Taking Command: A Navigational Formula


The words are simple and straightforward: “Attention all members: It is with deep regret that the department announces the line-of-duty deaths … fierce five-alarm warehouse fire … a moment of silence for the deceased.” The official notification begins with the grim message, the unfolding of the black bunting for public display, the details for the final farewell, the bonding with relatives and family friends at the memorial service, and the “painstaking” investigations. Understanding this sequence of steps will provide new command officers with clarity into the ramifications of their fireground decisions.

Promotion does not automatically translate into an informed incident commander (IC). “Ready to respond” means having the ability to safely manage any type of incident. Often there is uncertainty or anxiety when “taking command.” Many officer development classes, succession plans, and personal checklists do not provide proper guidance for “facing the future” in the role of command. Short staffing dictates the elimination of conflicting assignments and duplication of orders. Often, poor command post decisions will result in injuries, embarrassing headlines, and costly lawsuits. A fast, firm, and fundamental formula for the all-hazard response is necessary for cultural change. Commanding a rapidly escalating emergency depends on organizing the fireground or emergency medical services scene from the beginning.

(1) Time and information are critical to the incident commander's decision-making process.
(1) Time and information are critical to the incident commander’s decision-making process. A mental checklist ensures competency when lives and property are at risk. (Photos by Greg Masi.)

The aim of the current United States Fire Administration (USFA) Strategic Plan is to avoid ineffectiveness. One of the USFA goals is to improve the “nation’s incident decision-making skills” for command personnel. Certainly, an emphasis on regular training and continuous education is highlighted. The overall benefits of suitable scenario-based simulations combined with a knowledgeable instructor cannot be overstated. Still, individuals and organizations need a concrete “plan of action” when confronted with command challenges. Departments must evaluate their written operating policies, technology, and current training curriculums to ensure that “scalable steps” are taken during an incident to ensure simplicity, consistency, and efficiency.

Today’s initial IC must deal with many risks and be aware of the specific hazards for special operations, firefighting duties, and medical assistance. Life safety, protective actions, capability assessment, and risk reduction mean many things and cannot be left to chance. The key to command and control is close coordination of multiagency resources (apparatus, personnel, and equipment) from arrival to demobilization.

In 2012, preparedness involves a wide range of educational endeavors for first responders from the public sector, private contractors, and volunteers. Juggling the diverse responsibilities of command requires a template that paves the way for incoming responders to work together and interact correctly as an incident grows from a single resource to multiagency involvement.

A fundamental four-step formula for making incident scene decisions is as follows:

1. Size up the scene.
2. Establish command.
3. Give assignments.
4. Track resources.


Size-up is the mental process of identifying issues that will dramatically impact the outcome of the operation. An effective evaluation of “observable” factors by all responders creates a greater awareness of the situation. Understanding the various operational problems will provide a command officer with an opportunity to make better predictions before verbal orders are given.

The National Fire Academy (NFA), in its numerous incident management classes, has identified three distinct phases for gathering information and problem identification.

• Preresponse. It requires the development of a concise “Quick Access Plan” (QAP) that can be read and understood in a short time. Factors such as exact address considering both the post office (1234 Market Street or Avenue) and vanity addresses (such as #1 Meridian Plaza or World Trade Center) can be received from various sources at a dispatch center. Other primary factors critical to making strategic and tactical decisions are construction classifications, occupancy group, built-in protective features, and exposures.

• En route. Gather input from dispatchers on the type of alarm activation, such as a local alarm with specific location of the annunicator panel or pertinent information from a 911 phone call. Witnesses often can relay vital information. Surveillance cameras can supply a wealth of intelligence.

• Ongoing throughout the incident. The mnemonic “WALLACE WAS HOT” has been put in place as a job aid for structural firefighting for decades. The thermal imaging camera has transformed intelligence gathering. Each letter corresponds to a significant size-up factor:

—Water supply. Hydrant or nonhydrant part of the community.
—Apparatus and properly trained personnel on first alarm.
—Life safety. Civilians and responders impacted by dangers.
—Location/extent of problem.
—Auxiliary appliances. Active: sprinklers/standpipes. Passive: alarm systems, fire doors, compartments.
—Construction and collapse indicators. National Fire Protection Association 220, Standard on Types of Building Construction, 2012 edition, can be a reference.
—Exposures, internal and external. Many believe structures within 20 feet should be immediately checked and protected.
—Weather. Wind and humidity often impact rotation of personnel.
—Area. Compartment or wide-open spaces?
—Special hazards. Vacant structures and information collection, hazardous materials, public health, or technical rescue considerations.
—Height. Beyond the reach of aerial ladders?
—Occupancy. Number, age, agility of occupants.
—Time and seasonal factors. Traffic and fire load concerns.
(2) The incident commander's role
(2) The incident commander’s role is to ensure personnel safety and operational effectiveness. Both hinge on having a rational plan prior to arriving at an emergency scene. Establishing a command post and continuously assessing the situation provide a “starting point” for any type of emergency incident. Accountability and clear assignments for all resources will reduce conflicts, confusion, and duplication of efforts. Having a “snapshot” of duties will assist new officers in preparing to “take command.”


At one time, the chief was expected to make all decisions. Historically, this approach has proven nonproductive because unity of command and span of control principles are violated. With the passage of Homeland Security’s Presidential Directive 5—”Management of Domestic Incidents,” there is a requirement to use the National Incident Management System (NIMS). Under this document, the IC acts as a facilitator and sets the stage for the overall management of operational resources and supporting agencies. Leadership teams are organized by defined areas of responsibility. Tasks are delegated to identify geographical, functional, and logistical areas that require attention or additional assistance. Dealing with command post complexes has changed with improvement plans based on meaningful investigations, on published After-Action Reports (AAR), formal Incident Action Plans (IAP), and rulings by the criminal justice court system. Clear evidence has demonstrated the versatility and value of using the incident command system (ICS).


Over the years, the method of allocating resources has significantly changed. Staffing levels have an immediate and direct effect on operational outcomes. Maintaining crew integrity and working with a partner inside an immediately dangerous to life and health atmosphere are imperative. The need for an adequate “breathable” air supply has increased the requirements for advance planning and logistical support. Strict enforcement of a collapse zone requires foresight. Research into staffing levels conducted in 2010 by the U.S. Department of Commerce’s National Institute of Standards and Technology examined the difference in 22 mission-essential firefighting and rescue tasks in a residential property. Tasks were timed and matched with scientific data. Results showed measurable “life-safety” threats to the public and responders based on uncontested fire growth. A four-person crew, as recommended by NFPA 1710, Standard for the Organization and Deployment of Fire Suppression Operations, Emergency Medical Operations, and Special Operations to the Public by Career Fire Departments, 2010 edition, is more effective than running with two- or three-person crews. This study shows that the size of firefighting crews and on-scene arrival times have a substantial impact on firefighters’ ability to mitigate a structure fire.


Individuals and organizational changes are rooted in risk-assessment techniques appropriate for the fire service. All members are responsible for their own and company level accountability. Monitoring and documenting work assignments must be done from the onset. Numerous real-world case studies, NFPA standards, and the newly implemented Near-Miss Reporting System have provided reliable and verifiable information on this topic. The frequency of responders getting lost and disoriented inside of structures cannot be ignored. Structural stability must be constantly evaluated. At the emergency scene, the best personnel accountability strategy has buy-in by all agencies and zero tolerance for noncompliance by any emergency entity. Strict accountability is a primary factor in “protecting our own.” A practical accountability procedure does not prevent crews or companies from quickly completing their tasks, yet it is sophisticated enough to keep an accurate list of units by name (for example, Ladder Co. #10) and location (assigned to Suppression Branch, Division Delta, Burning Brand Group). Written tactical worksheets should be standard equipment and reflect NIMS benchmarks for incident briefings. Information provided in the ICS #201 form is a “sketch of scene,” a summary of current actions, an organizational structure, and a deployment status of assigned and incoming resources. The incident command planning boards, with time-sensitive documentation, can be command’s most valuable navigational tool when a situation suddenly deteriorates.

Today, multifaceted protective services have an extremely broad charge for decision makers. Speed, situational awareness, and safety are major components. Preventing any negative consequence hinges on identifying weakness in organizational policies, procedures, past practices, and training programs. Attempting to develop a comprehensive checklist for strategic considerations, tactical concerns, and hands-on tasks can be extremely frustrating.

Training is the cornerstone of the emergency services. Competency is measured by objective decisions based on a level of acceptable risk.

The IC cannot hesitate when confronted with complex challenges such as in the early morning hours of April 9, 2012, at a wind-driven, extra-alarm fire in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Fire attack crews were on the defensive. Burning embers had spread for several blocks. A company was deployed to an adjoining furniture store when an exterior wall of a large heavy timber building collapsed. Injuries and deaths resulted. The lesson is very clear. An accurate match between the inherent dangers of public safety must be instantaneously balanced against numerous variables. “Taking command” needs a preparedness plan that covers laws, standards, regulations, equipment, continuous education, and rules of engagement training.

Keeping the troops ready to respond is an enormous responsibility. Now is the time to share information; establish a standard for strategic performance; and build a fast, firm, and fundamental formula for “taking command.”

WILLIAM SHOULDIS served in line and staff positions with the Philadelphia (PA) Fire Department for 35 years, including as the department’s safety officer. He is an instructor at the National Emergency Training Center and a guest speaker at the Graduate School at St. Joseph’s University. He is a member of the Fire Engineering editorial advisory board and a presenter at the Fire Department Instructors Conference.

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