Checklist.”)


As you will see from the checklist, the document has six sections: Initial Size-Up, Initial Risk Assessment, Command Structure, Incident Action Plan (IAP), Standard Geographic and Functional Designations, and Safety.

1. Initial Size-Up

When an officer or the first unit arrives at an incident, the first and most important function is to initiate a size-up. A good, thorough, and methodical size-up sets the tone for the incident. Size-up alone could be a complete article. I present here only brief and deliberate points to guide the first-in officer in providing a standard and concise report of what was happening.

Often, nothing is showing, and the first company then goes into the investigative mode. This alerts all other responding companies to stage in the position of travel or a designated staging area until it is determined that the first-due company can handle the incident, in which case all other companies can go back in-service; the first-due company has discovered a problem and needs assistance; or the company is checking to make sure the customer’s problem has been resolved.

If this is a “working” incident, the officer needs to determine if the fire attack should be offensive or defensive. The officer has two to five minutes to make a rescue, search for a potential victim based on the life hazard and risk assessment, or put out the fire.

In the case of an offensive fire, the officer must consider the following:

  • Support the sprinkler or standpipe system if the occupancy has either.
  • Use a preincident plan based on the occupancy.
  • Address visual safety concerns.
  • Determine the need for additional resources.
  • Announce command by street, building, or landmark (one-syllable word or name) on dispatch and tactical channels.

For an offensive fire, the first 10 minutes are critical. The IC makes a continuous risk assessment, especially when benchmarks are met (e.g., the fire is knocked down or the search is complete and no victims were found).

The IC needs to provide a description of the structure if the department’s standard operating procedures (SOPs) say this report must be given. This report should also describe the exposures on each of the four sides and a brief description of what function is in progress—search and rescue, the number of hoselines, and ventilation, for example.

The size-up sets the tone for the incident; you must deliver the necessary information in a calm and methodical manner.

2. Initial Risk Assessment

Simply stated, the officer will determine whether to do one of the following:

  • Risk a lot.
  • Risk a little.
  • Risk nothing.

Risk management provides a basis for the following:

(1) Standard evaluation of the situation.
(2) Strategic decision making.
(3) Tactical planning.
(4) Plan evaluation and revision.
(5) Operational command and control.

Chapter 8, Section 8.3.2, of NFPA 1500, Standard on Fire Department Occupational Safety and Health Program, 2007 edition, states risk management shall be used on the basis of the following principles:

1Activities that present a significant risk to the safety of members shall be limited to situations where there is a potential to save endangered lives. (Risk a lot.)

2Activities that are routinely employed to protect property shall be recognized as inherent risks to the safety of members, and actions shall be taken to reduce or avoid these risks. (Risk a little.)

3No risk to the safety of members shall be acceptable when there is no possibility to save lives or property. (Risk nothing.)

4In situations where the risk to fire department members is excessive, activities shall be limited to defensive operations.

The acceptable level of risk is directly related to the potential to save lives or property. The actions taken to reduce risk are listed in NFPA 1561, Annex C.3.1: “Risk Management during Emergency Operations.” They include the following:

  • Have and use written guidelines for tracking all members operating at the scene.
  • All members operating at the incident are to actively participate in the department’s accountability system.
  • The IC is responsible for overall responder accountability on the emergency scene and shall know the locations and functions of all companies. He shall initiate an accountability worksheet at the beginning of the incident and maintain it throughout the operation.
  • The IC shall implement branch directors and division or group supervisors, when needed, to reduce the span of control for the IC.
  • Branch directors and division or group supervisors shall directly supervise and account for companies operating under their command; company officers are accountable for all company members, and company members are responsible to remain under the supervision of their assigned company officer.
  • The IC shall provide for control of access to the incident scene.
  • The incident command system shall include SOPs that use “emergency traffic” communication to evacuate responders from an area where imminent hazard exists and to account for their safety.

Where there is no potential to save lives, evaluate the risk to fire department members in proportion to the ability to save property of value. When there is no ability to save lives or property, there is no justification to expose fire department members to any avoidable risk, and a defensive fire suppression operation is the appropriate strategy. This is a very brief but effective method for ensuring an accurate risk assessment. Too many firefighter fatality reports describe the poor decision-making process that was used for allowing firefighters to enter a structure whose interior was not survivable for any reason. The NFPA places with the IC the “ultimate responsibility for the safety of all emergency services responders operating at an incident and for any and all other persons whose safety is affected by the department’s or organization’s operations.”

3. Command Structure

One of the most difficult issues for an IC is to operate on the strategic level. I attended incident management training with Chief Brunacini several years ago. He gave each participant a card with the following information:

  • Strategic level: overall direction of the incident.
  • Tactical level: assigns operational objectives.
  • Task level: specific assignments for companies.

When you are an IC, there are times when it is difficult not to become part of the tactical and task level operations, but the IC’s focus on the strategic aspect of the incident is critical to a safe outcome. The company officers in charge of the engine, truck, or rescue companies operate on the tactical level. If the incident expands to the point that divisions or groups are assigned, the division supervisor or group supervisor becomes the tactical level operations. The company personnel or firefighters operate on the task level. During an incident, assignments will be given to accomplish a particular task (e.g., roof ventilation, establish a water supply, forcible entry, search and rescue, or a multitude of other possible fireground tasks). The point is that the tasks are assigned and expected to be accomplished without telling the company how the task should be completed. The tactical assignments are communicated to the tactical level supervisor (e.g., company officer, division supervisor, or group supervisor, or task force leader).

4. Incident Action Plan (IAP)

For the majority of incidents, the ICS is formally established; only a small percentage of incidents operate off a written IAP (typically Type 3, Type 2, and Type 1 incidents, although a Type 4 incident could require a written IAP). The incident action planning process begins when the IC initiates operational periods.

The majority of IAPs we deal with are communicated verbally. We make notes on the tactical worksheet that indicate what we want to accomplish at the incident: take care of Mrs. Smith (life safety), extinguish Mrs. Smith’s kitchen fire (incident stabilization), and ensure there is no fire extension in Mrs. Smith’s residence (loss stopped). A methodical IAP will carry you a long way during the incident, especially from an operational and a firefighter safety standpoint. Incident priorities are not included on the checklist but are a given at every incident: first, life safety; second, incident stabilization; third, loss stopped (property conservation). These priorities are nonnegotiable.

Rapid Intervention. Adequate staffing is crucial for a successful outcome. The first item on my IAP is the designation of initial rapid intervention crews and then dedicated rapid intervention crews. The initial rapid intervention team ties back to the need for a thorough on-scene risk assessment. With life safety as the ultimate priority, the company officer has to make a decision that will impact the remainder of the incident. “The first five minutes are worth the next five hours” is a statement many of us were taught, and it is a valid statement. If I determined that I was going to use the full alarm assignment, which was most often evident from the onset of the incident, I always called for additional companies or another alarm. This was to ensure that I did not risk running out of resources (keeping a step ahead of, or front loading, an incident). These companies most often sat in Staging and then went back in service. But if I needed more help, the companies were only two or three minutes away vs. 10 or 15 minutes.

Charged Supply Line.The next step is to ensure that a charged supply line is in operation. There are times when we get complacent and don’t want to lay a supply line and charge it or simply charge the supply line. Anytime companies are operating at an incident with a charged handline, the supply line must be laid and charged. I have spent time riding with the District of Columbia Fire Department. I was impressed that its SOP always put hose on the ground, even if nothing was showing, and that members never hesitated to charge it if necessary. I am not a risk taker and have found it easier to drain and pick up a few sections of five-inch hose than to have to think about the alternative—a firefighter injury or fatality.

Fire Extension. One of the things I learned very quickly as a company officer was to always check for fire extension: Get a truck company into the attic, if for nothing else than to just check to see if fire extension had occurred horizontally or vertically or just to find out what was happening. Coupled with this was getting a handline above the fire as quickly as possible to ensure that we could control fire extension, if necessary. Another concern is to ensure that ventilation is occurring in a coordinated manner. Ventilation can occur in a multitude of ways, which is a tactical- and task-level issue. The IC’s responsibility is to ensure that ventilation occurs. The company officer is responsible for ensuring that the task is performed safely and effectively and that the needs of the incident are met.

Communications.The lack of or inadequate communications is a factor in most firefighter fatality reports. From an IC’s standpoint, and another coaching point from Chief Brunacini, communications for the IC is 10 parts listening and one part talking. From a preemergency risk management standpoint, each fire department must ensure it has an adequate communications SOP for incident scene operations. Most often, we hand an officer or a firefighter a portable radio and provide nothing else. Defining proper fireground or emergency incident communication procedures is essential for the safety of all members operating at the incident—issues such as tactical channel assignments, command channel, “emergency traffic” procedures, and the multitude of other issues that need to be addressed for proper communications.

Benchmarks. Meeting benchmarks is an essential element of the IAP. When a benchmark is completed or met, the IC must reevaluate the incident from a risk assessment standpoint. An important one for me was to complete the primary search and to hopefully get an “All clear.” The company’s locating a victim may or may not require altering the IAP to ensure the rescue can be accomplished. When the incident is a little more stabilized, different companies need to conduct the secondary search to ensure a thorough search is done. Most importantly, stabilize the incident by controlling the fire. Accomplishing this benchmark greatly reduces the anxiety level.

When a benchmark is met, the IC must reevaluate the incident from a risk assessment standpoint. This is also the time to conduct a personnel accountability report (PAR). The PAR philosophy starts with the ICS principles of company unity and unity of command. You can maintain company accountability initially by documenting the situation and resource status on the checklist. It is important to keep in mind that the role of managing the personnel accountability system is not a function of the IC. It is impossible for one person to do both roles effectively. Personnel accountability should be assigned to an accountability officer (resource status) who will be responsible for maintaining the status of all assigned resources at an incident. The PAR is a method of maintaining constant awareness of the identities and locations of all members and other personnel involved in an emergency incident. Other methods include apparatus riding lists, company personnel boards, and electronic bar-coding systems. They can be used in conjunction with one another to facilitate the tracking of personnel by both location and function. The components of the personnel accountability system should be modular and expand with the incident’s size and complexity. As the incident escalates, this function would be placed under the Planning Section. The IC must be provided with reports in 10- to 15-minute intervals, ensuring that the IC has continuous updates of the incident until it is terminated.

5. Standard Geographic and Functional Designations

Identifying a fire structure begins with Side A (Alpha), the side of the structure facing the street (front) and where Command is located. The remaining sides are designated clockwise as B (Bravo), C (Charlie), and D (Delta). Using the name (vs. the letter) makes communicating easier when there is a lot of background noise. Structures or properties threatened by fire or other hazards are designated as exposures. Exposures are designated in the same manner as the sides of the structure (Exposure Bravo, for example).

Establishing divisions/groups divides an incident into manageable geographical or functional areas. Divisions are supervisory levels established according to geographical areas of operations. Groups are supervisory levels established according to functional areas of operations.

The division/group supervisor is responsible for achieving tactical objectives. The use of divisions/groups reduces the overall need for incident radio communication. Most routine communications inside a division/group can be accomplished in a more effective face-to-face mode, eliminating most radio tactical information exchanges. By dividing the incident and delegating tactical responsibilities, the IC can concentrate on the overall strategy while remaining at the command post. Because divisions/groups are assigned according to the needs of an incident, their tasks can be performed by anyone at the incident, within the limitations of their apparatus and special training. This includes assigning officers as division/group supervisors wherever and whenever needed.

6. Safety

This final section on the checklist incorporates five items I continuously review as IC—of course, in conjunction with all the other items discussed in this article—for a successful incident outcome.

First, ensure that all members and other personnel assigned to an incident have the proper personal protective clothing and equipment to perform their job functions. We should not have to remind our members to do this. Using an incident safety officer is essential.

Remember that the IC must be sent a PAR every 10 to 15 minutes or when benchmarks are met. As an incident escalates, this function becomes more and more vital for ensuring the safety of all members at the scene.

As we have learned over the years, rapid intervention is not rapid. It takes a commitment of staffing and resources. Reports indicate how labor intensive rapid intervention can be. Our goal is not to have our members get in trouble, but if they do, we must be ready to rescue them and remove them from a dangerous or hazardous environment. This issue goes back to the risk management component, communications, the IAP, benchmarks, and many other factors.

It is difficult to rescue a downed firefighter. Although one rapid intervention company (RIC) might suffice at a single-family dwelling, rescuing a member who is lost, trapped, or missing becomes increasingly difficult at a large commercial building or a high-rise building. To ensure that a RIC can be deployed from the command post to a remote area on the fireground, consider assigning a RIC to each point of entry at a commercial building. For example, if the IC has established a division at Side A (Alpha) and Side C (Charlie) of a commercial building, assign a RIC to each division. Likewise, consider assigning multiple RICs to vertical positions near the areas of operation at a working fire in a high-rise building. At such incidents, the IC might appoint a RIC group supervisor for the RIC companies.

Safety zones must be established at each emergency incident. The 2007 edition of NFPA 1500 uses the term “control zone.” The intent is to define where members can and cannot operate. Of course, members operating in an immediately dangerous to life and health atmosphere must wear the proper personal protective equipment.

Incident scene rehabilitation is a most necessary component of incident scene operations. A preplanned rehabilitation program applicable to the types of incidents to which the department responds is essential for members’ health and safety. The rehabilitation plan should cover simple or short-duration incidents as well as have a built-in mechanism for transitioning into a large or long-duration incident.


It is most critical that the IC be able to integrate strategy and tactics while operating within the ICS. This article provides the IC with a quick reference for managing operations at an emergency incident so that critical issues are not left totally to memory. The items in this guide can be changed based on personal preference. Routinely, I would add or change particular items based on a learning experience or input from another command officer (e.g., considering defensive operations after 20 minutes or adding the incident priorities of life safety, incident stabilization, and property conservation).

While serving as an IC, I was alone during the initial stages of an incident many times. I always carried a FIRESCOPE Field Operations Guide as a reference, but I needed a strategy and tactics guide for quick reference. I revised this checklist numerous times based on lessons learned from the incidents I managed. My goal was to keep the checklist a one-page guide for quick reference.

Incident Commander Checklist



  • Nothing showing/investigating.
  • Offensive: fire location and attack mode.
    –Support sprinkler/standpipe system.
    –Preincident plan.
    –Size-up: brief description of situation; declaration of strategy; visual safety concerns; additional resources needed.
    –Announce command by street, building, or landmark on dispatch and tactical channels.
  • Marginal: based on risk assessment and life hazard.
  • Defensive: personnel accountability report and safety zone.
    –Description of structure (height, width, floors, construction).
    –Mode and what is in operation (hoselines, ventilation, search and rescue).


  • Risk a lot.
  • Risk a little.
  • Risk nothing.


  • Strategic level: overall direction of the incident.
  • Tactical level: assign operational objectives.
  • Task level: specific assignments for companies.


  • Offensive:
    –initial rapid intervention crew.
    –rapid intervention crew.
  • Water Supply: always.
  • A line/lines above the fire: always.
  • Check the attic: always (horizontal or vertical extension).
  • Ventilation.
  • RIC: at least four to six with an officer, multiple RICS form rescue group.
  • Primary search, secondary search, fire control.
  • Communications.
  • Benchmarks: continuous risk assessment and personnel accountability report at least every 10 minutes.
  • Consider defensive after 20 minutes, if no progress.


  • Sides: A (facing command), B, C, D.
  • Exposures: properties that are threatened.
  • Divisions: operations in a defined geographical area, such as roof, interior (e.g., Roof Division, Interior Division, Division B, Division 6).
  • Groups: organizational level responsible for functional assignments, (e.g., ventilation, search and rescue, extrication, medical).


  • Protective clothing and equipment.
  • Personnel accountability report.
  • Continuous risk management.
  • Rapid intervention crews.
  • Safety zones.
  • Rehab.


10-minute increments up to 100 and 20-minute increments thereafter. This is a reminder to provide a report every 10 minutes to dispatch and to remember the personnel accountability report.

10 20 30 40 50 60 70 80 90 100 120 140 160 …

MURREY E. LOFLIN has been a member of the fire service since 1979, having served with the Beckley (WV) Fire Department and the Virginia Beach (VA) Fire Department, where he served from 1983 to 2006 as a firefighter/EMT, a health and safety officer, a captain, a company officer, and a battalion chief. Loflin is the director of fire training for West Virginia and the director of the State Fire Academy in Weston, West Virginia. He is an adjunct faculty member and a course developer for the National Fire Academy and has an M.S. degree in occupational health and safety and B.A. and A.A.S. degrees from Marshall University in Huntington, West Virginia.

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