Mastering Fireground Command: Calming the Chaos


Fireground command is an enormous topic. This article is designed to help you start mastering fireground command, which is an ongoing, ever-evolving process. Today’s fireground is vastly different from that in the past. It is ever-changing and always will be. Building construction, fire behavior, fire loading, use of synthetics, changes in staffing, differences in personal protective equipment (PPE), and the lack of experience all contribute to the moving target of fireground command excellence. We must remain humble and vigilant throughout our careers.

The information regarding command comes from a myriad of sources. Books, videos, standards, standard operating guidelines (SOGs), workshops, and the National Incident Management System (NIMS) are just a few examples. One of the most effective current training programs is the Blue Card System, based on Phoenix (AZ) Fire Department Chief (Ret.) Alan Brunacini’s pioneering book Fire Command.

The most important factor is the output. What is the end goal of excellent command? Command and control of an incident must not impede the work being done at the task level; it must support and enhance that work, and it must create a well-organized fireground on which communication is clear and concise.

Some departments have core values, whereby the organization lives by a credo or listing of priorities for behavior. Such terms as honor, integrity, and teamwork are often seen listed on the walls in the firehouse. However, what about operational core values? If we focus on the operational output, then the core values for fireground operations could be safe, effective, efficient, and consistent.


The fire service is a very reactive culture. We often refer to ourselves as “coiled springs—ready for action.” The problem is that our culture teaches us not to be proactive. The average firefighter doesn’t like fire prevention, and we are like Pavlov’s dog: We salivate only when the bell goes off. We have the only American workplace with recliners. We are taught not to get too impressed unless something is on fire. The problem is that this type of thinking breeds a reactive culture. As incident commanders (ICs), we cannot afford to be reactive. We must be proactive. When everyone is ramping down, we must still stand vigil over our troops and look for the unexpected.

Look at the past 10 years. Most fireground command training has been reactive, focusing on what we do after a firefighter is down. Two-in/two-out and rapid intervention crews have become the fads of the first decade of the new millennium, and with good reason. We routinely still lose around 100 firefighters a year.


Another important fact is that the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) has identified the top five causal factors of firefighter deaths on the fireground as follows:

1. Improper risk assessment (poor size-up).
2. Lack of incident command.
3. Lack of accountability.
4. Inadequate communications.
5. Lack of SOGs or failure to follow established SOGs.

We will refer to these as “The NIOSH 5.” Notice that all of these causes involve command.

These factors are what predicated many of the events that show up on the NIOSH line-of-duty-death (LODD) pie charts. It’s more important that we look at what operational events (or lack thereof) led up to things like getting lost, asphyxiation, trauma, and so on. It’s one thing to know that someone died of trauma; it’s another thing to know that he was pushed off a cliff. The NIOSH 5 tell us how our firefighters are getting pushed off cliffs.

Unfortunately, the NIOSH pie charts talk more about physiological causes of death such as asphyxiation, trauma, and heart attacks. ICs must focus on the operational trends that lead up to asphyxiation and trauma.

As firefighters, we focus on tactics and tasks. It’s fun. We like to break stuff and get dirty. Although there may be a vast amount of information, the command level is often understudied and undertrained, yet most firefighter LODDs are attributed to command issues.

By impacting these issues proactively, training on command, and setting up an incident command system (ICS) that takes the NIOSH 5 into account, we can reduce the number of incidents of firefighters in trouble, the number of injuries, and the number of LODDs. This proactive approach will yield more safe, effective, efficient, and consistent operations and truly calm the chaos!


At Sacramento (CA) Metro Fire (CMF), we have adopted the four operational core values: safe, effective, efficient, and consistent. This was necessary since our department’s existence resulted from multiple fire department mergers. Overnight, we became a 42-station department with a helicopter, a dozer, hazardous materials and heavy rescue companies, and aircraft rescue and firefighting operations.

More significantly, we did not have a new set of SOGs for our fireground; we were operationally schizophrenic. Battalion chiefs and captains from predecessor agencies all did it the “old” way, which meant 18 different ways (six battalions times three shifts). The problem was that we didn’t have a new way.

We built a Command Training Center (CTC) with a lot of help from Alan, John, and Nick Brunacini and Don Abbott. In the CTC, members conduct tabletop and computer simulations, and we preach the “Operational Triangle” for all of our incidents (Figure 1).

Figure 1. Operational Triangle

Strategy and tactics are at the base of the triangle. A captain once told me: “You can’t fire a cannon out of a rowboat.” We must have a strong foundation. Sound strategy and tactics are musts.

In addition, we must be on the same page. Standard operating procedures/guidelines were essential to move us forward. Finally, we organize the incident using the ICS. No ICS worksheet ever put out a fire, but using the ICS on a daily basis is critical to achieving the four core values and impacting the NIOSH 5.

One bone of contention we experienced involved the SOGs: What if we don’t follow the SOG? Will we get into trouble? This question was very prevalent in the early CTC sessions.

The answer was simple: Use your brain. No SOG can possibly predict or be totally equipped to handle every possible situation a fire officer may face today. The key is sound training. The SOG is a guideline. If you deviate, do it in the name of one of the core values. If you deviated because it was safer, more effective, or more efficient to call an audible, then fine. Unacceptable reasons for deviation include not knowing or not liking the SOG and the fact that you didn’t do it that way in another department.

Our analogy was pretty straightforward. The officer is like a quarterback on a football team, and the SOGs are the playbook. We call the play; if the defense (fire) is showing you something that the SOG doesn’t account for, call an audible at the line.

If we hope to reduce the number of firefighter LODDs on the fireground, we must command fires in a way that attacks all five of the NIOSH 5 causal factors.

Treat structure fires with the utmost respect. Each fire presents unique challenges. That being said, we must have a consistent and systematic way to approach these fires if we hope to consistently run an effective incident. That’s the reason SOGs are so important and the lack of SOGs or not following them is number 5 on the NIOSH list. That being said, no system will replace astute fire officers who know their job.

The ICS does not take the place of strategy and tactics, SOGs, or—most importantly—thinking officers who are able to evaluate and act on key fireground factors like smoke/fire conditions, building construction, occupancy, and so on.

One of the principles of ICS is that it is a simple-to-complex system; divisions, groups, branches, and sections are not formulated until a need arises. The need is derived from the incident, so the statement “The incident drives ICS; ICS does not drive the incident” is true.

The potential for problems arises when we forget that ICS was designed for managing wildfire incidents on a large scale that can span weeks. Incident action plans (IAPs) are developed by planning sections, and the risk is managed appropriately as the ICS is built, after the initial attack phase of the fire.

The phrase “simple-to-complex” must be redefined for the structural initial attack arena. The modern structure fire has become a “complex” incident on dispatch. We need not look further than national statistics and firefighter fatalities.

Just in northern California, we have had several sentinel events in the past three years. Two firefighters were killed in a small Contra Costa home in July 2007. Three firefighters were trapped when a roof fell in a commercial building in Sacramento in June 2008, and four firefighters narrowly escaped from a house fire in October 2008 in the same region. Two firefighters fell into a residential garage fire in Modesto on New Year’s Day 2010, sustaining significant burn injuries. Again, all of these incidents occurred in the past three years, most of them in homes, which strengthens the case that even a bread-and-butter house fire is no longer a simple or “routine” event.

Well-known emergency industry risk expert Gordon Graham classifies these as high-risk, low-frequency events, meaning they pose the greatest risk and we are not called to respond to them often, compared with medical emergencies, for example. Perishable skills degrade, which creates the greatest potential for injury or death.

Modern structure fires have become complex because of many factors, including changes in building construction, fire loading, and the use of low-mass synthetics, to name a few. Flashovers are occurring much faster because of modern building practices like higher insulation ratings, double/triple-pane windows, and petroleum-based interior decor. Add to this light construction, gusset plating, oriented strand board, integrated truss joint, and tile roofing, and it’s no wonder we are having more significant injuries.

To compound the problem, we have fewer fires, fewer experienced officers, and mass attrition. Although house fires are the most common, the overall number of fires is decreasing annually, further hampering the ability to maintain a well-experienced firefighting core.


To meet this challenge, we must plan ahead, remaining ahead of the incident power curve. Planning ahead is another principle of effective command. We must anticipate what the fire will or could do and allow for reflex time in ordering resources, evacuating structures, placing additional lines into service, and so on.

Just as we must evacuate a building before the roof collapses, we must set up a solid command structure before it is needed, in anticipation of the worst while hoping for the best. No one expected the killed and trapped firefighters described in the above four incidents, but they happened. Our job as ICs is to expect and prepare for the unexpected. Getting behind the power curve creates “command lag,” whereby bad things happen. Command lag is the gap between the time the incident requires a strategic or tactical decision and the time the actual decision is made.

Figure 2 depicts the command lag on the incident power curve. The black line represents present time. The red line represents a reactive operation, and a green line represents a proactive operation. Critical operations are on the “Y” axis; time is on the “X” axis. For example, a fireground strategy should shift into the defensive mode if smoke and fire conditions warrant, the building showing signs of collapse, and all civilian occupants are out. However, the IC does not make the switch to a defensive strategy. Five minutes later, the roof comes down, trapping three firefighters. Then, the IC calls a Mayday and announces that the fire is now defensive. The command lag represents the five minutes between the appearance of the above signs and the roof’s coming down.

Figure 2. Incident Power Curve

The objective is to remain on the green curve, staying ahead of the incident

Notice that each line has two plateaus. The first can be considered a “false plateau.” In most fires, we think we have everything under control (the first/false plateau); then we realize something we didn’t know. Examples would include an “all clear” from a secondary search and then finding a victim or thinking that the fire is extinguished and it then erupts in the attic.

An effective command structure must go beyond an IC and the safety officer. Two command officers will not be enough to effectively manage structure fires consistently or prevent a sentinel event, let alone manage the chaos that will ensue when a Mayday is called, a firefighter is down, or the need for a civilian rescue is discovered. Just because some of our house fires are routine and easily mitigated doesn’t mean the next one will be. Good luck reinforces bad habits.

The IC and safety officer represent the strategic level of the incident. Their sphere of awareness is the greatest, as they are the farthest away from the incident. They can see the “big picture.” That being said, the big picture is often limited to the A side of the structure for the IC. The IC’s view can be obscured by smoke, trees, night, apparatus, and a host of other factors.By contrast, the company officer’s sphere of awareness at the task level is typically zero to six feet. He is engaged in stretching lines, cutting holes, or searching for victims. In a smoke-filled immediately dangerous to life and health (IDLH) environment, the sphere of awareness through a self-contained breathing apparatus (SCBA) can be reduced to zero.

The missing link on most of our structure fires is at the tactical level, represented by the Division/Group supervisor. His sphere of awareness is six to 50 feet. This distance is closer than the IC and more mobile, but back away enough from the task level to see changing smoke/fire conditions, building conditions, crew location, access/egress, and so on.

The Division/Group supervisor becomes the eyes/ears for the IC and the guardian angel to the crews performing tasks in the hazard zone. The supervisor is mobile and able to see conditions changing from all sides of the building. He is in the “warm” zone, able to perform clear conditions/actions/needs (CAN) reports to the IC and conduct eyes-on/hands-on accountability. He is able to communicate face-to-face with his crews, consolidating critical information, thereby reducing radio traffic.

The goal of incorporating Division/Group supervisors early is not to create a top-heavy, bureaucratic command system. The goal is to support the tasks being accomplished on the fireground and prevent as many of the NIOSH 5 from aligning as possible. This will not reduce the number of crews performing tasks or require more companies to be dispatched.

ICS is more than checking boxes and creating Divisions/Groups. One of the most critical components is division of labor. Division/Group supervisors become the eyes and ears for command. Often, the incident command post (ICP) is not in an ideal location from which to view the incident. The IC will not see critical fireground factors like changing smoke conditions, fire/building conditions, entry point of crews, and so on. These factors are quickly overlooked by crews operating at the task level, who are focused on stretching lines and going inside.

Even if an IC were to leave his vehicle, lap around the structure with a portable radio, and attempt to see the incident, it would create problems. He will miss radio traffic, be unable to manage two frequencies, be difficult to contact face-to-face by crews, and may even need PPE and an SCBA to navigate the area. This violates all the principles of having a stationary ICP. Just because the IC sees the fire on arrival doesn’t mean conditions will stay that way. Ongoing size-up is crucial!

A person at the tactical level must be present to consolidate single resources (companies) into Groups/Divisions focused on the primary objectives of fire attack, search, vent, and RIC (Figure 3). Simply having an IC and a safety officer (who often arrives late) on a house fire is not using ICS to its potential in the structural fire arena. If an IC has all companies reporting to him, then a gap is created between the strategic and task levels of the incident. CAN reports are muffled by SCBA; even if the ICP is across the street, the IC is not monitoring the B, C, and D sides effectively. To compound problems, most communication to the IC is by radio, creating a bottleneck, especially when things go bad. Compound this with feedback from surrounding radios, and transmissions become useless.

Figure 3. Fireground Operations

There are three levels of operation on the fireground: strategic, tactical, and task.

Safety must be integrated earlier and simultaneously in the critical operational areas of the incident. On a house fire, for example, an Interior Division supervisor would also act as the safety officer for the interior of the house, managing the main objectives of search and fire attack. The Roof Division supervisor would be the officer on the roof, with the responsibilities of safety and managing the vertical vent. The RIC Group supervisor would be responsible for the RIC functions and have a support role in the Interior Division regarding accountability and situation/resource/status of crews through lateral face-to-face communication.

This integrates three safety officers into the incident with three different views, often much earlier than the arrival of a second-arriving battalion chief (BC), who would become “Safety.” The second-arriving BC could then take over the Group/Division needing the most supervision, most likely Interior Division for a house.

Proactive use of ICS (setting up Groups/Divisions early) has the following benefits:

• It minimizes the span of control. Currently, as a BC in the Sacramento region, for example, you would have an 8:1 ratio on dispatch. If both trucks split into two-person teams (as often happens per the regional SOG), you would have a potential for a 10:1 ratio. That’s 10 crews reporting directly to the IC through one tactical channel. Add to this two radios (tactical and command), mobile data terminals, maps, and code 3 driving, and any BC would lose track of crews prior to arrival. Setting up Groups/Divisions as soon as possible will enhance accountability and communications if/when things go bad.

• It improves accountability. The Division/Group supervisors represent the tactical level of the incident. The single resources are the task level (pulling lines, searching, cutting holes, and so on). The tactical-level officers (Interior, Division A, Roof Division, RIC Group) are the eyes and ears of the incident and feed Command (strategic level) important information through CAN reports. For example, the Interior Division supervisor on a house fire would be lapping the structure, looking at fire/smoke conditions, ensuring effective line placement, accounting for crews, considering air management, talking to bystanders, and so on). Interior would literally have a hands-on, eyes-on accounting for crews. This is much more effective than through radio traffic while using a worksheet in an SUV across the street. Interior would be in a better position to launch two-in/two-out sooner, since he can hear and see much better than the IC. He would also be in a position to prevent things like premature placement of positive-pressure fans that could make things worse. Ideally, the Interior Division supervisor could be half of two-in/two-out, as is allowed by 29 CFR 1910.134.

• It improves communications. The Interior Division supervisor, for example, would do a lot of face-to-face communication with his companies, thus reducing radio traffic. When Command asks Interior if a search is complete, Interior would simply state that it’s “in progress.” Once the search crew comes out and tells Interior (face-to-face) that the primary is completed, Interior would tell Command on the radio “Primary clear.” This again reduces radio traffic and frees the crews inside to work and not have to keep answering the radio. Also, using Group/Division designators on the radio reinforces the main objectives/areas of the incident. Interior talks to Roof and RIC. If things go bad, we focus on those designators, and personnel accountability reports (PARs) can be completed hands on, simultaneously within the Divisions/Groups and more effectively than having every single resource (again, up to 10 crews) “PAR to Command” on the radio. Communication bottlenecks happen!

• It improves safety. The Division/Group supervisors have a greater sphere of awareness at the tactical level than crews inside with smoke or cutting a hole at the task level. They are also closer than the IC to the activity. The crews inside the building are run by “working bosses” in the hot zone. Division/Group supervisors are in the warm zone as “walking bosses.” Their job is to be the safety officer for their area, watch conditions, watch the back of the crews in the hot zone, control access/egress, and coordinate with other Divisions/Groups. For example, an IC in a poor ICP location and crews in zero visibility could both miss smoke conditions that show a flashover is imminent. The Interior Division supervisor could speed up Roof’s cutting a hole or pull crews out if he thought it would take too much time for the hole or additional lines that could improve conditions.

• It matches the intensity of the incident. Today’s house fire has become an intense combat zone. Most firefighter and civilian fatalities are in house fires. They are not bread and butter anymore. We must meet the fast-paced intensity with a proactive organizing mechanism. Things peak and are done very fast. If we wait to organize the crews, we can quickly get behind the power curve, especially if we call a second alarm or have a sentinel event. We must anticipate and plan ahead for the worst, hoping for the best.


Following are some criticisms often heard concerning the use of ICS at house fires:

1. ICS is simple to complex. House fires are not complex.

  • This statement fails to recognize the NIOSH 5 and that house fires are complex in nature. Again, most fireground firefighter fatalities occur in house fires. We are also charged with saving civilian lives, and most civilians die in house fires.
  • Despite RIC and advances in PPE, the firefighter death rate remains at approximately 100 a year because house fires are complex. The modern fire and building have changed. We must change our thinking, or we will be defeated.
  • In the Sacramento region alone, we have increased our response from two engines, a truck, and a BC to four engines, two trucks, two BCs, and a medic. In addition, RIC and two-in/two-out are now part of our SOGs. Things have changed. Our responses have more than doubled, and we must adjust our ICS.


2. House fires are over too soon. We don’t need ICS.

  • Because the house fire incident curve peaks quickly, we must match it quickly with an appropriate command system.
  • We also don’t need to respond code 3 to many of the calls we go to, and we rarely need RIC. We are being proactive. Since part of effective command is planning ahead for contingencies, the same rule applies. We should plan ahead on every fire so we have the system set up in case things go badly and so we are proficient when it is needed.
  • Proactive factoring of the NIOSH 5 into our ICS and our training will prevent a Mayday and the need for RIC. RIC is reactive; training and setting up ICS early are proactive.


3. We never use captains as Division/Group supervisors. They must supervise their crew.

  • Often, truck companies split, leaving two members of the crew “unsupervised,” yet they function safely and effectively. Why? Because the captain has ensured that his crew is trained. This principle should not be reserved only for truck companies. Exceptions should be made for probationary members, and so on, based on the captain’s judgment.
  • If a captain is assigned as a Division/Group supervisor, his crew will be assigned to another officer for supervision and accountability.
  • Many times, the captain will still supervise his crew and run the Division/Group if they are outside the IDLH environment (RIC, Roof, Exposures).


4. This takes hands off the work. There are too many bosses and not enough workers. Pretty soon, we’ll all be standing around with vests and clipboards while the building burns to the ground.

  • The worst-case net change is one less officer inside after command is transferred to the BC. The initial IC (captain of the second engine) bumps to Interior Division supervisor (tactical level) instead of task-level operations. He may have already assigned his crew to the first engine captain, or they may be two-in/two-out. He may opt to go inside if conditions are mild (confined garage fire), pull hose at the front door, or deploy two-in/two-out. His efforts are most likely better used lapping the structure, accounting for his crews, and giving clear CAN reports to the IC.
  • No clipboards and vests, just better communications. Interior talks to Roof, RIC talks to Interior, and so on. There is no need for task-level officers to attempt to track all assignments on the radio. That’s the Division/Group supervisor’s job. A task-level officer simply needs to know who his boss is and what his objective is.
  • The Interior Division supervisor will know by hands-on accountability where his crews are (again, attacking the NIOSH 5). He’ll know when they actually went in and when they actually came out. If he needs to speak to them while they are in the IDLH, he can don his mask, quickly enter, conduct face-to-face dialogue, then exit the IDLH, remove his mask-mounted regulator, and give a clear CAN report to the IC.


5. You don’t need to set up a Group or Division with just one company.

  • Again, this fails to see the need to look at a structure fire differently regarding ICS than we would look at a 100,000-acre fire. Communications are more intense because of SCBA in IDLH atmospheres and require clearer dialogue.
  • Even if only one crew is RIC, this enhances communications. RIC would be called if a Mayday occurs. We would not need to remember which company was assigned to RIC (was that Engine 2 or Engine 5?). If Interior needs to talk to the crew on the roof, he would call “Roof Division.”
  • If a second alarm is called, the second-alarm companies would file into the respective Groups/Divisions, and the span of control would not change as drastically.
  • Setting up Groups/Divisions early prevents having to change designators in the middle of the firefight, which causes confusion (the NIOSH 5). Task-level companies remain as their designator (Engine 1). Tactical remain as their designator (Interior, Division A).


6. This is check-box firefighting.

  • ICS does not replace thinking company officers and experienced ICs. Nor does it replace proper hoseline placement, search operations, vertical ventilation, size-up, knowledge of building construction, and so on.
  • This is not a rote memorization form of firefighting. It is a way to organize the incident early so we can respond to changing conditions and sentinel events in a more calm, systematic, and professional manner.
  • It actually is a higher form of command. It integrates safety, accountability, and better communications. The IC will have fewer people reporting to him, with less radio traffic, but he will enjoy a much greater level of accountability and communications.
  • The crews will not be required to talk on the radio as much while attempting to do work in a zero-visibility environment.


7. We just need to go to work.

  • Absolutely. This use of ICS does not replace strategy and tactics; it supports them. We need to go to work in a systematic fashion if we expect to impact the NIOSH 5 causal factors of firefighter fireground fatality.
  • The fires will go much more smoothly, and there will be fewer radio communications.
  • The crews end up talking less to the IC, thus freeing them to do the work. The Division/Group supervisors would do the majority of the talking to the IC on the radio.


8. One size does not fit all.

  • Correct. Use of the Interior Division is limited to smaller structures without known victims. More complex incidents like larger structures, center hall apartments, or where there are known victims on dispatch may require use of Fire Attack and Rescue Groups; Divisions A, B, C or 1, 2, 3; and so on. We must train on all types.
  • Although one template is not perfect for all fires, a small handful of templates that, again, are incident driven can be preloaded and trained on so that the implementation is seamless.
  • We can have SOGs for command just as we can have SOGs for strategy and tactics. The key is that they are guidelines and can be adjusted based on the incident.


9. We tried using ICS before, and it didn’t work.

  • Without the proper training, ICS will not work and can become confusing. This creates frustration, and officers will revert back to what they know: Everyone reports to the IC, which is a sure-fire way to have a broken system.
  • The use of simulations is extremely effective. Simulation software is usually relegated to promotional training. We must train more regularly on these perishable skills if we expect to be effective.


The answer to the challenge is training. If we do not train and become outstanding at this, we will say, “See, it didn’t work.” Implementation is the key.

Today’s structure fires require dynamic ICs who plan ahead. In addition to pulling crews out of a building before the roof caves in or calling a second alarm before the fire is out of control, we must set up an ICS quickly, before we get behind the incident power curve. This framework will get more eyes and ears on the incident, enhance safety, reduce radio traffic, improve communications, and will prepare you for—or may even prevent—the worst day of your life, when a Mayday is called.


At the end of the day, we are here to save lives. All that we do each day, whether training, apparatus checks, meetings, inspections, checking hydrants, or ordering equipment—all go toward the goal of saving a life. One day, all the training, team building, and relentless attention to detail paid off.

On August 28, 2010, SMF responded to a fire at the Goodwill Store at approximately 11 a.m. The call was reported as a sign in the store that had caught fire and was most likely extinguished already. As we rolled out onto the ramp to respond, Dispatch called me and stated that a second fire was just dispatched a block away. The fire was in an apartment, and a child was trapped.

I ordered the Goodwill Store alarm to be diverted to the apartment, which already had a full commercial alarm responding (five engines, three trucks, one fire medic, and two BCs). We ensured that one engine continued to the Goodwill. The net result was nine engines, six trucks, two fire medics, and four BCs were now responding to the apartment fire.

Detail 1. As I looked up, I saw a column of smoke from the area of the apartment complex. By now, all the Goodwill alarm units had already moved to the respective tactical channel, and the lag time in getting them to divert could have cost precious time. Fortunately, the first engine and truck captains had the situational awareness to hear the other dispatch for the apartment fire, saw the smoke, and diverted on their own before I could even switch to the tactical channel. This was the first of many small details that proved pivotal in the outcome that followed.

Engine 106, Truck 106, and Battalion 7 arrived at the same time. I cut through a parking lot while they went on surface streets. The father ran outside and told the truck captain that his son was in a rear apartment bedroom and that he could not get to him because of the amount of fire in the front of the apartment (photo 1).

(1) Seconds after arrival, the father, in black clothing, approached Truck 106 on the right. (Photos by author.)

By now, the fire was extending into three other apartments through a common breezeway on the second floor. The rear sliding glass door had broken out on the C side of the fire room and was blowing fire, which was beginning to cut off access to the bedroom window. Inside, the fire was moving down the hall toward the bedroom where the four-year-old boy was. The bedroom door was open.

Detail 2. The truck captain got much needed recon from the father about the victim’s exact location. He reported that the truck would be “all in,” which is our SOG term for all members inside for rescue. This placed Truck 106 at the task level.

Detail 3. The engine and truck captains coordinated and decided on a vent-enter-search (VES) tactic for the rescue. Since heavy fire consumed the area between the front door and the bedroom, the only chance the victim had was VES through the second-floor bedroom window. Had the truck performed a more conventional search from the front door after the fire was knocked down, the boy would certainly have perished. He didn’t have that much time.

Detail 4. The Engine 106 captain deployed a 1¾-inch attack line to the fire. This placed him at the task level as well. The captain ensured that a 150 gallons-per-minute (gpm)-capable line was flowing in a straight stream pattern, and he coordinated the attack with the truck. He had the situational awareness to realize that any fire attack from the front door would impact conditions downstream in the bedroom where the victim was. Use of a fog stream, or even overusing a straight stream, could severely worsen conditions for the VES truck crew. Therefore, he used very short bursts of water in a controlled fashion so as not to “push” the fire onto Truck 106.

Meanwhile, Engine 101 arrived and laid out for a supply to Engine 106. I assigned the Engine 101 captain as Fire Attack Group supervisor with the objectives of supporting Engine 106, deploying additional lines as needed, and controlling extension. This placed the Engine 101 captain at the tactical level, with Engine 106 working for him. My ICP view was completely blocked by a large tree over the A side of the breezeway, where the fire was (photo 1). All I could read was the smoke conditions well after the smoke rose above the tree. I was totally reliant on the Fire Attack Group supervisor to be my eyes and ears and make necessary tactical decisions. He didn’t need to ask for permission; he initiated the necessary action.

On the arrival of Engine 110, the captain became the Rescue Group supervisor. His objectives included supporting the Truck 106 VES and searching the three adjacent exposures, all of which had moderate to heavy smoke. He, too, was at the tactical level, with Truck 106 working for him. He was also expected to make resource requests as needed to accomplish his objectives.

Detail 5. As the IC, my job was to set up an ICS that supported these critical tactics while anticipating their needs and maintaining clear, calm radio discipline. By allowing the first two companies on scene (one engine and one truck) to initiate task-level actions, they were positioned for success. They could have an immediate impact on the fire and rescue while not being required to conduct a lot (really any) of radio traffic with me at the ICP, nor did they have to worry about coordinating additional companies. It was someone else’s problem. They could focus on the tasks at hand when seconds counted most.

The second units to those groups became the group supervisors (in this case, Fire Attack and Rescue Groups). Those second captains of the respective areas were much better positioned to coordinate the big picture and manage additional resource requests. Most of the communication between the task and tactical levels was face-to-face, thus cutting down on radio traffic while enhancing the quality of communication.

The next two tactical priorities were vertical ventilation and medical. We needed to open the roof and get a fire medic standing by to receive the pending victim as soon as possible. Hazmat 109 (a fully capable truck company and hazmat unit) and Rescue 20 (a fully capable truck company and rescue unit) arrived simultaneously and were both assigned to the roof. Hazmat 109 became Roof Division supervisor with Rescue 20 working for him. This gave us two four-person truck companies for heat cuts and potential strip cuts if needed.

Medic 30 arrived and was assigned Medical Group supervisor with Medical 10 working for him. This gave us two medic units standing by. We must always have one medic available for any unknown victims or firefighters who may become injured. Medical 30 did an outstanding job. The crew went on deck at the ICP with their gurney and gear, waiting for the victim.

Detail 6. The details of the VES operation were both heroic and textbook. Truck 106 had to throw its ladder through the fire blowing out the slider to get to the bedroom window, and the crew sustained severe heat conditions while Engine 106 knocked down the fire (photo 2). They simply didn’t wait and made the calculated risk to go ahead, knowing that Engine 106 would get a quick knockdown.

(2) This is the view of the fire from the C side. The dad was pointing to the window of the room the child was in. The engine crew was to the right behind the smoke

Detail 7. All four members of Truck 106 were involved in the VES. The truck engineer ran to get the ladder. The truck tools firefighter climbed the ladder, took out the window with his ax (yes, he didn’t have to go back and get it—another detail), and was met with heavy black smoke to the floor and high/moderate heat at the upper-room levels. His mask immediately caked over with soot. He did not hesitate and went in, intending to close the bedroom door (photos 3-4).

(3) Truck 106 performing VES. The photo was taken seconds after knockdown.
(4) A clearer picture (after the fire).

As his foot set down, he realized he was standing on the bed. He immediately felt for and found the child. He handed the child to the captain, who was at the tip of the ladder, leaning in. The captain handed the child to the tillerman, who handed him to the engineer, who carried him to the Medical Group. Note the debris from the entry. Always check for victims under blinds and curtains that you may have pulled down during entry (photo 5).

(5) The bed in which the victim was located.

As the tools firefighter exited the apartment, he had no visibility (smoke and soot were on his mask), and a small amount of fire was impinging on his helmet because of the extending fire from the sliding glass window.

Detail 8 (perhaps the most important). The overall component on the call was the fireground pace. From the setting of the first parking brake, all members on scene were hustling. This made up even more time, trimming valuable seconds off the clock. When the Rescue Group announced that the victim was being brought out the A side to the waiting Medical Group, the Truck 106 engineer came sprinting with the child over his shoulder (photos 6-7). He knew exactly where to find the waiting medic and gurney, and they rushed off to the hospital in seconds.

(6-7) The Truck 106 engineer carried the victim, J.T. Thomas, to the Medic unit. This child was not breathing and had a CO level of 23.


The victim had a carbon monoxide (CO) level of 23. He was unconscious and not breathing initially. Medic 30 attained spontaneous respirations at about six per minute en route to the emergency room (ER). The ER’s attention to detail and patient care was outstanding as well. After a few hours in the ER, the victim was transferred to the Shriners’ Children’s Hospital in Sacramento. He was in an induced coma for four days and on a ventilator. The nurse told me his situation was “grave” that first night. She didn’t expect him to survive because of the level of CO in his system. Many of us prayed for his life in the following days.

Miraculously, he walked out of the hospital one week later. He had absolutely no deficits; the only injury was a second-degree burn to his inner arm, most likely from touching the base of the window frame as he was handed from the bedroom out to the Truck 106 captain (photo 8).

(8) Engine and Truck 106 crews with little J.T. Thomas giving a thumbs up. Firefighter Jeff Karges (lower right) found J.T. during VES.


I have no doubt that if we had not been already turned out and responding to the Goodwill fire we would easily have arrived two minutes later and our victim would have died. He was placed on the gurney before any of the original companies from the apartment alarm even arrived. The companies that were responding and diverted from the Goodwill (most on their own) were the first companies on scene and performed the fire attack, ventilation, and rescue. In addition, Medic 30 added its unit to the call early. This kind of initiative is outstanding and should be encouraged.

In addition, the Groups and Divisions were set up before the arrival of the second BC. The captains did a bang-up job because they were well trained to operate on all levels of an incident: task, tactical, and strategic. This kind of cross-training is pivotal if you expect your company officers to step up when seconds count. All too often, the second chief (if one is even responding) to many fires is delayed, is on another call, or is too far away geographically. Just in the Sacramento region, we have been downsized by three duty chiefs in the past two years. At the same time, we have enhanced our responses. In short, fewer chiefs are going to more fires. This leaves gaping holes in chief officer coverage. We must train our company officers. It makes them better fireground officers at any level.

When we have a known rescue prior to or just on arrival, the most likely tactical priorities will be fire attack, rescue, ventilation, and medical. The chaos that is often present when a known victim is trapped cannot be overestimated. Often, family, neighbors, or even bystanders can become victims in failed attempts to rescue the person trapped before the fire department arrives. Even if additional victims are not a factor, the scene is usually charged with emotions and panic. We must have strong command and control on arrival. We cannot hesitate, nor can we afford to set up some extravagant ICS with multiple tactical channels.

You can most likely set up a quick and effective ICS by simply having a Fire Attack Group, Rescue Group, Ventilation Group/Roof Division, and Medical Group. As seen in the above incident, the first company officers focused on the tasks. The second company officers set up the Groups/Divisions. I have used this on many house and apartment fires where we had known victims while en route or on arrival with success. Unfortunately, I learned this the hard way on a fire early after my promotion to BC in which two children were trapped; the father went in and became trapped as well. All three died. The Division 2 supervisor was overwhelmed, and our radio traffic was confusing.

If you train your company officers to anticipate this template, a quick and effective ICS will be set up early. ICS is incident driven. That being said, we can still practice some templates for known types of fires and building construction/layout. We don’t have to use the mantra “ICS is incident driven” to shoot from the hip every time and do it 20 different ways on the same house fire.

Anthony Kastros will present the workshop “Mastering Fireground Command: Calming the Chaos,” at FDIC on Monday, March 21, 8:00 a.m.-5 p.m.

ANTHONY KASTROS is a battalion chief for the Sacramento (CA) Metro Fire District and a 24-year veteran of the fire service. He is author of the Fire Engineering book and video series Mastering the Fire Service Assessment Center and the DVD series Mastering Fireground Command: Calm the Chaos! He is the project manager for the Metro Fire Command Training Center. Kastros has a B.S. degree in business and human resource management and an associate degree in fire technology.

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