“I Know It When I See It”

BY ALAN BRUNACINI

In a recent conversation with a group of firefighters, we were talking about how critical the calm behavior of the incident commander (IC) is to effective and safe fireground operations. The group mutually wondered how some fire officer ICs are able to stay cool under the most difficult conditions while others let that same level of chaos outperform their self-control, and their behavior becomes goofy. During our talk, we were trying to define what cool/calm/composed command really means; someone said: “I can’t define cool, but I know it when I see it.” After we went our separate ways, I continued to think about what we had talked about. It occurred to me that there is not much instructional material available on calm command behavior, which is odd because it is absolutely critical for a fireground boss (IC) to stay cool when the chips are down, and this skill is universally admired in our service.

Many firefighters are alive today because an unruffled IC moved them out of an attack position that was very quickly going from okay to almost instantly fatal. A special “cool school” that teaches new ICs how to act during difficult times would be a big seller. The following might be part of the curriculum in the school.

You must learn the basic IC job. It is impossible to define any behavioral part of doing a job (like being cool) if you can’t describe the basic job because the job description outlines what we are supposed to be cool doing. The point is not to be cool just for the sake of being cool but to use your calm composure to do a better/safer job. Being an IC does not involve some mysterious form of voodoo. The eight standard command functions describe it in pretty simple terms. The more a person knows about—and practices doing—those standard command functions, the more capable he becomes and the calmer he is when he must perform. Simply, the basis of composure is competence. The eight standard command functions serve as a basic job description of what is expected of an IC:

  1. Assume, confirm, and position command.
  2. Evaluate the situation.
  3. Initiate, manage, and control communications.
  4. Manage deployment.
  5. Plan strategy and incident action.
  6. Develop an effective incident organization.
  7. Review and revise.
  8. Continue, transfer, and terminate command.

Consistently performing these command functions becomes the personal foundation for standard IC performance. Doing them over and over creates a set of habitual behaviors for the IC that gets him through a complete command routine in a wide range of situations. Commanding over and over under regular, day-to-day conditions creates a practiced command performance routine that becomes the foundation for being able to effectively operate in difficult situations—we use the little ones to get ready for the big ones. Simply, there is no substitute for a fire officer assigned as the IC who starts with the first function and methodically and intentionally goes through the rest (in order). The IC’s doing all the functions every time ensures that a standard level of strategic command is performed. Doing the functions creates a system that lets everyone on the fireground know where the IC will be and what the IC will be doing and helps every level to operate on the cool end of the composure scale.

Pay attention to role models. In the past couple of columns, I reminisced about my calm left-turn/nutty right-turn battalion chiefs. They provided a contrasting set of early role models for a very young firefighter. Those impressions have lasted more than 50 years. Being able to watch them in action created a very direct “eyeball” impression. I was the direct beneficiary or victim of how they behaved, because I got to live through (along with my colleagues) the effect of their style of operating in the hazard zone. I did not need a big complicated description of what was going on because I lived (luckily) up close and personal through how each of them operated. Role models create powerful and lasting impressions.

Choose command over action. It is impossible to have command presence/stature unless you are in command (duh). We are taught, encouraged, and rewarded very early to be an active member of a firefighting team. We kill the fire by doing fast, tactical manual labor before the fire kills us. If we are dirty, tired, and scuffed up, it shows we operated in a tough spot. Doing battle where water and fire come together is what converts conditions that are out of control to under control. It is very difficult to say goodbye to doing the physical action that has always validated us. Making this transition from action to command is critical because there is no strategic level command present on the fireground until there is a real live IC operating in a strategic position (stationary, remote, inside a vehicle). Hanging on to a nozzle or a pike pole is a very necessary and noble position but is in no way a strategic command position. Firefighting crews are effective because they are mobile and agile. ICs are effective (cool) because they are stationary and stable. A running IC is a crazy IC, because it is impossible to run fast enough to see everything that is going on. When you are the IC, assume a strategic command position where you can see, hear, communicate, record, and think—then stay in that position. Simply, it is impossible to manage the self-service laundry with your head in a dryer.

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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