The Tactical Gap

By Anthony Kastros

In “The American Fire Service Leadership Pandemic” (Fire Engineering, April 2014, http://bit.ly/1lm6Kyq), the vast crevasse between the need for outstanding leadership in our esteemed profession and our lackluster efforts to meet that need was the focus. Factors contributing to this crevasse include mass attrition, greater public scrutiny and liability, reduced budgets, changes in building construction and fire behavior, and our lack of sophisticated leadership development. The symptoms of the American Leadership Pandemic include missed civilian victims, continued firefighter fatalities, injuries and near misses, more workplace conflict, lower morale, and more headline-grabbing despicable behavior.

This article discusses a derivative of the American Leadership Pandemic, the “Tactical Gap.” The Tactical Gap manifests itself in many forms and occurs on the fireground and in the administrative environment. To break this down, we must first examine what the tactical level is.

There are three levels on the fireground and in any fire department: strategic, tactical, and task. On the fireground, the strategic level is the incident commander (IC), who focuses on the overall incident plan and long-term forecasting. The IC’s view is usually greater than 50 feet from the building (Figure 1).

In the administration, this would be the senior staff or administrative chief officers who focus on the budget, policy, and external factors. These chiefs no longer interact with the line on a regular basis. ICs talk about stepping back and looking at the “big picture” while administrative chiefs talk about the “30,000-foot level.”

At the opposite end of the spectrum from the strategic level is the task level. On the fireground, the task level is where the work gets done, in the company or in an individual space. This would include anything from a firefighter donning a self-contained breathing apparatus (SCBA) to a crew searching a room, for example. Typically, this is limited to from zero to six feet of situational awareness. Zero would be in a smoke-saturated environment in a structure fire. Six feet is usually the distance in which an individual maintains situational awareness during such tasks as donning SCBA, stretching a line, cutting a hole, pumping an engine, or throwing a ladder. Consider six feet as the distance diameter of reach around a firefighter.

The tactical level is between the strategic and task levels. There can be no Tactical Gap if there is no tactical level to be left vacant. We must understand it to fill it.

On the fireground, the Tactical Gap is the six- to 50-foot level filled by the division/group or sector supervisor. The tactical supervisor fills the gap and is vital to connecting the task and strategic levels. This individual is not too close to or too far from the fire, sits in the sweet spot, and has the best situational awareness of that respective division/group or sector.

Administratively, the tactical level resides with the battalion chiefs and department heads. Using incident command system (ICS) terminology, think of a battalion chief as the division supervisor (geographic) and the department heads as the group supervisors (functional). The battalion chief of Battalion 1 has a geographic area of responsibility, and the Emergency Medical Services (EMS) Division chief has a functional area of responsibility.

Benefits and pitfalls exist in both the strategic and task levels. In either level, “task saturation” commonly occurs when the individual is so bogged down with the functional tasks of the job that he is unable to see the bigger picture around him.

Obviously, the work gets done at the task level on the fireground, and it must be done well. Technical expertise and attention to detail can make a life-and-death difference. The pitfall is that task-saturated officers suffer tunnel vision and auditory exclusion wherein they do not hear the radio or see conditions surrounding them or their crew.

Figure 1. The Three Levels on the Fireground

Compound this with the environment itself. High heat, low visibility, and fireground noise (engines pumping, horns, sirens, saws, civilians yelling, ambient radio traffic) all serve to decrease situational awareness.

The task-level officer in a high-stress environment also has physiological challenges like hypertension and tachypnea, which further hamper tactical awareness. The Tactical Gap widens!

The IC is also susceptible to task saturation, tunnel vision, and auditory exclusion. This happens every day, especially while responding to a call without the benefit of an aide or a driver. Whether trying to account for and communicate with multiple companies, manage multiple frequencies, or navigate code 3 driving while talking on the radio, the IC can become overwhelmed quickly.

In the administrative environment, chiefs are bogged down with tasks as well. Voicemails, e-mails, texts, meetings, reports, more meetings, personnel issues, more reports, and more meetings often fill the days of administrative chiefs before they even get to work.

The benefit of the strategic level, indeed, is seeing the big picture, planning for contingencies, forecasting, and so on. The pitfall is not seeing what is really going on day-to-day. At the 30,000-foot level, what looks like lush rolling hills of green grass could be weed-infested minefields of poison ivy riddled with body parts.

In like fashion, ICs at a fire can think everything is going great based solely on radio traffic if they cannot see the building. What sounds like a good operation in reality may be fraught with problems.

The strategic level in the operational and administrative realms can suffer “friction loss” wherein the “leader’s intent” manifests itself in ways that the leader never intended. As an order, a directive, or a policy moves its way down the chain of command (fireground or administration), friction loss occurs with each transaction between divisions, ranks, shifts, and individuals. Like lost pressure through longer- and smaller-diameter hose, the effectiveness of an order is reduced the farther down the chain it goes.

For example, an IC of a commercial structure fire has eight companies on scene. Three went in the front of the structure, three went in the rear, and two trucks are on the roof. The IC states, “We are now in a defensive strategy: All units out of the building. Set up for aerial master streams.” Even if every company officer hears the message and immediately begins to move hoselines out of the building, set up aerials, and supply them, there will be a lag time.

Now, anyone reading this knows that such a timely response to a fireground order is a fantasy. Communications are always the biggest and the most consistent problem on the fireground, and moving to a defensive strategy is riddled with real challenges.

With this in mind, let’s look at a more realistic example of the above order playing out. The IC states, “We are now in a defensive strategy: All units out of the building. Set up for aerial master streams.” Typically, 50 percent of the companies don’t hear the order, and 25 percent of the companies ignore the order, thinking they need just five more minutes to turn the corner on the fire. The remaining 25 percent of the companies obey the order, but they are impacted by the other 75 percent as they carry out the order. This causes second thoughts and conversations, and combined with normal fireground reflex time, only about 10 percent of the companies are outside of the structure and functioning defensively within the time the IC intended. Welcome to the Tactical Gap.

Administrative Realm

Let’s look at the same problem in the administrative realm. A new order comes from the operations chief stating that all personnel may work out only during lunch or after 5 p.m. The three shifts each respond differently. The A shift battalion chief is newly promoted and obeys to the letter of the law. The B shift battalion chief is still upset with the operations chief about an issue from eight months ago and never reads any orders. The C shift battalion chief is friends with the union president and wavers on the order because of peer pressure.

It doesn’t stop there. The A shift captains see that B shift is blowing it off. They resent it and start to disobey the order, too. C shift captains know that their battalion chief is a weak leader, and they take advantage of it. They start to disobey the order.

But there’s more. The firefighters start to talk about the issue and how the administration (“they”) should focus on more important issues like training and closed companies. This causes morale to suffer. As a result, respect for the chain of command and the little things start to erode. Before you know it, the crews that were complaining about not enough training are now complaining about training-period.

Does this sound far-fetched? This is a very real and rampant problem. I am fortunate to travel the country and work with fire departments throughout America regarding leadership and officer development. If you think you are alone, you are not. I wish you were. Unfortunately, you have not cornered the market on this enormous problem. Welcome back to the Tactical Gap.

The Tactical Gap in New Officers

The Tactical Gap can also be widened by our enormous nationwide attrition. We are promoting new officers at a geometric rate in America. Before the bell ever rings, there are problems that lay dormant, ready to manifest themselves in our newer officers.

The Tactical Gap is also the space between rank and job skills/expertise. For example, we routinely promote company officers who look the part but don’t act the part. They have bugles, red helmets, and radios and get to look cool while sitting in the right front seat.

Unfortunately, they do not have the depth of knowledge, skills, and abilities (KSAs) to truly perform the job at a level commensurate with the challenges they will face. They may look impressive, but they often fold like a cheap tent under the pressures of the job. They are the officers who can squeak through a simulation in a promotional process but don’t know fireground tactics well enough to think on their feet at a real fire. They parrot checkbox statements like “water supply, flow path, and fire attack” during a test. However, at a real fire, they wait to perform a quick vent-enter-search (VES) in favor of water supply because that’s the order in which they memorized it. Forget that there was another engine right behind that officer to get the supply. Valuable time deferring a rescue was wasted so the officer could check the water supply box. It’s the difference between memorizing an algorithm or acronym and satiating oneself in the finer points and permutations of the job. It’s getting on the list as a test taker vs. pursuing the job as a lifelong student of the craft.

Don’t misunderstand. Algorithms and acronyms are good for general knowledge and framework. We teach several in our command and promotional workshops. This is just the beginning, however. An in-depth understanding of all facets of the job of fire officer takes much more!

The job of fire officer, regardless of rank, can be broken down into three dimensions: leadership, management, and emergency operations. Leadership is about people, management is about things, and emergency operations are where the two come together. We lead the troops into battle while managing resources for the incident. Lead people; do not manage them! Manage projects and inanimate objects. Leaders teach and mentor while managers criticize. Each dimension is further broken down into KSAs.

Do your officers really have the KSAs for the job? Here are just a few to ponder.

Leadership

  • Conflict resolution
  • Oral communications
  • Employee motivation
  • Team building

Management

  • Writing skills
  • Computer skills
  • Organizational skills
  • Project management
  • Budgeting
  • Records management
  • Planning

Emergency Operations

  • Size-up and risk management
  • Modern fire behavior
  • Building construction
  • Latest fireground tactics
  • Fire attack
  • Forcible entry
  • Fire flow and water supply
  • Ventilation
  • Search and VES
  • ICS

The Tactical Gap widens as we promote more officers who are “good test takers” and not tacticians. We cannot blame them, however. As described in the American Leadership Pandemic article, we have fallen woefully short in mentoring, succession planning, and leadership development.

Many aspiring officers must seek the KSAs needed outside their organizations. Outgoing officers who should be mentoring and offering training to their replacements often subscribe to the “I had to get it on my own; now it’s your turn” philosophy. How would our armed forces fare if they adhered to the same modus operandi? We would probably be speaking Japanese, German, or Arabic right now!

As I have said before, paramedics can kill only one person at a time, yet a company officer can kill a crew, and a battalion chief can kill multiple crews. Yet, paramedics have more than 1,500 hours of training, including a preceptor, before they can ever stick a patient with an IV or push a drop of epinephrine. Our aspiring officers typically have nothing near this level of training, let alone our incumbent officers. Paramedics must get annual continuing education credits (CEUs), yet officers have no such mandate. Pathetic!

The Tactical Gap can be widened at an alarmingly exponential rate as multiple factors both on the fireground and in the fire department come into alignment. On a fire, imagine the IC is a new battalion chief with little or no formalized training. He has five company officers operating at the fire. Three of the five are still in the first six months of their new rank. Each of them has new engineers. Two of the fire officers have probationary firefighters who are on their first fire. The captains and engineers all had to figure it out on their own because the department provided little to no training.

As the IC is inundated with fragmented radio traffic that is riddled with feedback and muffled by SCBA masks, his heart rate increases. New firefighters and officers who are wide-eyed and pumped full of adrenaline are pulling inadequate hoselines. Tunnel vision and auditory exclusion kick in for the IC at the strategic level and the companies at the task level. While the IC is trying to organize the incident with his head down trying to track resources, he becomes task saturated. The IC cannot even see the C side of the building (> 50 feet away-too far).

Simultaneously, the new officers and crews get tunnel vision on the fire, missing the imminent collapse on the C side. All the crews who entered the C side of the fire have a task-saturated situational awareness of zero to six feet-too close. The train whistle is blowing, but no one hears it. All of this serves to widen the Tactical Gap. How do we fix it?

The NIOSH 5

The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) has tracked line-of-duty deaths (LODDs) across America for decades. The LODD pie charts, with which we are all too familiar, show physiological causes of death like heart attack, vehicle accidents, trauma, and asphyxia. These charts alone do nothing to illustrate the operational causes, decisions, tactics, and sequence of events that led to death. Many of these issues reside in the Tactical Gap.

Consider a statistic that says someone died of trauma. That doesn’t tell us that he fell off a cliff. Further, it doesn’t tell us that he was pushed off the cliff. The pushing off the cliff is the root causal factor.

A reexamination of LODD reports that focus on operational, causal factors, and events that led up to death yields a completely different list of factors-a new pie chart, if you will. These factors are because of a lack of or inadequate

  • Risk assessment
  • Incident command
  • Accountability
  • Communications
  • Standard operating guidelines (SOGs).

These five factors comprise the bulk of the Tactical Gap on the fireground, and this list has remained relatively unchanged for more than 20 years! As more of these factors come into alignment, the wider the Tactical Gap. The wider the Tactical Gap, the more firefighters or civilians will potentially fall into it, and bad things will happen!

The NIOSH 5 is not limited to LODDs. The factors they cite are also the primary factors in fires involving near misses, major injuries, missed civilian victims, and dysfunctional operations. If we prevent the NIOSH 5 from aligning, we are narrowing the Tactical Gap.

Narrowing the Tactical Gap in Officers

First, rank-specific task books chart a course for the aspiring officer. This roadmap would give a clear listing and source for the KSAs for each job. This institutionalizes the “what does it look like, and how do I get it?” part of the job, which is vital to today’s firefighters. Position Task Books are modeled after the National Wildland Coordinating Group Red Card Task Book system of certification and qualification. These are job guides for the aspiring officer.

Second, we must have officer academies and mentoring periods for new officers. This would include in-house development and delivery. Such a curriculum could be developed with outside resources, but delivery should be primarily from in-house members. This fortifies the importance of mentoring in your fire department. Incumbent, seasoned, and outgoing officers can institutionalize their wisdom and experience through developing the department’s officer academy.

Third, we must train our officers, current and future, in the immense array of KSAs that they need to be successful. Mentoring programs must be formalized, not casual, if you expect to have continuity across the ranks and shifts. If one shift has a gung-ho battalion chief who mentors and trains while the other two do not, that’s great for one-third of your department. That is not good enough!

We must have continual training in all three dimensions of an officer: leadership, management, and emergency operations. Monthly and quarterly training must be part of every fire department’s training plan. Occasional classes from outside instructors are great, but they alone will not fill the Tactical Gap.

Before the fire ever comes, the robust officer development systems described above will set the table for success. Identifying problems on the drill ground will prevent them from manifesting on the fireground. Currently, I have four very new company officers. Each is very intelligent, has a great attitude, and wants to learn. We routinely conduct realistic hands-on drills, simulations, tabletop exercises, and video reviews of our fires.

Our hands-on drills will either involve live fire or at least smoke machines and mannequins. The troops love it! The same adrenaline and endorphins released on fires get released during realistic, high-impact drills. They learn to control their bodies and minds in realistic training so they have the skills at real fires.

The above KSAs regarding the dimension of emergency operations are always factored into our training. I am consistently challenging my companies regarding building construction, fire behavior, ventilation, VES, flow path, door control, laddering, fire flow, water supply, and so on. The flow is a two-way street; they quiz me and hold me accountable as well.

We routinely talk about the NIOSH 5, and it is woven into all of our training. Our goal is to prevent the NIOSH 5 from coming into alignment on our fires. We drill on risk assessment, victim profiling, size-up, communications, accountability, and SOGs.

In addition, I expect my officers to be able to fill the role of division/group supervisor when needed. In our region, we do not have enough battalion chiefs to adequately cover the volume or distance of calls. Just as a company officer may need to fill the IC position until a chief arrives, the company officer may need to fill a division/group/sector position until the second chief arrives.

Narrowing the Tactical Gap on Fires

Take a look around at your next fire. Personnel with their heads down are likely at the task level and are not seeing the bigger picture. Then see how far away and how task saturated the IC is. Even if the IC is on the A side of the building with no view impediment (apparatus, smoke, trees, night, other buildings), that’s still only one side of a six-sided problem (four sides, top, underneath, inside). One night, I commanded a three-alarm, center-hall apartment fire in which I never saw the C side of the building until the fire was out (photo 1).

In my system, I am at a 15:1 span of control the moment I respond to a house fire: four engines, two trucks that often split into two two-person teams, one medic, and one battalion chief. In addition, other factors vying for attention include managing two radio frequencies, the mobile data terminal (MDT), map/GPS, and driving code 3!

If we wait only for chief officers (fewer of them who are often too far away) to fill division/group/sector supervisor positions, we risk a rapid widening of the Tactical Gap. Staying ahead of the curve keeps the NIOSH 5 from aligning and gives you room in your incident. Instead of red lining with everyone suffering task saturation, setting up groups and divisions earlier keeps the NIOSH 5 from aligning, thus narrowing the Tactical Gap.

Radio traffic will be minimized, yet communication will be maximized as tactical supervisors communicate face-to-face with their task-level crews. Since the IC has decentralized his authority to the tactical supervisors who can actually see the companies and fire/building conditions more closely, radio traffic is reduced significantly. What may have taken several transmissions on the radio from the IC to the crews in the immediately dangerous to life or health (IDLH) environment can be simply handled by the tactical supervisor observing conditions and resources. Face-to-face coordination and communication between the division supervisor and his companies prevents every company from being tethered to the IC and the channel from becoming overrun with radio traffic.

We recently had a commercial structure fire in which a firefighter fell through the roof. His captain attempted to call a Mayday but was unable to do so because of a congested radio channel. All the companies were reporting to the IC; hence, the frequency became overwhelmed.

(1) The C side of this fire had a significant collapse. (Photos by author.)
(2) Multiple companies perform VES under one supervisor. The Rescue Group supervisor (the battalion chief in a white helmet) has stepped back and is filling the Tactical Gap.

Accountability will be improved as tactical supervisors maintain hands-on, eyes-on accountability, in real time, not just listening to an impacted radio channel. This is called “Active Accountability.” All too often, accountability is relegated to a safety or an accountability officer who grabs passports or sets up T-cards for the IC. This is great for a large wildland fire, but on a structure fire, these forms of accountability usually suffer a significant lag time. By the time the passports or T-cards are updated at the command post, crews have changed locations/assignments. I was once on a fire where the IC was using T-cards and some companies were assigned to divisions that were already released-another example of the Tactical Gap.

Because the tactical supervisors are positioned to see the fire and the building from a better vantage point than the IC (too far) and companies inside (too close), they are able to truly perform an ongoing risk assessment (#1 NIOSH 5 problem). They are able to see the risk of the enemy and battlefield and reconcile it with the gain of possible victims (through close-up victim profiling and face-to-face bystander reports) (photo 2).

While the task level crews are in a smoke-filled, zero-visibility, high-adrenaline environment, the tactical level supervisor is stepped back, looking at smoke and fire conditions, building stability, talking to bystanders/witnesses, and actually hearing the radio traffic. He gives Conditions-Actions-Needs (CAN) reports about the task level companies to the IC in a clear voice, not one muffled by an SCBA. He is remaining aware of the overall incident plan, aware of activities of the other divisions/groups/sectors, and talking to bystanders about potential victims. He is the risk manager, accountability officer, tactical decision maker, field commander, and safety officer for this division/group/sector. He is the eyes and ears of the IC and the guardian angel of the companies.

Let’s look again at our earlier example on the fireground in which the IC wants to transition to a defensive strategy on a commercial structure fire. The IC states, “We are now in a defensive strategy: All units out of the building. Set up for aerial master streams.”

Instead of being at a span of control of 8:1, the IC set up three division supervisors (A, C, and Roof) on the fire who were giving consistent CAN reports. His span of control is 3:1. The division supervisors actually hear the transmission from the IC about switching to a defensive strategy and acknowledge it. Because they are not task saturated, they have been sharing CAN reports with each other and the IC. Ongoing size-up was being conducted, and this strategic shift was anticipated.

The division supervisors immediately begin contacting the companies in their divisions through eyes-on, hands-on, face-to-face communications. They ensure crews are out and overcome any push back from the emotionally vested officers who want to stay inside. Three division supervisors conduct a personnel accountability report (PAR) and report the results to the IC using three clear transmissions instead of eight that are muffled and riddled with feedback.

All the while, the division supervisors were focused on risk assessment, victim profiling, accountability, and communications. The Tactical Gap was minimized, and the NIOSH 5 did not align. Searches were conducted faster, crews were pulled out sooner, and tactics were coordinated the entire time-all with less radio traffic.

One of the most common concerns that comes up with this philosophy is what happens to the crew of a company officer who is thrust into a tactical supervisor role. There are several options, and they should be part of your training. First, the crew may be assigned a non-IDLH assignment. Water supply or an exposure line would be examples.

Second, the crew may still be attached to the company officer and (along with the company officer) fill a two-out role. Title 29 of the Code of Federal Regulations (CFR) 1910.134 still allows crew members to fill the two-out role to participate in tasks that can be transferred to another person or crew. Command is an example of such a task. The division assignment can be used in the same fashion. Just as the officer can pass command to intervene as part of two-out, the officer can pass the division.

Title 29 CFR 1910.134, paragraph g, states: “One of the two individuals located outside the IDLH atmosphere may be assigned to an additional role, such as IC in charge of the emergency or safety officer, so long as this individual is able to perform assistance or rescue activities without jeopardizing the safety or health of any firefighter working at the incident.”

Third, the crew may be assigned to another officer. When this occurs, the respective company officers should have face-to-face accountability and transfer. For example, Engine 1 is attacking the fire in the IDLH environment on the C side. Engine 5’s officer is assigned by the IC to assume Division C supervisor in the rear, with Engine 1 now working for him.

Engine 1 is getting their butts kicked! Division C (Engine 5) requests another engine company for a second hoseline. Engine 3 arrives and is assigned by the IC to Division C to deploy the additional line. As Engine 3’s officer approaches, Division C (Engine 5) gives his firefighter to Engine 3’s officer in a face-to-face communication of active accountability.

Like any other facet of the fireground, training is the key to success, as described above. You must train your company and chief officers in the NIOSH 5, tactics, building construction, fire behavior, victim profiling, and how to be division/group or sector supervisors.

The Tactical Gap is a derivative of the American Leadership Pandemic. Officer development must be one of the highest priorities in every fire department. Our experienced officers are leaving by the boatload, and our lackluster efforts at replacing them must improve if we expect to reduce loss of life to our troops and the civilians we have sworn to protect.

Knowledge of the strategic, tactical, and task levels on the fireground sets the foundation for understanding the Tactical Gap and how to fill it. The NIOSH 5 reveals a whole new list of causal factors in dysfunctional fireground operations, firefighter deaths and injuries, and lost civilian life. If we keep the NIOSH 5 from aligning, we will narrow the Tactical Gap and prevent bad things from happening at our fires.

By developing our officers to fill tactical division/group/sector roles on the fireground early, before the incident gets out of hand, we will have better ongoing risk assessment, active accountability, and clearer communications.

The combination of leadership, management, and emergency operational training for aspiring and incumbent officers is paramount. Ongoing training in realistic conditions must not be a refreshing change for your fire department; it must be a constant component of your officer development and sustenance. Narrowing the Tactical Gap is not a budgetary issue; it’s a leadership issue.


ANTHONY KASTROS is a 28-year veteran of and a battalion chief for Sacramento (CA) Metro Fire. He is founder of Trainfirefighters.com and teaches fireground command, tactics, leadership, and officer development throughout the United States. He was the FDIC 2013 keynote speaker and has published Mastering the Fire Service Assessment Center and the DVD series Mastering Fireground Command, Calm the Chaos, both from Fire Engineering.

Anthony Kastros will present “Aggressive Command and Tactics” on April 20, 2015, 1:30 p.m.-5:30 p.m., at FDIC 2015 International in Indianapolis.

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