Command 2020: Clear Vision for Command Training and Your Next Fire

The “New Millennium” isn’t so new. We are 20 years into the 21st century. The modern incident commander (IC) must have a clear vision before the fire ever comes. Based on experience and training, trial and error, the IC must share that clear vision with the entire fire department, shift, battalion, and alarm [based on your response system and standard operating guidelines (SOGs)].

Before entering battle, the modern warrior visualizes the battlefield, the enemy, and the plan. Although every fire is different, the more the seasoned, experienced, and motivated IC can prepare the troops for battle before it comes, the more the troops will be able to visualize the battle and adjust at the time of execution. As inevitable changes, unexpected conditions, and countless other variables unfold, the IC and the troops can make adjustments more easily because of the shared vision and training that occurred before the battle. This approach to command training will invigorate your crews and empower your officers, and succession planning is inherently built into every fire. Most importantly, your fires will be more safe, effective, and efficient, and your chances of saving civilian lives will increase.

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The modern fireground moves faster than ever before. That includes the window of opportunity to save a civilian life, which is closing faster than ever before. The combination of carbon monoxide and hydrogen cyanide, the two most common gases in fires, obliterates the victim’s survivability very quickly. In addition, flashover happens more rapidly, which begins the demolition process of the building structural components.

And, let’s not forget the firefighters. They are moving faster, too. Smartphone apps like PulsePoint and Active911, cabs full of firefighters with Google Maps, and Automatic Vehicle Location systems all combine to get us to the fires much faster than just five years ago.

How many lectures, articles, and books have told you that we are getting deeper into fires faster because of the level of protection our personal protective equipment affords? How many of you have 45-minute cylinders on your self-contained breathing apparatus (SCBA)? How many of you must look out for other responding units at intersections because of response levels? How many companies add themselves to fires after dispatch? How many of your systems have added resources for two-in/two-out, rapid intervention, medical transport, and so on?

Don’t get me wrong. The above changes are good things. And, we want officers to make decisions and have initiative. The point is, a lot has changed for the better over recent years in the face of a more lethal enemy. Yet, how much has your incident command changed?

How much have you trained beyond talking on the radio? Have you conducted hands-on command and tactical training at the same time, on the drill ground, in SCBA, on air, with charged hoselines, in smoke, with civilian victims (manikins)? Or, is your command and tactical training relegated to occasional conversations and simulations alone?

Last we checked, fires and the inherent challenges the IC faces don’t happen with solely a simulation, video, and radio. They involve actual humans in smoke, on air, pulling charged hoselines, with engine and truck companies showing up, yelling, sometimes on the wrong channel, occasionally freelancing, getting winded, not hearing the radio, with tunnel vision and auditory exclusion. Sounds like a real fire.

This isn’t a jab at firefighters. This is a dose of reality. The real fireground is wrought with issues and challenges that simple simulation training alone cannot address. Again, don’t get me wrong. I love simulation training and have used it extensively for decades. That said, simulation training is a stepping stone in an overall training program that must culminate in hands-on command training with live crews and companies in realistic conditions.

The NIOSH 5

Remember, the NIOSH (National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health) top five causal factors of line-of-duty deaths (LODDs) on the fireground are improper/inadequate

  • risk assessment (size-up),
  • communications,
  • accountability,
  • incident command, and
  • following of SOGs or not having SOGs.

These “NIOSH 5” are also the key factors in dysfunctional fireground operations that can lead to any of the following:

  • Close calls.
  • Injuries.
  • Missing civilian victims within the window of survivability.
  • Excessive fire losses.
  • Ineffective or inefficient operations.
The Tactical Gap

Every incident has three operational levels: strategic, tactical, and task. The Tactical Gap is present on almost every fire (see “The Tactical Gap,” Fire Engineering, April 2015). This is the gap between the task-level companies/crews working and the IC at the strategic level. Let’s be honest. Most company officers, while ideally tactical in their mindset, are often sucked into the tasks on the fireground (assisting with stretching lines, forcing doors, searching). While we want company officers to be heads up (looking, assessing, listening, analyzing, and making tactical decisions), most are heads down (working because of the sheer volume of work to be done). A lot of the NIOSH 5 come into alignment and bad things will happen. The tactical space, between the strategic-level IC and the task-level working crews, is the “sweet spot” where the battle is won or lost.

How many of you ICs have been in command of a working fire in a building that you could not see from the incident command post (ICP)? At best, you may only see one side or a corner. Add darkness of night, smoke, trees, driveways, and apparatus, and it is easy for the gap to widen even more (photo 1). Then, add SCBA, zero visibility, task saturation, wrong channels, and tactical channel overload, and the IC can easily get behind the incident power curve and become overwhelmed.

Limited view from the ICP of a house fire at night. (Photos courtesy of author.)

(1) Limited view from the ICP of a house fire at night. (Photos courtesy of author.)

This is like a head coach of a football team trying to win the game with no offensive/defensive coordinators on the sidelines; special teams coaches; or anyone in the box watching the game from above, giving updates and watching for gaps in coverage and needed adjustments in the game plan.

Start with the Plan

Like a head coach of a National Football League team, the IC must have a game plan based on what the opposing team (the fire) is going to do. The IC spends time developing the game plan with the team. The crews, and especially the company officers, must be part of the plan’s development and training. This is based on research, game film from previous fires (use technology and record your fires!), and scouting reports of other fires (after action reports, green sheets, blue sheets, LODD reports, and so on).

For example, one of the “plays” or templates that is very effective is using Division A to bridge the tactical gap between the crews inside a small to moderate-size building and the IC. Photo 2 shows the view from the ICP of a fire in a small restaurant. Look at how many firefighters are outside, let alone inside or on top of the building. With five engines, three trucks, two battalion chiefs, and a medic unit, how do you think the radio traffic might sound? Photo 2 shows only the A/D corner. What about the rear? Is there a basement? What about the attic space? Did you notice the power lines or two heating, ventilation, and air-conditioning units on the roof?

View from the ICP of a fire in a restaurant with vertical ventilation.

(2) View from the ICP of a fire in a restaurant with vertical ventilation.

By setting up a Division A supervisor with one of the seven captains on this fire, the NIOSH 5 is much easier to evaluate and prevent from coming into alignment. Radio traffic is minimized, risk assessment is maintained, accountability is enhanced, and the IC does not get an unmanageable span of control. All companies inside the structure report to Division A. Division A, Roof Division, Rapid Intervention Company (RIC) Group, and the medic unit report to the IC. This takes the IC’s span of control from 10:1 down to 4:1, less than half!

The Command Formula

We have all heard of the fire flow formula. What about a Command Formula? There are three predictable factors when training for and responding to fires: the building (B), the conditions (C), and the resources (R). The Command Formula is just that: ICS = B + C + R.

Many other “plays” exist for differing building types, fire conditions, and resource levels. When I teach incident command throughout the United States, I notice the most varying factor of the Command Formula is resource levels. Some of you have two-person engines that arrive 20 minutes or more apart, and some of you have several companies arriving within seven minutes. One size does not fit all. What DOES fit all is the Command Formula. The variables, while predictable, are different for each incident. The Command Formula gives you a plan from which to train and rapidly deploy an organized incident command structure to your fires. Let’s look at some examples.

Example 1: B (<3,000-square-foot house fire) + C (kitchen fire extending) + R (three engines with three personnel each, a three-person truck, and a chief). Let’s presume you do not do vertical ventilation.

Engine 1 could arrive and initiate fire attack with a 1¾-inch line (task level). Engine 2 could arrive, assume command from Engine 1, secure a water supply, and set up a two-out/backup line. Truck 1 could arrive and initiate a search. Engine 3 could arrive and deploy a second hoseline or establish rapid intervention. This all depends on your SOGs and knockdown time. On the chief’s arrival, the Engine 2 officer, who is in command, can be bumped to a tactical supervisor role as Division A, with Engine 1, Engine 2 crew (his engineer and firefighter), and Truck 1 working under Division A. The RIC, the fire medic (or nonfire ambulance), and the Division A supervisor would now report to the IC, giving the IC a 3:1 span of control instead of 5:1.

This may seem unnecessary; however, what does the Division A supervisor see that the IC and the crews do not see? By orbiting the building, talking to bystanders, accounting for crews, and communicating face-to-face with crews in the hazard zone, the Division A supervisor is bridging the tactical gap. Division A is anticipating the needs of the crews inside, watching their backs and over their heads, and being the eyes and ears for command. Division A can see deteriorating smoke, fire progression, and building conditions more readily from the tactical space. Command can then get ahead of the incident and plan for additional resources, salvage, overhaul, investigation, and support of the occupants. Some smaller cities require the IC to even deal with coverage of the city while running a fire. This is a major distraction from commanding the fire.

Photo 3 shows this scenario. I had very limited visibility from the ICP. This was a hoarder house, and we potentially had a victim. Division A was initiated by the captain of E2 since we trained on tactical supervision and he recognized the need as I arrived.

Occupied hoarder house fire with limited visibility from the ICP.

(3) Occupied hoarder house fire with limited visibility from the ICP.

Example 2: an apartment fire in a garden-style apartment. The formula is B (two-story garden apartment with units facing A/C sides) + C (heavy fire at 1:00 a.m. on the bottom floor, C side, extending vertically into floor 2 and into the attic, high victim profile) + R (four engines with three personnel, two three-person trucks, two chiefs, and a fire medic).

Here, Division A and Division C would work well. At night, you will need to make search and evacuation a priority on BOTH sides of the building. Also, fire extension is likely in the attic, requiring hoselines on Division C to check extension in the units on the common wall and attic. If you employ vertical ventilation, a Roof Division would be appropriate. Additional medic units would likely be called with heavy fire in an occupied apartment at night, requiring a Medical Group. Stay ahead of the incident power curve and assume you have multiple victims trapped until otherwise reported.

A similar fire occurred in a two-story fourplex. We had a fire victim. Photo 4 shows the A side approach. Clearly, I was unable to access the fire because of apparatus stacked up on the street. However, I repositioned on the C side alley (photo 5). I relied heavily on Division A to coordinate operations on the front of the building.

Other examples: Fire Attack and Rescue Groups for known victims trapped on arrival, Divisions ABCD for big box stores, and Division 123 … for multifloor or high-rise fires.

The inaccessibility to side A because of apparatus already on scene.

(4) The inaccessibility to side A because of apparatus already on scene.

The C side alley view of the same fatal apartment fire. Division A played a vital role in coordinating operations at the front.

(5) The C side alley view of the same fatal apartment fire. Division A played a vital role in coordinating operations at the front.

Building a Command Training Program

There are five key components to building a robust incident command training program: consistent curriculum/SOGs, incident reviews, simulations, walk-throughs, and hands-on training. One of the biggest debates is how to command incidents. There are several methodologies applied around America. I teach the incident command system (ICS) in a way that meets the following objectives:

  1. Easy to understand and apply.
  2. Rapidly applicable in the structural fire arena.
  3. Empowerment and decentralization of command functions and tactical decisions.
  4. Prevents the NIOSH 5 from coming into alignment.
  5. Creates succession planning for future incident commanders, officers, and chiefs.

The challenge is to have a consistently applied ICS that also allows for audibles and variances in changing conditions. Establish an SOG that accounts for the NIOSH 5 by clearly defining the factors and how the command SOG will prevent the NIOSH 5 from occurring at your fires. For example, “Using divisions and groups reduces the span of control.” Or, “Early use of tactical supervisors enhances accountability and risk assessment.”

Incident reviews are vital to confirming if the SOG is useful and properly applied. A great way to accomplish this is by recording your fires. The IC should have a dash camera, as a minimum. I used a dash camera for more than 10 years as a battalion chief, and it was invaluable! The crews loved to watch “game film” of their fires, and we broke down every play, radio transmission, and tactic. We also incorporated crew helmet cameras to get task and tactical views. If you are wondering about the liability involved in recording your fires, be sure to follow your department’s policy.

NIOSH reports, after action reports, and other formats are available in abundance. Review them consistently and share the lessons learned.

Simulations are a great tool. Be sure to use target hazards and common buildings in your jurisdictions. I add radio traffic to the simulations, which gives students a chance to practice clear, calm, concise radio transmissions. If the students struggle, have them transmit again and again until they do it correctly. If the students cannot transmit clear, calm, concise messages in the classroom, how will they do so at a fire at 3:00 a.m.?

Ensure that the simulations include getting a lap early, changing conditions, and realistic feedback/transmissions. Prevent the checkbox mindset. One great way to start is by having students practice mental size-up repetitions BEFORE practicing arrival reports on the radio. Remember, the NIOSH 5’s number-one problem is inadequate size-up/risk assessment. Ask students to describe the building, smoke, weather, time of day, victim profile, exposures, power lines, and basement and to consider if responding units are adequate.

Next, walk-throughs include students playing roles as companies talking on radios. You can do this with simulations, tabletop models, or during a meeting. Photo 6 shows a drill with all students having radios and miniature engines and trucks to show where they would place apparatus and make radio transmissions. Also, hoselines and ladders are placed on the tabletop models.

Finally, and most importantly, hands-on drills truly give the students a realistic scenario. The IC, division/group supervisors, and task-level crews all work in a realistic environment with smoke, victims (manikins), charged hoselines, and on air with full SCBA (photo 7). This provides countless realistic moments to overcome challenges in smoke, on air, with radios feeding back, and while pulling lines. The tactical supervisors really get a feel for the skills they need to run a division/group, and the IC really gets a feel for decentralizing decisions and trusting the supervisors, which allows the IC to get ahead of the incident.

The key objective is to prevent the NIOSH 5 from coming into alignment. If you bridge the tactical gap on the drills, the NIOSH 5 will not impact your operations, and they will be more safe, effective, and efficient. Radio transmissions will decrease, face-to-face communications will increase, accountability will be more accurate and active, and risk management will be more proactive. This will also reduce the span of control for the IC. Photo 8 shows the ICP.

Company officers training on a tabletop model with radios.

(6) Company officers training on a tabletop model with radios.

Hands-on command and tactical training. There are no shortcuts.

(7) Hands-on command and tactical training. There are no shortcuts.

The IC in the ICP while tactical supervisors bridge the gap.

(8) The IC in the ICP while tactical supervisors bridge the gap.

Each evolution is debriefed, and all students get to rotate through task-level companies, tactical group/division supervisors, and ICs. Perform residential, apartment, commercial, victim-trapped, and Mayday scenarios. If there is a hiccup or the “incident” is going down the wrong path, call a “training time out” on the radio. Have all personnel hold their positions, fix the problem, and continue. This is the best way to build functional skills rather than letting the incident degrade and reviewing it at the end.

Each agency or region should have its own command training cadre. This allows for on-duty training with in-service companies to permeate the entire command SOG down through all the members. This ensures the vision is shared and all members, whether the most senior IC or the newest probie on a medic unit, are on the same page and understand the “playbook.”

Like any good offense, the quarterback must be trained and empowered to call audibles. If the audible makes the incident more safe, effective, or efficient, then the audible is good to go. If the audible was called because the officer doesn’t like the SOG or doesn’t know it, the proper tactic, or the job, then the audible will be called into question. Again, you want tactical decision makers, not robots. That said, you want consistency, too.

Training Is Key

Command and tactics are intertwined. Today’s fires are moving faster than ever before, and so are our firefighters. The modern IC must be able to quickly establish a well-organized incident command structure that keeps the NIOSH 5 from coming into alignment while allowing for aggressive tactics. This can no longer be done by a centralized command philosophy whereby all units report to command and clog a single tactical channel. The IC is not omnipresent or all-knowing, especially when the ICP is in a less-than-ideal location. He will quickly get overwhelmed and behind the incident power curve, especially when the incident escalates because of unforeseen circumstances that often arise. Most ICs do not have a good vantage point from the ICP and most company officers are busy working. In between is the tactical gap, where the fight is won or lost. By having a well-communicated and trained-on departmentwide playbook, with common plays that employ one to two company officers as division/group supervisors, the tactical gap is bridged and the NIOSH 5 do not align.

The key is training! Proactive training on command and tactics requires several components: consistent curriculum/SOGs, incident reviews, simulations, walk-throughs, and hands-on training. Hands-on training in command and tactical decision making creates an invigorated team that wants to lead, make decisions, and help the IC manage the incident. This intrinsically creates an embedded succession plan, and your officers will be much more confident. And, most importantly, on a dark and stormy night with multiple victims or firefighters trapped, the incident will be well-organized with clear and concise communications. This gives civilian and firefighter lives the greatest chances of survival, which is our highest priority and the reason we exist.


Anthony Kastros is a 33-year veteran of the fire service and the founder of Trainfirefighters.com. He teaches command, tactics, leadership, and officer development. He is the author of Mastering Fireground Command–Calm the Chaos, Mastering the Fire Service Assessment Center, and Mastering Unified Command–From Hometown to Homeland, all from Fire Engineering.

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