Using Standard Tactical Intelligence as the Basis for Effective Decision Making

A MAJOR FIREGROUND RESPONsibility for fire officers on every level is to place and manage operational resources and take firefighting action based on a progressive, ongoing stream of accurate information. This information must be received in the correct order/time and be directed to the right person/position. The tactical action we create cannot be any more effective than the quality of the initial and ongoing size-up. Having an awareness of the standard inventory of critical fireground factors going into the incident provides the foundation for using standard tactical intelligence as the basis for effective decision making. The knowledge of the significant factors that go with that particular situation (the fire we are currently fighting) provides the foundation for creating effective tactical action based on the factors we know about now and also for developing the information targets that go with the unknown factors that must be obtained to operate effectively and eliminate painful surprises. Without the complete inventory, we don’t know what we don’t know-this is really a big deal when the unknown is something that can beat up the firefighters working in the hazard zone.

The incident commander (IC) must become the incident management focal point for determining the existence, severity, location, and dynamics (change rate) of the critical factors. The IC must decide on, create, and maintain an intelligence-based overall offensive or defensive incident strategy and a related incident action plan (IAP) that matches the selected and continuously maintained strategy. The IC must decide if the troops should be inside or outside the hazard zone, and this responsibility must always be the major strategic focus. This critical command function absolutely compels the IC to stay informed.

The IC must understand the dynamics and details of each (standard) critical factor before arriving on the fireground. This experience-based knowledge is a lot of the tactical stuff loaded in the “slide tray in the brain.” This information and understanding create their own factor-based prefire planning capability. This “pre” knowledge of how the factors behave, react, and affect the ongoing incident conditions becomes the basis for effective action. This capability also becomes the launching pad for the IC’s determining the critical factors present and instinctively knowing (spinning the slide tray) how to effectively deal with them. These critical factors involve the details of the fire, the victims, the fire building and terrain, and the relative capability of the firefighting force. The organization must develop and use a basic information management plan that is in place before the fire. The amount of information/communications should be sufficient-not too little or too much. The plan is designed to operate in the middle (easy to say, very difficult to do). This “balancing” capability is the long-term result of smart procedures; simulation-based training; and consistent practice, application, and refinement. This plan creates a standard approach throughout the team for discovering, delivering, and confirming functional information in standard fireground factor categories. The entire team (on every level) must also use a standard language to describe and exchange information about the existence, extent, severity, dynamics, and the standard organizational reaction that goes with each combination of critical factors.

We must typically take fast action to stabilize urgent life safety and fire control conditions that are out of balance-this need for fast initial action creates an even more critical need for quickly “spinning the slide tray” and rapidly cross-pollinating that information throughout the team.

Once we initiate action and assign responders to operational positions, we must use a standard, ongoing, two-way information exchange between the IC and the operating units to refine the battle plan (IAP). Information is communicated and exchanged using assignment orders along with condition, progress, completion, and exception reports. This standard structure facilitates how we provide the information needed to operationally start, continue, support, change, and stop effective fireground operations. The incident information/intelligence management approach is a lot like the post office. All the “mail” goes to the post office (command post), gets sorted out, and then is sent on to the correct location. A major role of the IC is to manage the “incident intel post office.” As the IC functions as the overall incident intelligence “postmaster,” he has the same challenge as the regular post office manager-junk mail.

Based on the typical fireground high hazards and compressed time, the IC (and everyone else) has a limited capability to take in and process information. This limitation on input necessitates that those sending “mail” to the IC presort their communications and send only first-class mail (short and sweet). This takes a refined, ahead-of-time information/communications plan that all the players agreed on and practice. This must occur in an integrated manner on the task level (companies), the tactical level (sectors/divisions/groups), and the strategic level (IC) to be effective. Providing a portable radio for every responder (as an example) has an excellent personal safety and reporting upside. The downside is that if everyone does not practice effective radio discipline (just first-class stuff), we can create a huge, uninterruptible blabfest that quickly overloads the tactical channel. Such “blablock” stops the effective exchange of tactical information and quickly leads to an unsafe free-for-all that can end up not being free at all.

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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