The late fire service icon Chief Alan Brunacini wrote in 1967, “Don’t be afraid to make changes if something has been done a particular way for 20 years; that alone is often a sign it is being done wrong.” The good chief would go on to publish Fireground Command 17 years later in 1984, 34 years ago.
Much has changed since 1984. We have improved our communication capacities; we have advanced significantly in our understanding of fire behavior, ventilation, and toxicity; and there is a second edition of Fireground Command. Most importantly, we are much better versed on how our minds work under pressure—especially in dynamic, high-risk, high-consequence situations.
Chief Brunacini would go on to champion command teams to manage the complexity and dynamic issues that occur at fire scenes. The need for support in managing fires was obvious, and the command team made efforts much more effective by removing various decisions from the incident commander (IC). The officers in the command team would handle logistics, the media, and other duties, allowing the IC to then focus on the most critical immediate concerns of the firefighters in the hazard zone.
The ideas of the chief challenged the existing doctrine of the day, which had been established through experience and shaped over tens of thousands of fires. Challenges to doctrine generally are not well received at first, specifically for that reason: They challenge what we know. Doctrines are established over time and are adopted because they successfully meet the challenges and opportunities faced at that time.
Challenges occur in context; for us, that context includes the fireground (including occupancies, their use, and their contents) and available resources (including technology, apparatus, and people). One of the doctrines Chief Brunacini established was that the first-arriving officer shall assume command, perform established command assumption functions, and remain in command—the IC must be on scene to be in command.
The initial incident commander, most often, is a company officer who arrives on scene prior to a chief officer. The company officer should provide a detailed size-up, which is communicated to all responding resources including the dispatch center. The company officer assumes command and makes a decision regarding the strategy and IAP [incident action plan].
The fast-attack mode. This mode is applied when quick, immediate action can prevent life loss or injury …. These situations require immediate action to stabilize the incident and require the company officer’s direct involvement in the attack. In this mode, the company officer accompanies the crew to provide the appropriate level of supervision. Command may be passed to the next-arriving officer on his arrival. Command shall not be passed to an officer who is not on scene.
Doing something differently is what makes fire departments effective and efficient locally. The former Speaker of the United States House of Representatives Tip O’Neill is credited with the political wisdom, “All politics is local.” We might add, “All firefighting is local,” and it is good that it is so.
Generally, we have for the past 34 years taught, shared, and accepted the command doctrine that the first due should assume command. The arrival of the first fire officer, irrespective of rank, training, or assigned role, should require among other things the assumption of command and the complete performance of the command functions. Before his passing, the good chief was engaged in discussions as to whether this doctrine should still be a “shall” or perhaps now a “may” for fireground command.
If we look at the past 34 years, much has changed: Work by renown neuroscientists has enlightened us as to how much bandwidth or how many decisions one person can make, especially under extreme pressure in high-stakes situations with conflicting goals and limited resources.
General Stanley McChrystal stated, “We have a doctrine of military operations. The longer you operate under that doctrine, the greater the danger that you become shaped by it.” General McChrystal is credited with revolutionizing modern warfare. He created the new doctrine of “team of teams” to make decision making faster and better supported among the soldiers and units with skin in the game. McChrystal was faced with an enemy who could move faster; we are too.
The concept of team of teams for us is a company of companies. We still need those first arriving to provide an estimate of the situation or a size-up; that is a given—what are we facing, what do we have? The officer should then focus on and announce what the resource is doing to affect the situation. The officer could also request supporting efforts. But the highest-ranking officer on the call is command; he should acknowledge the size-up and, if appropriate, ask questions.
Other supporting companies should also state their arrival or intentions on arrival to the first due and command. This is collaborative command, a team of teams, a company of companies. The battalion chief or shift chief who is trained in command, legally in command, and prepared to command is in command. This removes tremendous pressure from the first-arriving officer and allows that officer to focus on the critical activities of the resources in the hazard zone.
This concept is how many urban fire departments now operate: Close arrival of ranking senior officers—command officers—makes assuming command unnecessary for the first arriver. The company of companies concept simply proposes a new way to improve decision making, relieve stress, and provide support to firefighters who are faced with extremely fast-moving situations, a wide range of variables, limited resources, high stakes, limited time, and often limited experience.
Most importantly, company of companies is a suggestion, an option—not a demand, not a rule or standard. No one is saying anyone is doing anything wrong. McChrystal also said, “Weak commanders look for prepackaged answers; strong leaders adapt.”