Command Evolution


The use of an incident commander (IC) has been passed down to us by our grandfathers over the generations. How one is deployed and what his responsibilities are can vary greatly with the circumstances, but the value is indisputable. For the fire service, traditionally the intent is to provide a fixed, sole authority for strategic and tactical decision making on the fireground.

We have over time assembled the essential functions of this role and developed various systems to train ourselves on how to perform the role. It would seem that we have even conquered the impossible with the refinement of the National Incident Management System (NIMS) to ensure that, regardless of the complexity or size of an event, we will be able to command it. But the issue of commanding the routine and most dangerous events is and should be still under review.

It is interesting to compare command at Type 1, 2, and 3 incidents to the more routine structure fires. Does what we do in NIMS at 1, 2, and 3s as an incident commander really look like what we do as the IC at a residential house fire? As a type 1, 2, or 3 IC, we have a defined structure of specialists who have been placed in clearly explained roles with measurable objectives and responsibilities, logistics, planning, and administration to direct and manage. We are chosen to respond on the basis of our experience and training to an event that, although it is still unfolding and may be extremely complex, is supported. We have scheduled briefings to assess the situation, our resources, and the effectiveness of our plans and efforts to that point. As the IC, we facilitate communications and ensure that all team members understand the needs and concerns of the rest of the team. Although time is critical, we generally have time to review our positions before pulling the trigger.

The current most common deployment of command at Types 4 and 5 incidents is for the first-due officer to assume command and be responsible for the strategic mode and the tactical assignments of the remainder of the alarm. This expectation of the role, responsibility, and capability of the first due on the typical engine arriving at the scene of a working house fire at a Type 4 or 5 event needs more examination. We have from tradition assumed that by assigning the role of IC to the first arriver, we would provide command and control and improve safety, but does it accomplish this? The assumption is that Types 4 and 5 fires are fairly standard events with predictable and thus controllable stages. Often this assumption is flawed.

The fireground is not as predictable as we would like, and not all company officers have the same levels of experience, deportment, composure, and presence that events sometimes require. Not every structure is constructed uniformly or contains a fuel load arranged in a common or standard way. Add rescues, wind, peer pressure, fatigue, lack of information, competing goals, and personal danger, and assigning all the tactical and strategic responsibilities to one person—especially the first due—becomes a questionable practice.

The fireground does have a sequence that we understand, and to improve fireground safety, we need to move from the omnipotent “Lone Ranger” IC concept of command to a more modern system that recognizes the complexity and difficulty of the situation. To improve safety, we must begin working to relieve pressures from the first-arriving officer, not add to them.

It makes little sense to have officers on later-arriving units stand by and await instructions. It is also wrong to assume that every officer has all the knowledge, skill, or expertise to direct and instruct the other specialized units that must contribute simultaneously to achieve the synergy needed in successful proactive firefights. Rather, it seems we should look to the Army company officer model, where a sergeant leading a small unit will decide to engage or not engage the enemy and later-arriving units provide support and assistance to reinforce that officer’s stated intention.

The first responsibility of the company officer is the safety and effective use of his company. To be effective, the officer must recognize and assess the critical factors that are most significant at the fire or emergency and then decide if the company can be effective in that situation. Often, we are missing the most critical piece of information—where is the fire?—and many times we have competing goals, which makes being first an extremely stressful situation.

We know that when under stress our ability to make complex choices is limited. What we need is support—not a gaggle of dependents demanding our attention. After making the decision of how to commit the first-arriving company, the company officer must remain with that company at all times. Later-arriving officers should evaluate the size-up and the intention of the first due and express how they are going to support that decision. All units committed should then report their status and what actions they are going to engage in to support the initial decision or state why they cannot.

The only command decision by a company officer, not a field command officer, should be whether to fight the fire proactively or defensively. Following that, he should be tactically communicating with supporting units and directing tasks to their teams. We know support from others is the number-one way to reduce stress in dangerous and threatening conditions. We recognize that the first due is responsible for making the toughest call with limited time and information.

Today we have a golden opportunity to examine how we can make firefighting safer by using the research that has been done recently on how people make decisions under pressure and how the mind works. We should begin to reexamine the fireground with this fresh, modern insight; however, we might find some of what our grandfathers did useful. You see, they were great communicators, but they were even better team players.


More Fire Engineering Issue Articles


Fire Engineering Archives


No posts to display