BY JOHN “SKIP” COLEMAN
The mission of command is to coordinate the activities of emergency crews and to make every effort to use accepted strategic practices to protect life and property from the effects of fire and other emergencies. In this mission statement, I have italicized coordinate to emphasize that the incident commander (IC) should not be a hands-on participant at a fire. The IC’s focus should be on the entire incident, its needs, and the safety of firefighters. He cannot maintain this focus if his hands are on the nozzle, he is venting a roof, or he is involved in other tactical evolutions (photo 1). There may be times when an IC might become a hands-on person for a short time. Such occurrences usually arise from low staffing and should be the exception, not the rule. If an IC must participate in on-scene tactical operations, it should be only for a short time, and he should return to the command post as soon as possible and focus again on the whole incident.
(1) A chief (center foreground) running a working house fire. Look at where his focus is. (Photo by Martin Grube.)
Even at single-unit responses where informal command is used, the officer should avoid becoming a hands-on participant in emergency scene operations. At an emergency medical services (EMS) incident, even if only two members are on the scene, the informal IC must focus on the whole incident. This allows the second member to take vitals, administer oxygen, and perform other initial patient care operations. There are times when the officer must participate. One example would be when working on a victim in full cardiac arrest, with staffing at only two or three members. However, before the officer lays hands on the victim, he should request an additional unit to respond. As soon as that additional unit arrives on-scene, someone should establish a formal command.
There is no secret to running a fire. A chief or company officer’s ability to manage any incident successfully depends on factors such as experience and knowledge. But there is no secret or magic wand needed to successfully run a fire.
In almost every incident I responded to, I reviewed what I call command’s incident priorities. Most of us fight fires with limited initial resources, so we must prioritize the incoming crews’ actions. I reviewed these four initial priorities when I ran a fire: Ensure firefighter safety; ensure civilian safety; solve the problem; and conserve property.
Ensure firefighter safety. On arrival at the scene of a fire, ask yourself, “Will we be part of the solution, or, if we enter the structure, will we likely become part of the problem?” We can only do so much. Our fire gear is rated to withstand only a little more than 500°F for around 45 seconds. Flashover occurs at between 700°F and 1,400°F. Common sense dictates that if we pull up to a house that is at or near flashover conditions, we will not be able to operate for very long inside that structure.
Ensure civilian safety.If you determine that fire and heat conditions permit firefighters [wearing all required personal protective equipment (PPE)] to safely and effectively enter the structure, then ask, “Are there savable people in the structure?” The human body can tolerate dry heat of about only 160°F and moist heat of about 130°F for short periods of time.
I used the 200/two rule: In a 200°F atmosphere, the likelihood of an unprotected human’s surviving if that person takes many more than two breaths is minimal; 200°F will not support combustion for most common combustibles. So we’re not talking about very high temperatures here. Our first responder and emergency medical technician (EMT) training tells us that the human body can survive only for four to six minutes in an atmosphere that contains 15 percent or less oxygen. Carbon monoxide displaces oxygen during combustion. In a heavy smoke condition, it would be realistic to expect atmospheres containing 15 percent or less oxygen.
If, on arrival, you believe firefighters cannot safely and effectively enter a structure, go to Plan B (described below). If, on arrival, you believe firefighters can safely and effectively enter the building, butbecause of fire and smoke conditionsno civilians could be alive in the structure, go to Plan B. If, on arrival, you believe firefighters cannot effectively enter the building and there are no savable people in the building, go to Plan B. However, if you pull up and believe firefighters can safely and effectively enter the structure and it is likely that savable people could be inside, go to Plan Aaggressive interior structural firefighting.
Plan A. Good aggressive interior firefighting operations constitute Plan A. These operations depend on fire conditions, the number of firefighters on the scene, and their training and abilities. Under most circumstances, Plan A is initiated with the establishment of command and the pulling and stretching of interior handlines. Subsequent actions such as ventilation and searches, the placement of backup lines, and salvage and overhaul operations follow. I estimate that we went to Plan A at approximately 75 percent of the working fires to which I responded. Statistically, more than 90 percent of the fires to which we responded were handled with one line or less.
Plan B. If, on arrival, you pull up and determine that firefighters cannot safely and effectively enter the building, you have one of two optionschange the fire conditions or wait for fire conditions to change themselves.
Change fire conditions.Firefighters can change fire conditions safely from the exterior of a building in several ways: using a deck gun; using elevated master streams from tower ladders, buckets, or straight-stick aerials; through vertical ventilation, if it can be done safely; or darkening down the fire with handlines. Any of these actions or a combination of them will change fire conditions.
Wait for fire conditions to change themselves.Photo 2 shows a vacant house with heavy fire conditions venting from all windows and doorsnamely, a flashover. If this fire is allowed to vent itself through the roof, then nature will pull heat, flame, and smoke internally through the vent hole and out of the opening, which is what we want. Once this fire is darkened down from the outside, the structure’s stability can be evaluated and, hence, our ability to overhaul from the inside.
(2) Photos by author unless otherwise noted.
Plan B is not complicated. It consists of our ability to fight the fire on our terms, not the fire’s. Fighting on the fire’s terms means running blindly into this well-involved vacant house fire, immediately entering the structure on arrival without taking any steps other than putting on all PPE to reduce the likelihood of firefighters’ becoming part of the problem. In that case, I guarantee we would become part of the problem and not the solution. However, heavy life-hazard involvement may justify fighting the fire on its terms.
We do not fight the fire on our terms enough today. That means taking actions to reduce the likelihood of firefighters’ becoming injured (i.e., part of the problem): initial ventilation efforts, laddering upper stories of the structure where fire operations will commence if no secondary means of egress exist, or darkening down visible fire from the exterior in known nonlife-hazard fire conditions.
Solve the problem.If responding to a structure fire, solving the problem consists of attacking the fire, entering the structure, removing any victims, and performing salvage and overhaul operations. If we respond to a motor vehicle accident (MVA), stopping the problem consists of extrication, if necessary, triage, treatment, and transporting injured civilians, as well as handling any other vehicular accident-related problems such as flash fires and fuel or oil spills.
Conserve property.Finally, we need to conserve as much property as possible for the citizen while addressing the first three priorities. Most of us have a mission statement that includes somewhere “the protection of life and property” from the effects of fires and other emergencies. No one’s life should be less valuable than material objects. However, we should take steps, as safely as possible, to protect as much property as we can whenever we are called to assist the public. Although this is not as glamorous as saving a life, this is what citizens expect and what we get paid for.
Once command has reviewed the initial priorities, the next step in making your initial assignments at a fire is determining your objectives. Objectives define outcomes. At a room-and-contents fire in a single-family residential structure, the objective should be to confine the fire to the room of origin. All initial assignments, and thus the actions of the initial crews, should be directed at meeting that specific objective. An appropriate action in this case would be to stretch a handline inside and get the nozzle in the doorway or entrance to the room involved in fire (let’s say a bathroom on the second floor).
Once that objective has been met and the line has darkened the fire and contained it to the bathroom, new objectives need to be established such as, in this case, limiting damage and ensuring the fire is completely out. These two objectives can be accomplished with appropriate ventilation and overhaul. (It is assumed in this scenario that there’s no life hazard involved; if there were, a different set of objectives would also need to be defined.)
For the most part, most ICs are very weak at defining (i.e., verbalizing) their initial objectives. To be sure, assignments are usually made; however, we leave the guesswork to the company officer as to what we really want to accomplish. As a company officer, which of the following two scenarios do you believe works better?
Scenario 1. Battalion 1 arrives first-in at single-family, two-story residential structure fire and observes heavy fire in the interior of the first floor at the B/C corner. The home appears to be occupied, and it is 12:30 a.m. The two first-in engines pull in almost at the same time, one coming from the north and the other coming from the south. Command’s initial transmission is, “Dispatch, Battalion 1 is on the scene. We have fire showing on Division 1 of a two-story frame. Battalion 1 is Command. Command to Engine 1: Come up; you’re Attack. Command to Engine 2: Lay in to Engine 1, and then you are Search.”
Scenario 2. Battalion 1 arrives first-in at a single-family, two-story residential structure fire and observes heavy fire in the interior of the first floor at the B/C corner. The home appears to be occupied, and it is 12:30 a.m. The two first-in engines pull in at pretty much the same time, one coming from the north and the other coming from the south. Command’s initial transmission is, “Dispatch, Battalion 1 is on the scene. We have fire showing on Division 1 of a two-story frame. Battalion 1 is Command. My objective is to keep the fire on the first floor and to conduct a quick primary on Division 2. Command to Engine 1: You’re Attack. Command to Engine 2: Lay in; you are Search.”
As the incoming officer on Engine 1 in Scenario 1, I would have several options. (Some may or may not be what you would do in the same situation but are simply listed as considerations.)
- I could pull line inside to try to isolate the fire as the remainder of my crew went upstairs to conduct a quick primary search.
- I could pull line inside with the intent of extinguishing all visible fire while another crew was responsible for primary search on Division 2.
- I could pull line inside to try to isolate the fire as the remainder of my crew conducted a primary search on Division 1.
- I could ladder the building to Division 2, take a line to Division 2, and conduct a quick primary search while using the line to keep the fire from coming up to Division 2.
As the officer of the second-in engine, I also would have several options in reference to the transmission in Scenario 1.
- I could lay in and start a search on Division 2.
- I could lay in and start a search on Division 1.
In Scenario 2, my objectives have been spelled out for me. We know what the IC expects. As the officer on Engine 1, I would pull line to the first floor and darken down the fire on Division 1. As the officer on Engine 2, I would lay in, and then I would take my crew to the second floor and conduct a rapid primary search, report to Command the status of my search, and await directions. It’s pretty straightforward. It is important to define objectives.
Once you review Command’s initial priorities (ensure firefighter safety, ensure civilian safety, solve the problem, and conserve property) and determine your initial objectives, you need to make specific assignments based on three things: the picture in front of you, Command’s initial priorities (objectives), and the availability of staffing and apparatus.
The picture. You can get a lot of information about what needs to be done at a structure fire by looking at the fire building (photo 3). Some departments assign apparatus by procedure based on their position in the dispatch order. What works for these departments works for these departments.
(3) The fire picture (e.g., a well-involved vacant house fire with an occupied exposure problem) guides the IC in setting priorities and objectives.
From the picture, the IC can develop objectives. The picture is incident-specific and presents its own unique set of priorities or objectives. In photo 3, heavy fire involvement includes the source fire and an exposure problem. The source fire appears to be a vacant dwelling, whereas the exposure is an occupied dwelling. In this case, the objective is to keep the fire confined to the source building; you can achieve this with a two-step process. First, get a line on the exposed exterior wall surface of the exposure and maintain it. Second, get lines inside the exposure building to cover vulnerable areas such as windows, soffits, and other weak spots or openings on the exposed wall surface.
In photo 4, light smoke is showing from a second-floor window. The home appears to be occupied. The objective here is simple: Go in and find the room of origin, ensure life safety, and limit smoke damage. You can achieve this by placing a line at the opening to the room or area involved, conducting a quick search, and providing aggressive ventilation.
(4) Light smoke showing from a second-floor window at an apparently occupied home. The objective: Enter, find the room of origin, ensure life
Review Command’s priorities. After you look at the picture in front of you, quickly review Command’s priorities: ensure firefighter safety, ensure civilian safety, solve the problem, and conserve property. The first two priorities are the most important. Can firefighters safely and effectively enter the area involved (firefighter safety), and are there savable people in the area involved (civilian safety)? Look at the picture in front of you to answer those questions; then you can make initial assignments.
Personnel/apparatus availability. Now that you have your initial assignments in mind, you need one more essential item to initiate your planthe tools and personnel to accomplish your objectives.
This is not the proper venue to get into the staffing issues that have plagued most departments for the past several decades, nor is this the venue to discuss the differences between paid and volunteer departments. Command needs to understand what it needs in terms of personnel and tools to accomplish specific assignments.
This is the “woodchuck factor”: “How much wood could a woodchuck chuck if a woodchuck could chuck wood?” How many firefighters does it take to pull, stretch, and pump into a 1¾-inch attack line? How many more firefighters does it take to maintain a constant water supply for that attack line? How many firefighters does it take to conduct a search in the building involved?
ICs must understand the tools, equipment, and staffing required to perform every function on the fireground. There is no excuse for a chief officer’s not knowing how long it takes the department to reposition an aerial apparatus and again flow water. If an IC anticipates it will take three to five minutes and repositions the aerial in a location that is three to five minutes ahead of the fire, but it takes the crew more than 10 minutes to reposition the aerial and flow water, the IC’s actions may become pointless.
Everyone on the fireground has tasks that they need to accomplish. Crews assigned to attack must pull and stretch lines and locate and extinguish the seat of the fire. Search must go to areas of the structure where savable people could be and locate and remove civilians. Each of these evolutions requires specific tasks that must be accomplished to meet the incident objectives. Command has a list of tasks that must be accomplished. Although not normally hands-on, these tasks still need to be completed to meet the objective of protecting life and property from the effects of fire and other emergencies.
Focus on the entire incident.This is one of Command’s primary tasks. The incident management system (IMS) is built on focus. If the IC focuses on the entire picture and then assigns specific crews to handle specific evolutions geared at meeting the objectives, then everything gets done and the incident is handled. It’s kind of a “divide-and-conquer” strategy.
First, Command will need to find a location from which he can best focus on as much of the incident as possible. In most instances, this is at a location in front of the structure. Some departments believe that a battalion chief or IC can best observe the incident sitting in a vehicle; others from a location inside the fire structure. I believe that the IC needs to be able to view two or three sides of the structure, if possible, to check on smoke conditions and fire spread throughout most of the building. If this can be done while sitting in a vehicle, then I guess I’m okay with it. But I can’t see how an IC can do this from inside the fire structure.
To focus on the entire incident, you must consider several factors. You should be located where you can view as much of the structure as possible, changes in smoke/fire conditions, and specific areas quickly and then go back and refocus on the whole incident. This is called mixed scanning, in which an IC walks from the A/B corner over to the A/D corner to quickly observe smoke and fire spread. The IC then returns to the command post (say, at the original fire location at the A/B corner) to again focus on the main body of fire. One concern with mixed scanning involves an IC’s ability to realize he must briefly focus on a specific area and then, as soon as he observes conditions, go back to scanning the entire structure. Too often, ICs get “tunneled” on one specific area of the fire. On some occasions, this has had disastrous results.
Command must also focus on radio communications. Missed transmissions can result in dead firefighters. Communications problems are one of the five elements continually associated with firefighter fatalities. The IC must acknowledge every transmission directed toward him, especially until the fire is declared under control.
This goes back to my psychological principle: When people are in stressful situations, they revert to what is customary and routine. If you are crawling down the hall as a company officer and realize you’re low on air or you don’t know where you are, and you call command with a Mayday or an urgent message, I’ll bet good money you will want Command to acknowledge that transmission. This is not the time to yell over the radio three and four times, “Attack to Command: We’re lost on Division 2 and low on air.” You want to know the IC understands you’re in trouble and you want the IC to know it now.
Administrators need to constantly review audiotapes of working fires. This is a must! Any communications errors, including not acknowledging even the most mundane transmission, need to be corrected. If search is telling me what color the curtains are, I will acknowledge, “Command OKwe’ll talk later,” and I will explain the insignificance of certain home furnishing details at that specific point in time.
But every officer deserves to know that if he says something to the IC on the radio, the IC will acknowledge that transmission. Acknowledging transmissions should be as routine and as customary to everyone on the fireground as putting on their hood or checking their self-contained breathing apparatus (SCBA) prior to the beginning of the tour. That way, in those rare instances where crews are actually in trouble, communications will not be dropped or missed, and multiple requests for help will not be required.
Communicate and act on information from officers.It’s not enough to simply acknowledge the transmission from Attack that “they can’t make the second-floor stairway because of heat.” Command needs to do something about that. Luckily, you have some options. Command can order them back down the stairs, request immediate ventilation efforts, or simply order them out of the building. Once Attack tells Command it has the fire knocked down, Command must redirect Attack’s efforts, depending on the situation and the availability of additional crews. Staffing may allow for other crews to check for extension. In some instances, Command may order Attack to check for extension to conduct an immediate search in the area of the fire or to begin overhaul of the fire floor.
Coordinate resources. As Command, you are conductor of the “fireground orchestra.” You set the tone, the rhythm, and the tempo. If more resources are needed, you are responsible for ordering them. If you have more crews available than the incident requires, then you are responsible for sending them back for other emergencies. You set the game plan and ensure that it is carried out. When crews need a break, you determine if the task’s personnel need to be immediately or continually replenished or if that operation can be suspended for the time being.
Adjust to changes and updates.A good IC anticipates future needs. Deputy Chief (Ret.) Jim Murtagh of the Fire Department of New York says, “Command should always be one alarm ahead of the fire.” Even if staffing is not available, an IC should be one or two moves ahead of current operations. If at any time the word may comes to mind, you’d better have definites available. If you may need another engine, you’d better have one staged. If you may need to have the roof opened, you’d better have a crew headed for the roof. If you don’t think you have enough personnel conducting search to complete the building search in a reasonable time, you’d better get another crew started or be thinking of a Plan B.
As Command, immediately after you order a crew inside to start a fire attack, you need to be thinking about the following:
- What will I have them do next if they locate the fire and darken it down?
- What will I have them do if they can’t locate the fire?
- What will I have them do if they can’t back down the firewhere will more water come from?
- What will I do if the fire pushes them down the stairs or hallway area of the building?
Command needs to anticipate questions like this for every assignment until the fire is deemed under control, and then a new set of questions will arise. When everything falls into place, running a fire isn’t that tough. If the fire, the building, or crews start to throw up roadblocks, a good chief should have the answers before reaching the stumbling points.
Operations, planning, logistics, and administration.We can’t forget, regardless of the region of the country in which we work or the size of our department, that we operate under an incident command system. The IC is responsible for operations, planning, logistics, and administration of every incident to which he responds.
Let’s look at a single-family residential structure fire. Regardless of the size of the structure or fire, Command is responsible for making sure that the fire is put out. That’s operations!
Command is also responsible for determining what has happened (origin and cause), what is currently happening, and what will happen in the future. The IC is responsible for accountability (resource status or restat) and other planning concerns associated with a small fire. That’s planning!
Logistically, Command is responsible for ensuring that air wagons are on the scene so that SCBA bottles can be filled. If it’s a cold night, Command can order a bus or other covered vehicle to keep firefighters warm. The IC can order the canteen to provide coffee for crews and send them to rehab if necessary. That’s logistics!
Administratively, Command fills out the paperwork and ensures that civilians’ needs are met. He can help them obtain temporary housing and clothing through the Red Cross as well as handle any workers’ compensation claims for firefighter injuries that may have occurred. That’s administration!
Most chiefs who have been operating for awhile do all of these tasks and more as second nature. They don’t fill the boxes, and they don’t create a huge staff. They handle it all and sometimes manage to laugh and joke with assigned crews without missing a beat. But we can’t forget the provisions of the IMS and what it stands for.
If something doesn’t look right, stop it!Too many times, firefighters stand, regardless of rank, and watch other firefighters do stupid things. We watch them break glass when we know the room will light up. We watch them crawl inside buildings close to flashover. We sit and watch them cut a hole in a roof with the hole between them and the ground ladder they may need to use to get down. I think most of us think, “Well, I guess they know what they’re doing,” when in reality they don’t. Deputy Chief Billy Goldfeder, Loveland-Symmes (OH) Fire Department, calls it “NTS,” for “nonthinking syndrome.”
If you see something on the fireground that doesn’t look right, stop it! Whistle, shout, or grab the firefighters by their fire coats and ask, “What are you doing?”
Accountability. Both National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) 1500, Standard on Fire Department Occupational Safety and Health Program, and NFPA 1561, Standard on Emergency Services Incident Management System, address accountability. Two words pertaining to accountability are repeated over and over in these two standards: location and function. Both standards state (I paraphrase) the following:
- The IC is responsible for knowing the location and function of every crew on the fireground.
- Every company officer is responsible for ensuring that the IC knows that officer’s crew location and function at all times.
- Every company officer is responsible for knowing the location and function of every person assigned to his crew at all times.
- Every firefighter is responsible for ensuring that his company officer knows his location and function at all times.
As an IC, it’s not my responsibility to know which firefighters are riding which apparatus. That’s the company officer’s responsibility. Don’t get me wrong: Every chief needs to have a method of determining who rides every apparatus. Status sheets, crew rosters, and a myriad of other tools are provided to keep track of who is riding each rig. But at a fire, it is the IC’s responsibility to know the location and function of every crew at the incident. If mutual-aid crews are present, he may not know the firefighters who respond. All the IC wants to know is what rigs respond. It is up to the officer and the jurisdiction to know who is riding the rig.
Regarding crew location, it’s not good enough to know only if crews are inside or outside of the building. You need to know not only which crews are inside the building but also where they are in the structure. This is essential if the building or fire begins to act up. In either event, you want to know two things right now: Are there crews in the affected area, and, if so, how many?
Let’s assume the IC arrives first at a fire in a two-story, single-family residential occupancy. The first-in unit is an engine, and it is assigned Attack. The next-in crew is also an engine crew, and it is assigned Search. Through this, the following transmission is made:
“Dispatch, Battalion 1 is on the scene. We have fire showing on Division 2. Battalion 1 is Command. Command to Engine 1: You are Attack. Command to Engine 2: You’re Search. Let’s keep it to the room involved and make sure everyone is out of the second floor.” (Note the objectives are stated in the on-scene announcement!)
Engines 1 and 2 begin to carry out their missions and enter the building. About three minutes after they enter, the attic flashes over. The IC knows only that two crews are inside the building but not their location. The IC can only assume where they would be.
Now let’s take the same scenario and insert accountability. Assume the IC of the first unit arrives at a fire in a two-story, single-family residential occupancy. The first-in unit is an engine, and it is assigned Attack. The next-in crew is also an engine, and it is assigned Search. Through this, the following transmissions are made: “Dispatch, Battalion 1 is on the scene. We have fire showing on Division 2. Battalion 1 is Command. Command to Engine 1: You’re Attack. Command to Engine 2: You’re Search. Let’s keep it to the room involved and make sure everyone is out of the second floor.” As soon as Engines 1 and 2 are ready to enter the structure, the following transmissions are made:
“Command, Engine 1 is starting attack on Division 2.”
“Command, Engine 2 is starting search on Division 2.”
Engines 1 and 2 begin to carry out their missions and enter the building.
“Search to Command: We have an All Clear on Division 2, and we’re moving down to Division 1.”
The attic flashes over.
Command knows that an attack crew is on the second floor and a search crew is moving down from the second floor to the first floor. However, Command knows that there are no crews in the attic. Command can react, but he doesn’t have to react with the same intensity as he would if crews were in the attic.
“Command to all units on the scene: We’ve had a flashover in the attic. Pull back down to Division 1 and regroup.”
The difference between the two scenarios is striking. The same incident occurs: a working fire with two crews inside and a flashover. In the first scenario, Command knows only that two crews are inside the building. In the second scenario, Command knows not only that two crews are inside but also exactly where those crews are in the building. All of this was done without tags, rings, or boards. Any accountability system is only as good as the communications process. You can use tags, rings, or boards, but if they don’t tell Command where crews are inside the building, then they are only providing half of the essential information.
Most accountability systems in use today tell us only who is and who is not in the structure. The goal of any good accountability system should be to tell Command not only who is in the building but also where they are in the structure. All of this can be done with short radio transmissions from group and division officers prior to entry and then as they move from floor to floor (or area to area in large-area buildings), and those transmissions must be acknowledged and tracked using the IC’s mind (as in the case of a small room-and-contents fire) or a command board. I don’t sell accountability systems. The system I advocate doesn’t cost a penny. All it takes are disciplined ICs and officers.
THE LAST WORD
I’m not sure whether this item belongs in the mission statement, but I know it is certainly a requirement for a successful chief and company officer. Most structure fires (and even other emergencies such as car accidents and hazmat incidents) affect two different and distinct things. At a structure fire, the structure is certainly affected by the fire, but so are the owners or occupants. However, many chiefs or company officers neglect the occupants or owners of the structure.
Most of us as ICs or company officers talk to the owners or occupants to get information concerning who owns the structure, phone numbers, what may have caused the fire, and whether the smoke detector operated correctly, but many of us neglect their needs. They may have many questions. We go to hundreds of fires a year. The occupants may have only one fire in a lifetime. We can accomplish much with a few minutes of kind words, comfort, understanding, and effort.
JOHN “SKIP” COLEMAN retired as assistant chief from the Toledo (OH) Department of Fire and Rescue. He is a technical editor of Fire Engineering, a member of the FDIC Educational Advisory Board, and author of Incident Management for the Street-Smart Fire Officer (Fire Engineering, 1997); Managing Major Fires (Fire Engineering, 2000); and Incident Management for the Street-Smart Fire Officer, Second Edition (Fire Engineering, 2008).