Crew-Based Command for the Volunteer Fire Service

Personally owned vehicle (POV) response is a reality in the volunteer fire service. As it is with many volunteer fire departments, in Moyock, North Carolina, it is not unusual for there to be one or two fire apparatus on scene with 15 personnel. How do we manage those resources? More importantly, how do we use the regionally standard passport system to effectively arrange 15 personnel into teams and assign them tasks while still maintaining accountability?

Apparatus-Based Command

In most career systems, the common practice is for an engine and its crew to work together throughout the course of an incident. Setting aside minor differences of tag order or color between departments, a passport system with four names attached is typically handed to the incident commander (IC) or accountability officer.

When the time comes to perform, the chauffeur remains with the apparatus while the officer and personnel go to work. When one task is complete, the “engine” is assigned another task, is sent to rehab, or returns to staging. Radio calls between accountability or command and the staff for that apparatus are typically “Engine 3 to Command” or “Accountability to Engine 3.” More engines are called to the scene as needed, and the full crews are available to work. This system is efficient and works well when you are guaranteed to have a three- or four-member crew on every engine.

Volunteer Response

When an engine arrives with a single firefighter and eight additional firefighters show up in their POVs, task- or location-based accountability is the solution most often employed to manage an accountability system. It is unrealistic to assign all nine of these personnel to a single engine. Radio calls such as “Division Charlie to Command,” “Operations to Interior,” “Command to Ventilation,” and “RIC [rapid intervention crew] to Operations” are common in this style. Critical breakdown points become evident when a crew gets reassigned or when multiple crews are working in a single location. This system also falls outside the norm of any national standard.

When an engine arrives with a single firefighter, and eight additional firefighters show up in their POVs, task- or location-based accountability is the solution most often employed to manage an accountability system.

Scenario 1. Three two-member crews are operating in the interior of a working room-and-contents fire at a single-family dwelling. One crew is working overhaul in the fire room, a second is performing overhaul work in the neighboring room, and a third is performing ventilation at the opposite end of the residence.

The radio call comes through: “Interior to Command.” Which crew is calling?

The radio call comes through: “Command to Overhaul.” Which crew is being called?

The volunteer fire service typically does more with less. Two-member teams— rather than three or four—operate on the fireground. Apparatus may be staged and left unattended because the driver is needed to help fight fire.

NIMS/ICS Basics

The Federal Emergency Management Agency defines a single resource as “an individual, a piece of equipment and its personnel complement, or a crew or team of individuals with an identified work supervisor that can be used on an incident.”

To be flexible on a scene, a single resource must have a somewhat ambiguous definition [the basic premise of the National Incident Command System (NIMS)]. A volunteer arriving in his POV, a four-member engine, an engine with an operator, and even just a crew of personnel with a leader are examples of single resources.

Scenario 2. Three two-member crews are operating in the interior of a working room-and-contents fire at a single-family dwelling. Crew 35 is working overhaul in the fire room, Crew 36 is performing overhaul work in the neighboring room, while Crew 37 is performing ventilation at the opposite end of the residence.

The radio call comes through: “Crew 36 to Command.”

How do we identify the “crew or team of individuals with an identified work supervisor” on an incident? Fortunately, the NIMS/incident command system (ICS) has already identified the answer for us: We call them a “crew.” By giving the crew a defined name, we eliminate confusion during communications. The work supervisor is responsible for remembering he is in charge of “Crew 36” and answers the radio accordingly.

POV Response

When personnel arrive in their POVs, they check in with command and receive a crew assignment. The crew leader (whether it is an officer or a senior firefighter) is assigned a crew number and given the list of personnel for which he is responsible. With this method, you can assign tasks to crews and move them from task to task cleanly and without confusion.

Apparatus Response

A culture change comes when there is a shift regarding apparatus and its associated accountability. According to NIMS, we can separate apparatus into two resources.

Typically, an apparatus requires only one person to operate it (“a piece of equipment and its personnel complement”); as such, we can consider the apparatus and the operator as one resource. Aside from the operator, the remaining firefighters could consider this apparatus as merely a personnel and an equipment transport, and we can view the remaining firefighters as a second single resource (“a crew or team of individuals with an identified work supervisor”). With this thought process, “Engine 3” now becomes “Engine 3” and “Crew 3”—two independent resources.

We preset the passports to ease the accountability and check-in process by adding a second “Crew” passport to each apparatus. With apparatus accountability already designed to be separate, incident command can now separate single resources as the scene designates/dictates. Incident command can also separate the crew from the apparatus or keep the two resources together, whichever fits the needs of the incident.

Typically, the operator remains with the apparatus and the crew gets reassigned. However, if the need arises, the operator can be removed from the engine and assigned to a crew. When this happens, it is easy to see an unstaffed piece of equipment in staging on the board.

Crew-Based Command at Work

At a glance, the IC can see which apparatus (both staffed and unstaffed) and crews are staging and easily track which apparatus and crews are committed to operations to plan for future operations at the incident. Subsequently, an IC can quickly reassign apparatus and crews to tasks as the need arises. Crews can be easily reassigned to a different task without any change in how they answer the radio.

Revolving Command

With all of this in place, we can rotate crews through tasks easily and quickly. For example, Crew 3 may be working interior (suppression, search, and so on) while Crew 31 is assigned to the RIC. Additional volunteers who show up are organized into Crew 32. Crew 3 needs to leave the building for rehab, Crew 31 is sent interior to complete Crew 3’s task and any additional tasking (they are already geared and packed up), and Crew 32 moves from staging to the RIC. As the scene progresses, we either continue to work with the resources we have (32 now going interior, Crew 3 moving to RIC, and Crew 31 moving to rehab) or we add additional crews/resources to the rotation as they arrive.

Staffed Engines

Because of this system’s flexibility, it is easy to integrate outside agencies. For example, we can seamlessly integrate one of our mutual-aid partners into any incident; it operates as the engine that it is so accustomed to being or is broken into two separate “phantom” crews and then put to work.

Full-scale scenario exercises have allowed us to train on this new system, exposing our mutual-aid partner to it. Oddly enough, it has sparked an actual resurgence in our mutual-aid partner’s use of accountability.

Doing More with Less

It is common to work a room-and-contents fire with a single engine and medic and then have 10 personnel show up in their POVs. Previous accountability systems did not allow us to track additional volunteers easily because we had only a single passport with which to work.

Each first-due apparatus has a small accountability board; on the back of each board are phantom crews not preassigned to apparatus (such as Crew 3 and Engine 3, Crew 31 and Engine 31). These phantom crews allow us to assign crews (Crew 36, Crew 37, and so on) and put personnel to work while maintaining 100-percent accountability on the fireground.

NIOSH Reports

Nearly every fire service-related National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health report I have read (that isn’t related to a cardiovascular emergency) calls out communications and accountability as critical failure points on scene. Creating crews “on the fly” on the fireground solves the accountability portion. As painful as it is to read and think about, I refuse to repeat the mistakes made that have caused the lives of so many of my brethren to be cut short.

After working with this accountability system for more than a year, I’ve found that our personnel and mutual-aid partners have adjusted to this small change with ease. At this point, I know that my personnel and equipment as well as the personnel and equipment responding from our partner departments are accounted for on a fire scene. For the first time in our department’s history, accountability is second-nature rather than an inconvenience.


ROBERT F. PERVERE is a 17-year volunteer fire service veteran and the chief of the Moyock (NC) Fire Department, where he has served 12 years as a fire officer and the past six years as a chief officer with a focus on training and safety. He also works as a career firefighter/paramedic for the County of Currituck in North Carolina.

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