BY BURTON W. PHELPS
You, a chief officer, arrive at a dwelling fire early one evening. It is a two-story, 24×2 32-foot house with a basement and garage. It is wood-frame, platform construction. There is a room-and-contents fire on the second floor. Fire and smoke are showing from the second-floor windows on Sides B and C.
You arrive with a first-alarm assignment of three engines, one truck company, and a medic unit. You assume command and begin to issue directives to the units. Engine 1 is assigned as Division (Sector) 2 to get a hoseline on the fire and begin primary search. Engine 2 is assigned to Division (Sector) 2 for a backup line and to assist with primary search. Engine 3 is assigned as the rapid intervention crew (RIC). Truck 1 is assigned to Vent Group (Sector) for horizontal ventilation.
The companies go to work. There is very little chatter on the radio. Division (Sector) 2 reports “All clear” when the primary search has been completed. Within minutes, the fire is under control and overhaul begins. There has been very little conversation between the resources and Command. Another simple fire situation has been handled with very little stress on the incident commander (IC).
WHY A CHIEF’S AIDE?
However, that scenario does not replay itself at a strip shopping center fire later that same night. Now, there is significant fire in a single occupancy. The IC predicts it is about 50 percent involved. On arrival, along with the brief initial report, the IC requests a second and third alarm. Now the radio traffic increases dramatically. There are more assignments to be made (Division Groups or Sectors), more progress reports to be completed, more Personnel Accountability Reports (PARs) to be made. The span of control for the IC is now four or five subordinates: Division (Sector) A, Exposure D, Exposure B, Vent Group (Sector), and possibly a Division (Sector) C.
Radio traffic has increased exponentially. Let’s look at a typical radio transmission for the strip shopping center incident.
- Command from Exposure B.
- Command, go ahead, Exposure B.
- Send me an additional company to assist with pulling ceiling.
- Okay, Exposure B, one additional company to pull ceiling.
- Staging from Command.
- Staging, go ahead, Command.
- Send one company to Exposure B to assist with pulling ceiling.
- Command from Staging, one company to Exposure B to pull ceiling. That will be Engine 5.
- Exposure B from Command.
- Exposure B, go ahead, Command.
- Engine 5 will be your additional company.
- Exposure B copies.
Can you find where the decision was made on the request by Exposure B for the additional company? You are correct if you said it is right before Command called Staging requesting the company for Exposure B, between messages 4 and 5.
Now, look at the messages again, and list the ones that are pure radio protocol. These are 1, 2, 5, 6, 8, 9, 10, 12.
How long would it take to completely handle this message? It would take from 35 to 50 seconds for the entire conversation to take place. How many conversations will there be on a good, working strip shopping center fire? Obviously, there would be many. Counting requests for additional resources to Command from Divisions, Groups, or Sectors; requests for an additional alarm from Command to Dispatch; PARs; and progress reports; there could be more than 50 typical conversations. Two-thirds of any conversation is protocol information-necessary, but time-consuming. The other one-third is information that must be transmitted since it entails the request and satisfaction of the request.
The IC is being paid to accept or otherwise has accepted the responsibility to manage the incident. Managing the incident entails the decision making for the incident. For the entire conversation above, how long did it take to make the decision? You are right-about one second!
So, where are we going with all this? If every conversation with the IC lasts an average of 30 seconds, the IC would be on the radio in a 50-message incident for about 25 minutes. That is 25 minutes the IC is playing radio operator. However, the decisions resulting from that 25 minutes of radio time would take only 25 seconds to make (at one decision a second). The other 24-plus minutes are keeping the IC from managing the scene. How do we correct this inequity and return the IC to the management roles of size-up and continuous size-up, strategy development, and tactical selections?
That is pretty simple. The IC must have an aide doing the radio transmissions and receptions. Most department chiefs and financial people do not understand the value of a chief’s aide. They look at the aide position as a chauffeur for a lowly first-in chief. Many of us know that that is not true. Some larger cities do provide the battalion-level chief with an aide, but they are few and far between.
THE FIRE INCIDENT TECHNICIAN
So, how do the rest of us get to that point? We must look at our organization and see where we can get an aide for the chief officers. First, those with aides at this time might want to consider what the Phoenix (AZ) Fire Department has done. It has formally called the aide a fire incident technician (FIT). The position has a set of duties and responsibilities.
Other departments have dispatched a fire-medic unit on the first alarm. These personnel are available to provide the staff for the chief (and even the first-in company officer). Mostly, they are available for this type of work at the incident scene. In most incidents, no civilians are injured on arrival, and we haven’t been there long enough to get anyone hurt, especially in the early, critical stages.
What about volunteer and combination departments? There are always volunteer personnel who go to the incidents, but, because of age or infirmity, they do not function as firefighters (pulling hoselines, entering the building, or doing truck work). These personnel know the apparatus numbering system, the department’s incident command system, and how to talk on the radio. These personnel, with a little training and experience, would make great FITs.
Another option is to assign a company or some members of a company to the chief as a staff. Here, a company officer or other member could be directed to report to the command post and perform the necessary functions of the FIT.
Remember, at incidents with a large amount of resources, it is necessary to not only have a person to answer the radio as “Command,” but there must also be someone to track resources. This means that on multiple-alarm incidents, there must be at least two FITs.
Duties of THE FIT
The duties of the FIT include the following:
- Handle all the radio protocols and messages for the IC.
- Get only the decisions from the IC, and make the necessary transmissions to accomplish those decisions.
- Keep the IC informed of the information being given and received at the command post. Of course, the IC has his own radio and can listen to it when there is time.
- Track resources on a Resources Status Sheet that notes the following: requested, arrived, assigned, and where assigned.
- The FIT may also keep the personnel accountability system tags, and so on.
Most of the fire departments in this country do not address this critical concern of time management for the IC. In fact, most chief officers have been doing without a FIT for their entire careers and do not themselves understand how critical a FIT is to the operation, their ability to see the “big picture,” and to make the management decisions necessary for the control of a serious incident.
Without a FIT, it is no wonder that many chiefs feel overwhelmed by significant incidents. Because of the radio they are married to on a multiple-alarm incident, there is little precious time to gather information (cues), think through a problem, and make effective decisions.
Develop a FIT program in your department, and give your chief-level personnel the tools to get the job done effectively.
BURTON W. PHELPS is a retired deputy chief from Anne Arundel County, Maryland, and now is president of a fire training consulting firm and a fire service ICS, strategy-tactics training software company. He has been an instructor and course developer in the Command and Control curriculum at the National Fire Academy for 20 years. He has a bachelor of science degree in management.