Team Size-Up

BY ALAN BRUNACINI

We have been engaging in a size-up discussion in our monthly get-together. We noted how important quick, accurate situation evaluation is to safe and effective operations and covered the four basic forms of incident information and how the incident commander (IC) and the team use those different forms of fireground data.

Some of those information management techniques are pretty scientific; others are used in a slightly more artistic way. As an example, the IC uses preincident plans in a very analytic (scientific) way while tactical condition and progress reports from all around the scene are received, assembled, and integrated in a form that makes up a more artistic and dynamic size-up “picture” of what is and what will be going on.

We also described some of the details of how the task, tactical, and strategic levels each use their position to effectively do their part in the overall size-up process. Fire companies do manual labor in the hazard zone. Many times the officer of the first company becomes a fast attacking IC #1. Sectors/divisions/groups are tactical-level managers that oversee major area/functional assignments the IC makes; they make up a major part of the IC’s decentralized “size-up” staff.

The chief officer IC (many times IC #2) is the overall incident strategic level boss who operates inside a command post using visual information that can be seen from the command post and taking in information from the team, which reports from its assigned position/function. The command team must continually process, evaluate, and translate into operational intelligence that incoming information. That intelligence is used to develop and maintain the incident strategy and the initial action plan (IAP).

A major size-up challenge involves developing the knowledge and understanding of a complete inventory of the standard critical factors that are typically (and specially) present at a structural fire. This would be a lot like a doctor having a complete knowledge and understanding of the human anatomy and physiology (A&P). This inventory-based knowledge and ability become the starting point for the “doc”/IC doing a 360° initial size-up of the patient/fire and create the ability to both diagnose and treat the patient’s/fire’s problem.

Both the medical A&P and critical fireground factor inventories contain a standard set of items. Although the lists are discreet, how the different inventory items come together and interact with each other creates an almost unlimited set of tactical combinations. Understanding (i.e., memorizing) what is on the inventory is scientific—being able to effectively identify and quickly deal with the unique and huge possible number of combinations of factors requires artistic experience and skill.

A major way we deal with that combination of factors is for the command and operational team to develop an agreement that connects what the critical factors mean (tactically) in terms of a standard organizational reaction to those factors. This action-oriented agreement emerges from a continual focus on how important the development of standard incident information is to sound decision making that produces effective operational action and outcomes. This common team agreement has a powerful unifying and cohesive effect among the players.

Although preincident planning gives us critical information about a particular (single) tactically significant occupancy or area, it is virtually impossible for us locals to create a specific plan for the huge number and variety of people, places, and things we may encounter. We manage the conditions that we have not specifically preplanned by developing a standard operational approach to them. This approach emerges out of the experience of dealing with tactical conditions in the past. This organizational agreement creates, in effect, a preplan for how our organization will evaluate, approach, and react to that regular/special condition.

The preplan agreement becomes the information-management basis for operational plays and command moves that go with a specific tactical condition. This approach provides a common starting point for the entire team and strengthens members’ collective capability to customize the plans and plays to meet the particular needs of each situation.

Many times, we must invent as we go, and this team approach connects standard information to the standard plays that (hopefully) create a standard outcome (there we go again with that “standard” stuff). This common starting point also simplifies the critical beginning stages of action planning and streamlines ongoing operations because it creates a practical communication and understanding among the players. They know the stage of the game based on time/conditions, the overall objective, along with the operational approach, and they expect the quarterback (IC) to call the standard plays required to trigger a standard response.

This is how we win or lose. Simply, first and 10 (offensive/go for it) is a lot different from fourth and 25 (defensive/punt) and requires a much different reaction (moves and formation) from the leader and the team. That different reaction had better not be a mystery to any of the participants. After the incident operations game begins, you can’t call a time out or ask for an instant replay.

It’s also too late for the quarterback to settle disputes and disagreements about what important stuff means or how the team will basically play based on that stuff being present. The huddle is a lousy place to teach the team the basic plays. Without preincident planning and agreement on common factors and related plays, our game gets confusing and dangerous very early.

When this team approach works, it can look like voodoo from the outside looking in—a lot of effective, quiet, integrated activity that seems to occur almost automatically with very little command direction. What is really going on is the synergistic effect of a whole integrated string of internal agreements and intense practice and application over a period of time, performed by a team whose members are all operating on the same wavelength (literally). When this occurs, it is beautiful, simply beautiful!

Another important piece of this beautiful outcome is the ability of this approach to continually standardize the regular incident elements (i.e., critical factors) that are present and the things that regularly occur. Over time, the team standardizes its understanding and approach, and these “go in the bank.” In effect, they have decided how to handle these conditions when they recognize those conditions, and their response becomes automatic.

This automatic response to recurring conditions frees the IC and the team to pick out the conditions that are special to the incident situation on which they are working, and that becomes the focus of the decision-making and related IAP. This approach makes life a lot easier than having to start out at “information zero” for every new incident and go completely through the beginning numbers (all old-time, recurring stuff) to get to that special stuff at the end.

Be careful of responders with “tactical amnesia.” This happens when we habitually forget what occurred in the past, so we must relearn EVERY lesson, procedure, and reaction at the beginning of (and throughout) every event because we (in effect) forgot everything we ever knew. Although the world to these dazed folks is always a wondrous and surprising new place, it can be a highly dangerous and confusing one. The continued application of local incident command and all the many pieces and parts of the support process by both the individual and the organization are ways to prevent this organizational and personal “psycho-sclerosis” (hardening of the head).

Continuous improvement is another benefit of the common team approach. Simply, the more we play, the more we learn; the more we learn, the better we play. The agreed-on information/reaction system provides the foundation and gives us the capability to add to our organizational mentality/capability. Operational experience always produces the new lessons that continually refine the critical realities and specific details of what we can and what we can’t (and shouldn’t) do.

This ongoing process creates a system and structure to internalize lessons/knowledge and becomes the essence of individual and collective “experience.” A team is not a team until the members can collectively visualize, execute, and consistently recreate being in the right place at the right time and performing the correct set of integrated actions. A common practiced team size-up approach creates the critical basis and beginning for this outcome.

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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