Actions of the Chief Officer

Question: Once the chief arrives, some departments want him to take command from his vehicle. Other departments want him in front of the building; still others want him inside the fire building. Does your department have a policy that stipulates the location from which the chief officer should operate? Is it working? Why?

Last month’s Roundtable dealt with the actions of the first-in officer at a structure fire. In essence, should he participate with the crew or remain outside, directing the fire? This month’s question takes us to the next level (so to speak) and looks at the point from which the chief officer (or incident commander) should begin managing the fire. As with many things in the fire service, the answer to the question depends on several factors that center mostly around tradition and necessity. What works in New York City works in New York City for obvious reasons, or I don’t believe they’d be doing it. Likewise, what works in Toledo works in Toledo.

In Toledo, we expect our chiefs to assume command and take a position somewhere at or near the first-in engine-usually in front of the structure. If the chief believes he should be in a location other than at or near the first-in engine, he should tell on-scene and responding crews where the command post will be. The reason for the incident commander’s (IC) operating at or near the first-in engine is that officers know where to find the IC. We believe the IC can best meet the needs of the incident if he is in a location from which he can see at least three sides of the structure as needed but still remain somewhat stationary. I like the IC to be out in the same elements as the crews fighting the fire. Generally speaking, if he’s getting cold, he can pretty well believe his crews may be getting cold. In summer, likewise, if the IC is getting hot, then crews may also be getting hot. Therefore, by requiring that the chief operate outside in front of the structure, we believe he can best visualize as much of the structure as possible and also better understand what on-scene crews are going through.

-John “Skip” Coleman, deputy chief of fire prevention, Toledo (OH) Department of Fire and Rescue, is author of Incident Management for the Street-Smart Fire Officer (Fire Engineering, 1997) and Managing Major Fires (Fire Engineering, 2000), a technical editor of Fire Engineering, and a member of the FDIC Educational Advisory Board.

Ron Hiraki, assistant chief,
Gig Harbor (WA) Fire & Medic One

Response: We do not have a specific policy on where the battalion chief (BC) should be located as the IC. We have equipped the BC’s vehicle with a work desk, radios, cell phones, a computer, reference books, and incident command boards. The BCs make every effort to position their vehicle in a good position to command the fire and use the vehicle as a command post. However, when this is not possible, the BC has the option of establishing a command post at a key entry or operational point. Even in a large building, most of our BCs prefer to have the command post outside of the structure. Our practices seem to work well.

In our incident management system (IMS) training, we emphasize that when you are in command, be in a position to command: Watch the fire, track where your firefighters are, stay in a location where people can find you, and don’t get distracted doing other things such as fighting the fire. Establishing or announcing you’re in command tells everyone on the response that you are in charge; able to direct and coordinate actions; and, most importantly, looking out for firefighters working in hazardous areas. These firefighters are counting on the IC (or other leaders in the IMS structure) to look out for them and serve as a communications link between hazardous areas and the outside world.

As a suburban combination fire department, we continue to work on increasing our staffing and deployment to enhance our operational and IMS options. Consequently, we must continue to train on IMS to “set up” the organizational structure for a multiple-alarm incident. With a limited number of people on a daily basis, we must challenge ourselves to envision the IMS structure of a multiple-alarm incident and practice the “setup.”

Thomas Dunne, deputy chief,
Fire Department of New York

Response: In FDNY, the first-arriving chief establishes command at the location of the fire building. His exact position is determined by the type of structure involved. At most structural fires, the best position for the chief is in front of the building. This allows him to issue initial assignments, view apparatus positioning, and perform a quick size-up of the operation. He will miss a lot if he goes inside the building. Exposure conditions, for example, are subject to change and can best be monitored from the street.

At a high-rise, he establishes a command post in the building lobby. This enables him to obtain vital information from building personnel regarding ventilation and communication systems, fire location, and evacuation of occupants.

A location in front of the building or in the lobby provides a focal point for incoming fire units and allows for better control and accountability of fire personnel. Face-to-face communication with firefighters reduces radio traffic and allows orders to be issued directly and clearly. Proximity to the building also allows the chief to get a physical sense of the operation. Weather conditions, fire characteristics, and occupant anxiety levels are difficult or impossible to read if the IC is in a vehicle or otherwise removed from the scene.

This system has worked well for us, particularly when there is a transfer of command at an operation. When a higher-ranked chief arrives and assumes the role of IC, the initial chief passes on a great deal of important information and then is assigned to a sector inside the building.

An IC faces many challenges and responsibilities at a fire. Often, an effective initial “command post” is nothing more than an observant chief with a radio and clipboard who has positioned himself to closely observe the building, his personnel, and the potential fire problems.

Gary Seidel, chief,
Hillsboro (OR) Fire Department

Response: We have no specific policy concerning this issue. The chief, once on-scene and prior to taking command, receives a briefing from the initial IC. The chief then ensures that the incident priorities, objectives, and strategies are established and that resources needed to meet the incident’s tactical needs are ordered. The chief also announces the location of the command post.

The chief then has two options: take command or continue to let the company officer function as IC, in an effort to develop the company officer’s command skills. In this case, the chief works alongside that company officer.

As far as the operating location of the chief is concerned, the incident dictates the location. In our department, the IC operates in the vicinity outside of the incident. The chief also has the freedom to select whether to operate inside the vehicle, at the hood, or at the rear of the vehicle. The IC uses tactical worksheets to maintain the situation and resource status of the incident in any of the above locations.

If additional chiefs are needed for command and control of the emergency, we request those resources and assign them accordingly. The IC may assign additional chiefs to command staff or general staff positions, such as operations section chief and safety officer, or operational positions such as division or group supervisors or branch directors. In these cases, these additional chiefs work in a variety of locations depending on the assigned responsibilities.

Jeffrey Schwering, lieutenant,
Crestwood (MO) Department
of Fire Services

Response: Our department requires chief officers to live in town. The duty alternates on a weekly basis. We incorporate all aspects of the fireground into a system that has proved effective through the years. At approximately 90 percent of the working fires in our town, both chiefs are on the scene. The first-arriving chief assumes command in front of the structure. The second chief provides support as the incident dictates. This support includes going inside the structure to get a better sense of the “big picture” the companies are facing. A working structure fire initially receives three automatic-aid companies and chiefs from our neighboring departments. These arriving chiefs are placed as needed to ensure a safe fireground for all members operating at the incident.

Craig H. Shelley,
fire protection advisor,
Fire Training and Development, Saudi Aramaco Fire Protection

Response: Our positioning for the chief officer is the same as for the first-in officer. Our officers are required to liaise with plant operations personnel, who, in most cases, serve as the IC. As with incident command protocols, the senior fire officer generally operates with the incident command team. If the first-arriving officer is the senior officer, this will be his position. As a more-senior fire officer arrives (generally a deputy chief or chief), the first-in officer is relieved and assumes a more direct operational role. When our chief officer is on the scene, it is imperative that his position be with the IC.

At industrial incidents, close coordination between the plant personnel and the fire department is essential. Knowledgeable plant personnel must shut down equipment so that firefighting operations are not adversely affected. An indiscriminate or uncoordinated action by the fire department or plant operations can have disastrous results. In addition, plant personnel have valuable information relating to the status of processes, pressure increases or decreases, and fuel and have up-to-date schematics of the process area affected.

Radio communications may be available from the IC to a central control room. If the chief does not maintain a presence at the command post with the plant operations personnel, valuable information may not be transferred. In the industrial setting, the senior fire officer should remain at the incident command post even if he is not the IC. These operations involve a coordinated process that involves many entities, including the fire department and plant personnel.

Freddie Fernandez, battalion chief,
Miami (FL) Fire Rescue

Response: I believe the chief officer should initially establish command from the vehicle and not attempt to get out of the car until certain steps are completed. I recommend driving past the incident to view multiple sides of the structure, look for smoke and wind conditions, observe water sources, identify any immediate rescue concerns, and look for things company officers may not see from their apparatus.

Once on-scene, the officer at the command post should be able to visualize at least two sides of the structure without blocking incoming or outgoing units-the A/B or A/D corner when possible. The advantages of initially staying in the vehicle are numerous. Let’s begin with communications, which, most will agree, can always be improved. By staying in the command car, I have access to a mounted radio with greater power and reach and that has a large, easily audible speaker that will not be drowned out by roaring engines and sirens. I have portable radios that I don’t have to hold up to my ear to listen to but can set on the console or at another location while monitoring them.

The climate can be controlled in the vehicle. Temperature can be regulated by a flick of the switch-in my community, air-conditioning is needed. At night, lighting is not an issue, and I can see my command worksheets, ICS forms, or other documents on my clipboard. Rain or inclement weather does not prevent me from functioning, and I am not forced to seek shelter unnecessarily, which could keep me from focusing on the incident.

The IC should focus on properly making a risk/benefit assessment, assigning all units, calling the appropriate support and command staff resources, and then taking a few moments to observe the initial actions prior to exiting the vehicle. Once the IC exits the cocoon, he must be ready for many well-intentioned personnel who will no doubt offer advice, input, and guidance; ask questions; seek advice; and in many other ways distract him from the matter at hand. Once it appears the incident is properly planned and the incident action plan is being carried out, a walk around the scene may be practical, but returning to the fixed readily identifiable command post should remain a priority.

Christopher J. Weir,
division chief, Port Orange (FL)
Department of Fire & Rescue

Response: Our policy is that once the battalion commander arrives on-scene, he is briefed by the initial company IC and then assumes command, remaining within or adjacent to the command vehicle. The battalion commander positions his vehicle uphill and upwind, where he can get a good view of the fire scene but not block companies coming in to fight the fire or abate a hazard. However, given the scope of the incident, the battalion commander may resume operations from the rear of the vehicle where incident and PAR boards are set up when fire or hazard operations are in an ”all hands” operation, there is a second alarm or greater, and the incident involves a multiagency response from our auto-aid system. This holds true when other fire and nonfire agencies requested by the IC report to develop a unified command system. In this position, the IC wears the prescribed “Incident Commander” vest. Other officers arriving and assigned a division wear their respective vests-“Safety,” “Operations,” “Staging,” and “PIO,” for example.

The IC remains stationary and away from direct operations, receiving incoming personnel/agencies pertinent to the operation. If the IC is roving, it may prove challenging when personnel are filling the airwaves asking the IC for their position-or worse, wandering on the fireground creating an accountability issue. Once the green IC light is activated on the command vehicle, the IC remains at that post and assigns chief or company officers to their respective divisions to run their assignments and report their findings.

Mike Mason, lieutenant,
Downers Grove (IL) Fire Department

Response: Our policy directs the first-arriving chief officer assuming command-in most cases, the BC-to park in sight of the incident or fire structure and remain in the chief’s car while directing the incident until another chief officer arrives. Within our department and many of our surrounding departments, additional chiefs arrive within 10 minutes of the first-in units.

As we all know, the ballgame starts with the first-in company officer and the play book continues with the first-arriving chief officer. Of course, the procedure may change in accordance with the incident conditions. In some instances, the first-arriving chief officer operating as initial command may be actively roving outside his vehicle, especially at residential structure fires and fires in small to moderate multiple dwellings and row houses. In high-rise situations, it may be best to position in the lobby initially. I lean toward having the chief officer operate outside his vehicle near the crews and sectors at residential fires.

Regardless of the IC’s location, it is important that all fireground discretions be accounted for when establishing the initial command plan. At smaller residential and escalating incidents, the initial command functions may be transferred several times within some situations and departments. What’s important is that if the initial command function is transferred to departments that will have additional chiefs arriving, the initial chief officer can be of great value to an IC, possibly through placement in forward areas. BCs standing or sitting with incident command do little for fireground control and needs. A roving recon, accountability, and control first-in BC is worth his weight in gold for everyone on the fireground, especially the IC. Whether offensive, defensive, exterior, or interior, these areas and their direction, conditions, progress, and needs provide direct swift and accurate information to any IC who is stationary and not in front of the incident. Roving chief officers provide continuous evaluations of the fire attack while coordinating and protecting the line officer and his companies by seeing the big picture based on sound fireground observations.

When needing to know what’s going on within or outside a structure fire, the only place to be is up front outside your vehicle except in the case of larger-scale situations, where close-up reconnaissance can become detrimental to the incident. In this case, a more fixed approach away (not far away) from the action can provide for better control, as information retrieval and assignments of officers and their companies enable a more concentrated plan of attack and control larger incidents demand. At these incidents, establish a good view of the operations without getting in the way until more forward areas are created. At times, there can be huge differences in management and prioritizations of first-in chief officers as they relate to mobile (roving) and fixed initial command positions. The greatest commonality of both is competent, clear, and concise radio communications. As stated earlier, first-in mobile (roving) chief officers can provide immediate analysis with radio reports from many areas of a structure or incident through 360° visualizations and audible informational retrievals while at the same time experiencing a truer sense of the urgencies, progress, or regress being made.

On the other hand, a first-in chief officer in a fixed position may be better able to direct and receive information relative to the resources needed to establish plans A, B, and C for improved accountability of strategic and tactical coverage. This provides a versatile flow for the entire fireground and its ever-changing demands. First-in chief officers should not be inside the building or fire structure unless the incident is large and involves a high-rise, large multiapartment dwellings, or large commercial spaces where forward areas of span and control need to be established. First-in operations of forward areas should be designated to first-in chief officers by ICs who have established a command post away from the structure or incident in question.

Bobby Shelton, FF/EMT- I,
Cincinnati (OH) Fire Department

Response: Like most departments, we use the standardized ICS. Our procedures manual identifies the three command modes we use. NOTHING SHOWING MODE is a mobile command mode. The company officer is in command while investigating the situation. Command is maintained by portable radio on a fireground channel.

FAST ATTACK MODE also is a mobile command mode. The company officer is in command while taking action with company members to stabilize the incident. Command is maintained by the portable radio on a fireground channel.

COMMAND MODE requires a stationary command post, usually on the exterior. Company officers use this mode in situations of large proportions, during unusually hazardous operations.

The benefit of this type of command structure is the flexibility it affords the IC, who can be wherever he needs to be inside or outside the structure. The most important thing is not where the IC or command post is located but that we, career and volunteer, use the ICS the way it should be used with the goal of minimizing firefighter deaths and injuries.

Mike Bucy, assistant chief
of fire operations,
Portage (IN) Fire Department

Response: Our department operates under the philosophy that the command staff (whether it is a chief officer or line officer operating in command) be in view of the incident but out of the way. There is too much activity close to the incident that could (and will) distract the IC. The IC doesn’t need to be locked into the vehicle; he can operate out of the rear of the vehicle. One question I ask when teaching strategy and tactics is whether the IC should be in bunker gear. The class is usually split 50-50.

I tell them it should be their department’s decision but that an IC in bunker gear tends to think he can get closer to the incident. If this is the case, the IC is not seeing the bigger picture-the ultimate reason for the IC to begin with. If I am command and stay in uniform instead of in bunker gear and if I creep close to the scene, my people can say, “Hey, Chief, you don’t have the proper gear on.” And trust me, they do. Ultimately, command should be close but not close enough to “feel the heat.”

Brian M. Kelly, chief,
San Mateo (CA) Fire Department

Response: We expect our chief officers to establish or assume command on arrival and to run the incident from the rear area of the command vehicle. The command vehicle has two computers, two radios, a fax machine, a printer, two 17-inch video displays, a white board, and all manner of hard copy forms and supplies. The chief/IC is expected to set up the mobile command post in a location that can be seen by arriving resources and provides a view of at least two sides of the incident, if appropriate. As additional chief officers arrive, one is assigned to the interior of the building to more closely supervise the companies working inside.

Ed Herrmann, captain,
Boynton Beach (FL) Fire Rescue

Response: Our department operates with the IC controlling operations from his vehicle or our special operations unit, which also has a command area. This location may be easy for some, but others almost need to chain themselves in place to keep from going “hands on.” As someone from the shackle-scar club, I’ve gradually come to accept that this plan offers several benefits that cannot be ignored because of their importance to safety and the incident’s final outcome. First, a properly positioned command post can provide the IC with a reasonable overview of what progress is (or is not) being made on the scene. Although two sides of the building obviously don’t tell the entire story, the IC can assign safety officers and RITs to keep him up to date on the sides out of sight. This position also affords those who need to communicate with him face-to-face the means to find him and do so without jogging to keep up. Since there’s only one of those green IC lights running on the scene, even the newcomers can quickly track the boss down to pass on or receive information.

Personnel accountability is a priority. If the command post has nothing else, it will have some form of a command board that assists the IC in keeping track of units and assignments. A roving IC will have a great deal more difficulty managing radios, telephones, command boards, and note sheets than a stationary IC. In our profession, that extra difficulty, that extra stress, can have dramatic consequences when a tag is inadvertently left in the “Rehab” slot and not moved to the “Search Two” slot.

As I briefly mentioned, another of the significant IC roles drastically improved by the stationary IC is information manager-receiving and transmitting information over a couple of different radio channels while gathering still more by telephone, referencing preplans in electronic or hard-copy format, and speaking with the building rep or other responsible party. The IC can do all this and also roll up the windows and isolate himself from extraneous distractions such as walk-up conversationalists, ambient noise, and weather. Combine that information and a controlled atmosphere with a good bit of hands-on experience, and there’s a strong chance that the IC’s strategic planning role will be successful.

In truth, since I have been with the same department for 19 years in an area that has worked hard at standardizing operations between departments, I just can’t see doing IC any other way. I’m looking forward to reading some opposing views on this. Maybe they’ll give me a bit of justification for stretching my legs when I’m in the hot seat. First, I’ll have to find where they hid that )@^* key.

Skip Heflin, captain/training officer,
Hall County (GA) Fire Services

Response: Our department leaves the location of the incident command post up to the individual commander. Some choose to establish command and stay near the vehicle where we keep equipment such as a command board used for accountability. Others choose to be mobile and prefer to view different sides of the incident scene with their own eyes. We have found that those who choose to be mobile present difficulties in that when an officer attempts face-to-face communications with the IC, he first has to find the IC. Most of our “older” officers seem to choose to be mobile, whereas many of the younger ones prefer to stay near the command board. Some will perform a walk-around and then return to the command vehicle and periodically perform a size-up.

Each approach offers advantages and disadvantages. Being near the command post provides easy access to things, which allows resources to be monitored with a glance. This, however, requires that the IC trust the officers on-scene and their updates given over the radio. Being mobile offers the advantage of viewing the scene with your own eyes and personal perspective, including size-up factors. Mobility works for us generally; it can cause minor issues occasionally when an officer is working a different shift.

Christopher Fleming, lieutenant,
Portland (ME) Fire Department

Response: Our department does not have a formal policy on this issue. One deputy chief per platoon responds without an aide; another deputy chief is on call. Typically, when the chief officer takes command, it is in front of the building. When the call-back deputy arrives, he can act as an aide to the IC. The drawback to this method is that the chief’s vehicle is usually remote from the command post, so the incident command board and incident action plan paperwork remain in the vehicle because there is no convenient place to set up while in front of the building. The benefits are that the chief can monitor conditions himself and give face-to-face instructions to later-arriving companies.

In this age of WMD response, our deputy chiefs have been exposed to the idea of operating from a location removed from the incident scene. The more we drill on disaster and multiagency response, the more our chiefs are gaining a comfort level with this way of operating. Whether it be from our EOC or from a formal command post far from the scene, our department has made great strides in coordinating operations and communicating in a nonline-of-sight mode for complex incidents. However, we still have difficulty in bringing the positive points of that method to our day-to-day operations.

Anthony Avillo, deputy chief,
North Hudson (NJ) Regional Fire & Rescue

Response: In our department, a deputy and three battalions are on duty at all times. During the weekdays, we also have access to two more staff battalions and two more deputies. We send three engines and a ladder along with a BC on alarm activations. The BC will establish or assume command and take a position in front of the building, usually on the A side. It is his baby.

If we have a reported fire, the response is “filled out” for a total complement of four engines, two ladders, a rescue, a safety officer (a captain), a command tech (a firefighter), a BC, and a deputy chief. Again, based on ICS protocols, the first officer takes command. If it is a working fire, the deputy chief assumes command. After a briefing from the outgoing IC, usually the BC, I assign him as Interior Division supervisor. He supervises the operations inside the fire building, requests or deescalates resources in his division, and gives progress reports to Command.

As the incident escalates and additional alarms are struck, an additional BC will respond. We do not allow chief officers to hang out at the command post. They are sent where the concerns are, assigned as Division supervisors. For example, if I were commanding a fire in a multiple dwelling with attached exposures, my first BC would be the Interior Division supervisor and the next-in BC would go to the most threatened exposure and assume the role of Division supervisor of that area. The next-in BC would go to the lesser-exposed building and direct operations there.

In addition, my first-due ladder officer would initially assume the position of Roof Division supervisor. If it were a top-floor fire and roof operations were anticipated to be extensive, I would assign a chief officer to that position. Even chiefs coming in on mutual aid, such as from Jersey City and Hoboken, are not left to malinger at the command post. They are assigned divisions to work, preferably with their companies, or they may be used as relief division supervisors.

My job as the IC is to feed them resources based on reports. In this way, I talk only to four people, the division supervisors. This system is extremely effective. To have all those chiefs hanging out at the command post, commiserating and pointing at the building (we have all seen pictures of and witnessed this) does nothing in regard to fireground safety. They are better used in supervisory positions, keeping a hands-off eye on things in the priority areas of the fireground.

Further, at high-rises, we use a strict hierarchy of positions as the incident escalates. The DC will eventually assume command from a BC, who is then sent to the Operations Division on the floor below the fire. The second BC is assigned as the Resource Division supervisor, located two floors below the fire, where he coordinates all resources not yet assigned to the fire (Operations) area.

The third-due is assigned the Search and Evacuation Division on the floors above the fire. We also use a command company, a dedicated engine company assigned to assist in command operations. This company (or two if the IC requests), responds as soon as a working high-rise fire is confirmed. According to our high-rise SOP, the officer of the command company is assigned as the Rehab Division supervisor; his firefighters are assigned as aides to the Operations and Resource divisions.

The term “supervision” means “extra vision.” Command can see only the areas in front of him. He must rely on this extra vision to guide his decisions regarding those areas he cannot see. Failing to assign extra supervisory positions at fires (and other) incidents puts all players at a disadvantage.

This type of organization does not happen overnight. It requires support from upper management, a platoon that is on the same page operationally, and a shift commander who sets expectations for his subordinates. If these issues are addressed by SOP, reinforced through training and critique, and applied consistently, personnel will know where in the puzzle they will fit and will operate accordingly. As always, it starts with planning.

Brian K. Singles, firefighter,
Hampton (VA) Fire Department

Response: We have no set policy relative to the command location of suppression during a working incident. The majority of BCs and acting BCs take command in front of the building, where they can get a pretty good view of sides A, B, and D. If the IC thinks he needs to expand his overall view of a structure, he can assign sector officers to keep an eye on sides B, C, and D. This in turn gives the IC three extra pairs of eyes to better command the incident. Each sector officer then has the responsibility for the companies working in their assigned sector and can report the progress to the IC.

During a long drawn-out incident, the BC in charge of the scene has a much better grasp of what is going on from all sides of the structure by using sector officers and can adjust the plan of attack to mitigate the situation. It is of great benefit to the chief officer in charge to take advantage of all the help he can get not only from other chief officers but also from company officers and acting company officers.

From whatever location the chief in charge of the emergency incident takes command, as long as the fire goes out, property damage is held to a minimum, lives are saved, and all firefighters go home safely, the chief has done his job.

Ronald L. Kleinhaus, assistant chief,
Evergreen Park (IL) Fire Department

Response: Our standard operating procedure calls for the first-arriving officer to assume command and institute the ICS from a point of vantage in the front of the building. If a company officer, the first-arriving officer would be relieved by the on-duty shift commander (who may or may not be a chief officer) on his arrival.

The first-arriving staff chief officer has the option to assume command from the shift commander and assign the shift commander to operations, allow the shift commander to retain command and assume operations, or remain with the shift commander as an advisor and assign the next chief to operations.

The command post for single-alarm incidents is to be operated from the shift commander’s vehicle at or as close as possible to the front of the building/incident. This procedure works well for our operations.

Multiple-alarm incidents dictate that the IC, communications officer, and aides operate from our mobile command vehicle. During extra-alarm fires, we have encountered some difficulty in getting the IC to operate from the mobile command vehicle. Chief officers in our community and surrounding communities historically have been “stand in the front of the building from beginning to end” types of ICs.

In an effort to coax the IC to operate from the command vehicle during multiple-alarm incidents, we installed a video camera that, depending on the vehicle placement, can pan and obtain views of up to three sides of the incident; attached 20-foot cords on the radio headsets so that the IC can get out and look while still tethered to his vehicle; and provided coffee and refreshments.

The transition to the National Incident Management System has been a driving force to “contain” the IC to the vicinity of the command vehicle, but some additional training and education are needed.

Doug Schrage, operations chief,
Anchorage (AK) Fire Department

Response: Our BCs are instructed to position the command center to provide for appropriate supervision and coordination of the companies working the incident. They are also taught to transition from “walking command” to “seated command” as soon as possible, commanding the incident while sitting in the command vehicle.

Seated command offers numerous advantages. The IC is able to isolate himself from distractions by closing the doors and windows. The radio transmitter is more powerful, and the listening environment is quieter, providing better radio communication. The IC has printed computer information resources immediately available. Ample writing surfaces, protected from the weather, enable better tracking of companies and personnel.

Early in an incident when companies are arriving, it is sometimes necessary to provide closer supervision than is possible from the vehicle. If two engine companies and a truck company are trying to coordinate ventilation and make an initial search, the BC should position close enough to see, hear, and coordinate their activities. As soon as possible, the IC should assign a division or group supervisor to this job and transition to seated command. Command should be positioned out of the warm zone; out of the flow of people, apparatus, and hose; and where there is a good view of the scene.

If at any time the IC doesn’t feel that he has a good understanding of what’s happening, it is time to assign more officers to mid-level command positions.

Joseph D. Pronesti, captain,
Elyria (OH) Fire Department

Response: My department, unfortunately, does not mandate where chief officers should position themselves. Most of the time, however, it is in front of the building by the first-in pumping engine. I prefer this position when I command a fire; it gives command a bird’s-eye view of everything going on. We preach experience and education in the fire service. Well, you can’t use those things sitting in an SUV parked in a driveway nearby. You must be able to read the building, the smoke, your firefighters’ actions-commanding a fire properly means using most of your senses.

I respect those who say a stationary position in a vehicle is the only way, but I disagree. You need to be outside, in front, taking in the whole picture. If you are a dedicated command officer, those problems commonly associated with not sitting in a warm or cool vehicle do not come to light. A disciplined command officer managing the fire from the front of a building, for example, will not actively participate in hose stretching or rescue.

With that said, however, if the incident escalates, you may need to consider getting into a fixed-position vehicle, especially if other incident management positions are created. But, for most fires and emergencies, you need to be outside in front of the building. It’s the true leadership position. Your firefighters need to see that.

Mike Gurr, lieutenant,
Pompano Beach (FL) Fire Rescue

Response: Our BCs have some flexibility as to when and how they take command of fire scenes. The size and complexity of the scene usually determine the location. Sometimes, the battalion comes in behind our EMS captain, who has already assumed command from the first-in officer. If this is the case, the battalion usually takes on the role of safety officer. This gives the captain some experience running command with the battalion close by to watch, give advice, or take over if necessary. They try to set up the command post in front of the building on the A side. They have the option of staying in their vehicle, but most like to work out of the back of their truck with pull-out command boards and truck-mounted base radios. Our battalions rarely get into the Hot Zone as sector bosses because we have only one on duty at a time. I like the way most bigger city departments run command with higher-ranking chiefs coming in as the incident grows. As an example: 1st Alarm = 1 BC; 2nd Alarm = 2 battalions and division chief; 3rd Alarm = 3 battalions, 1 division chief, and 1 deputy or assistant chief. I also believe that a BC should be assigned to each side/sector of the building (A, B, C, D) or be on each floor in high-rise fires at big events.

John W. Shiflett, captain,
Prince William County (VA)
Department of Fire & Rescue

Response: We do not have a written policy stating where the chief officer should operate. Our BCs operate four-door suburbans with lift gates at the rear. The BCs normally set up on side A, where they not only get a good view of the building but are also in a position where units can drop off their accountability passports. Building layout and apparatus placement may cause this positioning to be modified. The BC has the option of running command in the front of the vehicle behind the wheel or working out of the back. All Northern Virginia departments use the same type of command boards, and there is a small one that can be used on a single alarm and a three-board set of larger ones designed for use at the rear of the vehicle. When additional chief officers arrive, we use the wagon wheel approach to develop the command post. This incorporates placing the vehicles so the backs form a circle. This allows for the use of multiple boards and radio channels and for command post personnel to work effectively and efficiently. This approach has been working very well. As we progress and train everyone on incident command and the associated functions, our operation should only improve.

Tom DeMint, battalion chief,
Poudre Fire Authority,
Fort Collins, CO

Response: We adopted many of the command elements from Alan Brunacini’s Fire Command. Thus, our first “Function of Command” is to assume, announce, and name command and then establish an effective operating position for the incident command post. Once that position is established, our IC remains in the vehicle while commanding operations, logistics, planning, and other necessities of the overall incident. This keeps our ICs in a stationary position in a duty vehicle (SUV) or, for extended incidents, a heavily equipped recreational vehicle (commercially modified for command purposes).

We attempt to position the IC on the front or A side of the building, but that is not always guaranteed. In any case, we desire that the IC stay with his vehicle. The IC has responsibility for the overall operation of the incident, from attack and support operations to traffic control and rehab. Our feeling is that a mobile IC has difficulty in maintaining the big picture of the incident. We can place a chief officer or senior captain in a position as an operations chief or division or group supervisor to conduct closer evaluations of conditions, actions, and needs of the incident.

The command post provides a quiet work environment without distraction of firefighters, responders from other agencies, bystanders, and media. The vehicle contains our computers, multiple radios, interior lighting, writing surfaces, and other accoutrements necessary to command an incident. This tranquility alleviates the noise of the fireground, making radio communications somewhat easier to hear as well as easier to deliver, since the IC is not competing with background noise. The command post also provides a central point for visibility of command, notifying all responders where the IC is at all times. This prevents the question, “Where’s the IC?”

We train our officers to operate in this manner and practice consistently on the fireground. This is supported by our “Operational Directives” (SOPs) and is accepted as common practice. Other departments may place their ICs outside of the vehicle on the fireground or even inside the structure (I’ve heard of departments where the IC is found on the deepest hoseline). If that is what works for them and they can maintain their firefighter accountability, command operations, and a safe environment, they should support it with training, procedural documents, and real-life practice.

Rick Lasky, chief,
Lewisville (TX) Fire Department

Response: A leading cause of firefighter fatalities is the lack or misuse of IMS. Yet, many fire departments do not use the IMS or anything close to it. Without a good solid IMS plan, most of the incidents will operate by the seat of their pants and jeopardize firefighter safety.

Whether the IC should work from within a vehicle or outside in front of the fire building has been debated about as much as smoothbore nozzles vs. fog nozzles. In our department, the commanding officer works within a vehicle-most often, the BC’s buggy, which is equipped with multiple radios, headsets, and other IMS equipment-or from within our mobile communications/command unit. This is the case on fires that escalate to a third alarm or greater, haz-mat incidents, extended dive incidents, or an event that extends beyond a one- or two-alarm response.

We will not operate from within a vehicle parked down the street, out of view from the fire building, without an officer in front of the building. Sending our firefighters into a burning building without having someone watching what’s going on from outside is dangerous. With that in mind, we have yet to run an extra-alarm fire or large-scale incident without having command in a vehicle-it offers command an environment free from noise and other distractions that can occur with an escalating incident. However, should we do so, we would have an officer in the front of the building, one in the rear, and one in safety and often have our remaining sectors covered as well. We also try not to use our company officers when possible. They are more than capable and are well trusted, but we try to keep them with their company as much as possible so we can get as many “eyes” on the fire as possible.

Sound decisions depend not only on the information you receive over the radio or from within the building but also on what you get from what you see or get from an officer outside the building. I remember many times being inside a burning building and being ordered out by command and wondering why this order was given. Everything appeared to be fine. But, when I got outside, it was an entirely different picture. We often refer to those on the inside as Command’s eyes and ears. What about someone on the outside doing the same?

Part of ensuring safety on the fireground is protecting the firefighters’ back. To do this, you must be organized and see what’s going on or have people in place to provide you with the information you need to make sure that the operation remains organized.

John Salka, battalion chief,
Fire Department of New York

Response: The first-arriving FDNY BC is not mandated to a specific location but is generally expected to take a position outside and in front of the fire building, although this may sometimes vary based on the type and size of the building or the location of the fire or incident. We do not sit in the car. Some departments have top-notch command post communication equipment in the chief’s vehicle, but if you sit in the car down the block from the involved building, you might as well stay at the firehouse and run the fire from there!

Our initial position out front gives us a good full view of the involved building, the immediate exposures, the fleeing occupants, and the operating units. It allows us to deal with the following:

  1. Where the fire is and where it is going. Many times the fire condition is obvious on a specific floor, and the chief, standing out front, can keep an eye on the smoke and fire conditions. This is a view the officers and firefighters inside cannot see or react to. The chief can also observe fire extending and relay that information to the companies inside the building. He can also observe the smoke conditions lightening or even turning to steam as the engines move in on the fire.
  2. Condition of adjacent exposures from the front of the building. The chief can keep tabs on the buildings to the left and right of the involved building. Companies may or may not be assigned to examine these structures, but the IC, from his position “front and center,” can monitor, observe, and direct operations in the exposed buildings if necessary.
  3. Experience level on the fireground. The chiefs very often are among the most senior people on the fireground. They often have 20 or 30 years of fireground experience in the ranks of company officer and chief officer. As qualified as company officers are to do the job inside, their reports and impressions of conditions lack the depth of the chiefs. The point here is not that the chiefs know it all, but that, because of their experience and professional abilities, they should not be kept in a car down the block where their only input is other officers’ radio transmissions.

Each of the above elements of command are vital to the rapid and efficient control of structural fires. The fireground position taken by the first-to-arrive chief officer can make the difference between gaining control of a serious fire and losing the building. The chief is in command and needs to be free to move around the scene to observe, evaluate, correct, and assert himself when and where needed. The chief will still be in radio communication with the other officers performing the other functions and fulfill his command responsibilities.

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