It is a lovely day. You are at work and have just relieved the off-going shift. You have put your turnouts on the apparatus, checked out your equipment, and made your way into the fire station for some caffeine and morning fellowship. Your morning ritual is punctuated by Mabel in Alarm. She is pushing the button that activates 100,000 watts of lights that is accompanied by the 140-decibel “tone” that sounds like it is straight out of a World War II German submarine movie. Mabel waits momentarily, then announces that Engines 1 and 6, Ladder 4, and BC7 are being sent to a structure fire. Mabel provides the address and radio channel and then bids all a fond farewell. Everyone mounts their beautifully polished, gleaming red apparatus and ventures out into the brave new world to fight sinister forces.

You and your comrades are a well-oiled machine, your department has state-of-the-art apparatus, and you operate within a comprehensive set of SOPs that describes standard actions and systems but yet allows you the creativity needed to solve complex problems. All members train regularly, are highly skilled, and are driven by customer-centered outcomes. All activities conducted at the incident scene are managed within your incident management system. The senior members of the organization are very experienced and always seem to know what to do.

As you respond to the structure fire, you notice a lovely thermal column on the horizon. Everyone on the apparatus takes a collective breath and goes to their quiet place to reflect on fire operations-the joyous terror that their lives will be immersed in for the next 10 to 20 minutes-and old baseball scores (it’s B shift). Everyone anxiously awaits the on-scene report of the initial-arriving unit.

Engine 1 arrives on the scene first. The officer of E1 gives the following report: “Engine 1 is on the scene of a working fire, laying a line in.” You think to yourself, “No kidding! I could have told you that from a mile away!” as you sit in stunned silence. The responding ladder crew is thinking the same thing with just a little more violence thrown in. The responding chief is wondering who has kidnapped the officer of Engine 1 and what they have done with him. Mabel repeats this nondescriptive report back while thinking to herself, “I’ve already said that, Sugar-why don’t you add something to it?”

The problem with this type of report is that it doesn’t let anyone know anything they didn’t already know. It really amounts to critical information fantasy failure. The first five minutes of the fire attack are the most critical and precious. This front-end “window” is where most successful outcomes are achieved. You know this because all the old experienced guys keep telling you that the first five minutes are worth the next two hours.

The clock starts ticking when Mabel hits the lights and everyone goes deaf while they receive a mild sunburn, but the customer service rodeo doesn’t really begin until the first unit gets to the scene and jumps into the middle of the problem. Incidents that involve more problems than a single company can whip require a multiple-unit response (like our structure fire). A certain amount of choreography is required for multiple-unit incidents. All the other responders know the required itinerary of dance steps but they need to know what piece of music they are going to be dancin’ to.

The incident commander puts the initial attack wave into action and synchronizes crews’ efforts. The initial IC is the first person from the fire department to arrive on the scene and is responsible for performing the functions of command, which are

  • arrive, assume, and announce command;
  • evaluate situation (size up);
  • communications;
  • identify strategy, develop attack plan;
  • deployment;
  • organization;
  • review, evaluate, and revise attack plan; and
  • continue, transfer, and terminate command.

In most instances, the first unit to the scene of the problem is an engine company. The officer of this first-arriving engine is the initial IC, who becomes the Dick Clark of the department’s customer-service dance party. Our initial IC will be very busy, so he needs to make the most of his time. No other person at the scene is going to operate on all three organizational levels. The three levels of the incident scene organization are the following:

  • Strategic-where IC and command staff operate, responsible for command functions;
  • Tactical-where sector officers manage the tactical activities for their assigned area or function, responsible for a piece of the incident; and
  • Task-where strategic and tactical objectives get accomplished, where the work actually gets done. Companies rescue the victims, put out the fire, and protect the customer’s property.

The initial IC will oftentimes be in the fast-attack command mode, running the incident over the portable radio and directly leading the attack. This initial IC will take the proper action with his own company and will probably end up assigning the next few units. This ends when one of two things happens-the problem goes away or command is transferred (usually to the first-arriving chief). The initial IC accomplishes most of the strategic and tactical tasks with the on-scene report. This is why the on-scene report plays such a huge role at the front end of the operation. The on-scene report wraps the first five functions of command together and starts to put the incident action plan in place. This 45-second time investment pays huge organizational dividends. Well-managed and organized front ends lead to quicker, better, and safer incident outcomes. Let’s examine the different parts of a good on-scene report using our example.

Engine 1 Officer: “Engine 1 to Alarm.”
Mabel: “Go ahead, Engine 1.”
E1 Officer: “Engine 1 is on the scene of a large, four-story nursing home. I have a working fire on the fourth floor. We’re laying a supply line and taking an attack line to the fourth floor for search/rescue and fire control. This is an offensive fire. Give me the balance of a second alarm. Engine 1 will be Christen Care Command.”

All the players listening to this report get a very clear idea of what is happening at the scene, the scope of the problem, and the action being taken to deal with the situation. Everyone who is going to be involved with this incident also starts to figure out his role in the operation.


Clear Alarm: “Engine 1 to Alarm.” This does two things. First, it ensures that you’re going to give the report on the correct radio channel. Some of the greatest on-scene reports of recorded history have been given over the wrong channel. It is very frustrating when you unkey your mike to hear Mabel come back and tell you, “You just gave your initial report over the police department chase channel; please switch to channel 5.” This produces a very ragged beginning for the initial IC.

Second, clearing Alarm notifies everyone connected to the incident that somebody is about to give an on-scene report. When responding units become aware that a thermal column is looming on the horizon, they will anticipate the on-scene report. When the first unit gets to the scene and clears Alarm, it provides the necessary forewarning to let members know it’s time to listen up because something important is about to be said.

Unit ID and location: “Engine 1 is on the scene …..” This lets everyone know who is talking and where the responders are (on the scene, in the area, or trapped on the wrong side of a long train mere feet from the incident). When this first-arriving unit declares it is on the scene, it will put staging procedures into effect for all the other responders (in many systems). This gives that initial-arriving IC time to come up with a plan and then assign resources according to his plan.

Building description: “….of a four-story nursing home …..” Describing the occupancy where the fire is occurring is very helpful; it lets all the other responders and incident players know what the potential scope of the problem is. A four-story nursing home paints a very descriptive picture and also forces the IC to take a few seconds to really examine what’s going on. Describing the structure will also start to establish the safety profile of the event. If the IC rolls up at a building that has a haz-mat placard that adds up to 12, this critical information must be included in the on-scene report. Reporting notorious building types will also speak volumes about the risk to the IC’s troops. Identifying structures that have previously had fires in them; have bowstring or other large trussed roofs; or are large, old, worn-out buildings as part of the initial report clearly states the potential safety hazard associated with that particular structure up front.

Occupancies that are well known to all the incident players should be simply identified by name.

Incident conditions: “….with a working fire on the fourth floor ….” The reason we are responding to the scene is because of the problem (i.e., incident conditions), and the actions we take at the scene should make the problem go away. All of the tactics the IC employs will be related to where the problem (the fire) is and where he thinks it is headed. The responding ladder company hasn’t arrived at the scene, but it has a pretty good idea that it will probably be going to the roof to vent. The next arriving engine company knows it will probably be heading up the stairs to join the attack or search areas adjacent to the fire. The responding chief knows he will be transferring command when he gets to the scene and that there are six more engine companies and three more ladder companies on their way. Mabel gets the extra help coming and will probably start moving units to cover the bare spots in the village that the fire has created.

Compare this report with our bad example. The first report left everyone in the dark. It let everyone know that Engine 1 was on the scene and not much else.

Any safety information should be plugged into this part of the report. Downed power lines, critical exposures, explosions, attacking alien forces, or any other pertinent critical safety information can be announced as part of the incident conditions.

Actions taken: “….we’re laying a supply line and taking an attack line to the fourth floor for search rescue and fire control …..” When the initial unit places itself in the most critical tactical position (in this case, the fourth floor), it serves as the platform that the rest of the incident scene organization uses to reinforce the attack. The initial IC plans on engaging the fire on the fourth floor. This initial attack position will be backed up and supported by the rest of the initial attack wave.

Strategy: “….this is an offensive fire …..” The initial IC clearly defines the operation and the goals that the organization is working to obtain by declaring the strategy. Offensive operations are centered on the three tactical priorities-rescue, fire control, and property conservation. Offensive operations are conducted on the interior of the structure and are supported by ladder work (ventilation, forcible entry, providing access, etc.). This provides the framework for completing the three tactical priorities.

Disposition of resources: “….give me the balance of a second alarm …..” The IC has several options here. He can hold the assignment, upgrade the assignment (ask Mabel for more), or cancel the assignment. The IC also has the option of changing the response mode of responding resources. If he gets to the scene of the nursing home with “nothing showing,” he can choose to have the balance of the assignment continue in code 2 (without lights and sirens). The IC matches resource requirements to the incident problem. If the IC asks for more (by striking more alarms), it sends a message that the problem is, or has the potential to be, bigger than the initial response can handle. In many systems, requesting more alarms also gets added support pieces and command support on the road. The extra pieces will be needed to support and manage the larger response.

The assumption and naming of Command: “….Engine 1 will be Christen Care Command.” This final piece of the on-scene report establishes that the incident has an IC. This is very important. When the officer of the first-arriving unit takes command, it puts everyone else in a standard arrival mode (Level 1 staging). The IC assigns resources based on his plan. Establishing a single IC from the onset of the incident starts operations off under control and according to a plan. This puts the required front-end command and control in place and makes it simpler and quicker and provides a much more effective framework for escalating command along with the rest of the operation.

If the first-arriving unit doesn’t formally assume command, it leaves the rest of the responders wondering, “Who is in command- is it Engine 1? If it is Engine 1, why didn’t he say he was in command? Oh, the hell with it, let’s just roll in and get some.” Incidents with no IC become fragmented very quickly. Since no one is in charge, no central attack plan will be implemented. Whoever gives the initial report must assume command.

Follow-up reports. It is quite common to hear that on-scene reports are too long. We waste too much time talking when we should be attacking. This can be a challenge. Many systems use follow-up reports to give accountability information; rapid intervention team (RIT) assignments; or any other local, standard front-end radio information. Follow-up reports also help to keep the initial on-scene report short, sweet, and to the point.

It takes about a minute for the initial IC to size up the incident, figure out what he wants to say, and then say it. This is a very important and well-spent minute. A good on-scene report addresses the first five functions of command and serves as the foundation for the IC’s incident action plan. The on-scene report “connects” the initial attack wave. It provides a good beginning and puts the elements in place for a good middle and end.

Good on-scene reports don’t just happen. The initial IC has a whole lot of nasty things going on when he gets to the scene. The worst place to learn how to give an on-scene report is in front of a burning building. Good initial reports are a product of having some type of local format for transmitting standard front-end information and then practicing. The more this format gets refined and the more the players practice, the better it will become. On-scene reports will get shorter while conveying more critical information.

If this initial IC doesn’t take the few seconds at the front end of the incident to get the operation started off under control, it’s gone. It is impossible to back up and start over. If the initial IC didn’t spend the few seconds required to organize the initial attack wave and the incident problem still exists (or has gotten bigger), the incident is bordering on being out of control. The next-in IC (usually the chief) is going to have to spend the next block of time (a whole lot more than a minute) recovering and catching up. This is time that could have been spent reinforcing and extending the attack. The next-in IC has to get the initial attack wave operating within the system before incident objectives can be expanded.

Playing catch-up stinks. Effective action requires a certain amount of management. A good initial report sets the table for the next-in IC. When the initial IC clearly states the problem and the action he is taking and assumes command, it establishes good incident communications. When command is transferred, the new IC can focus on follow-up reports and is in a position to instantly act on them. Show up, solve the problem, everyone goes home-it doesn’t get any better than that.

NICK BRUNACINI is a battalion chief and a 21-year veteran of the Phoenix (AZ) Fire Department. He has been a fire science instructor at Phoenix College for the past 10 years, teaching fire suppression and strategy and tactics.

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