A Strong Command Presence Is Essential in All Incidents

By David Polikoff

Many things can adversely impact an emergency incident including poor communication, disregard of standard operating procedures (SOPs), poor tactical decisions, and lack of command, to name a few. This article focuses on command. A strong command presence can overcome most issues in an emergency incident. Many think that command starts once a chief officer arrives on the scene; this belief can prove detrimental to a successful outcome. The incident command system (ICS) needs to start as soon as the first unit arrives on the scene and completes a good size-up. The transfer of command will then be smooth when a chief officer arrives, receives a status report/update and assumes command. The focus of this article is achieving a successful outcome when operating on the day-to-day incidents–structure fires, small hazmat incidents, automotive accidents, for example. Most of these incidents are mitigated in fewer than 12 to 24 hours and do not necessitate additional operational periods.


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National Incident Management System (NIMS)

A good fire department will have a good working knowledge of the NIMS. The definition of NIMS is long, but it is important to understand it in its entirety. NIMS is a comprehensive, national approach to incident management that is applicable at all jurisdictional levels and across functional disciplines. It is intended to do the following:

• Be applicable across a full spectrum of potential incidents, hazards, and impacts regardless of size, location, or complexity.

• Improve coordination and cooperation among public and private entities in a variety of incident management activities.

•  Provide a common standard for overall incident management.

NIMS provides a consistent nationwide framework and approach to enable government at all levels (federal, state, tribal, and local), the private sector, and nongovernmental organizations to work together to prepare for, prevent, respond to, recover from, and mitigate the effects of incidents regardless of the incident’s cause, size, location, or complexity.

Consistent application of NIMS lays the groundwork for efficient and effective responses, from a single-agency fire response to a multiagency, multijurisdictional natural disaster or terrorism response. Entities that have integrated NIMS into their planning and incident management structure can arrive at an incident with little notice and still understand the procedures and protocols governing the response as well as the expectations for equipment and personnel. NIMS provides commonality in preparedness and response efforts that allow diverse entities to readily integrate and, if necessary, establish unified command during an incident. (Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), 2005a)

NIMS Terms

Being familiar with the definitions of terms in the NIMS will assist the incident commander (IC) to run things smoothly and keep all units on the incident on the same page when issuing instructions. Using the NIMS terms greatly improves communication within your organization and any other jurisdiction or mutual-aid units operating on the scene.

Division. Divisions are used to divide an incident into geographical areas of operation. A Division is the area between the Branch and the Task Force/Strike Team. Divisions are identified by alphabetic characters for horizontal applications and, often, by floor numbers when used in buildings.

Group. Groups are established to divide the incident into functional areas of operation. They are composed of resources assembled to perform a special function, not necessarily within a single geographic division. Groups are located between Branches (when activated) and Resources in the Operations Section.

Initial Action. The actions taken by resources arrive first at the incident site.

Operations Section. The section responsible for all tactical operations at the incident, including branches, divisions and groups, task forces, strike teams, single resources, and staging areas.

Span of Control. The number of individuals for which a supervisor is responsible; it is usually expressed as the ratio of supervisors to individuals. An appropriate span of control is between 1:3 and 1:7.

Unified Command. An application of ICS used when there is more than one agency with incident jurisdiction or when incidents cross political jurisdictions. Agencies work together through the designated members of the Unified Command, often the senior person from agencies or disciplines participating in the Unified Command, to establish a common set of objectives and strategies and a single incident action plan. (FEMA, 2005b)

These are a few of the terms defined in the NIMS are those most often used on an emergency.

Tactics vs. Strategies

The IC must understand the difference between “tactics” and “strategies.” Tactics refers to carrying out the tasks assigned by the IC or policy. Strategies determine what work needs to be done on the incident. These are stripped-down definitions.

When talking tactics, the acronym most often used is RECEO-VS-RA.

R – Rescue

E – Exposure

C – Confinement

E – Extinguishment

O – Overhaul

V – Vent

S – Salvage

RA – Risk Assessment

On most fires, the RECEO is done in order. The VS moves around in the order; there is no set spot. The RA is ongoing throughout the incident and must continually be evaluated. The IC will tell crews what is to be done; the crews figure out how to accomplish the orders. This is tactics.

When we think about strategies, we are not thinking how to do the work but relaying what work needs to be done. Like tactics, strategies use the acronym LIP.

L – Life safety

I – Incident stabilization

P – Property conservation

You can draw parallels with the acronym for tactics and the acronym for strategies. Life safety refers to all lives on the fireground, firefighter and civilian. Incident stabilization refers to fire control, overhaul, utilities, and ventilation. Property conservation refers to controlling the damage.

 There is a very fine line between managing and micromanaging. The IC tells the units on the scene what needs to be done (extinguish the fire on the second floor, search the building, or protect the items in the basement). Notice these examples state what needs to be done, not how to do it. It is the responsibility of the crews to carry out the orders. Many firefighters are quick to point out when they feel a supervisor is micromanaging them. Firefighters are smart and resourceful; when an incident commander gives an order, fire crews will figure out the best and safest way to complete the task.

Initial On-Scene Reports (IOSR)

We have all heard that when the first-arriving unit officer is on the scene of a fire, that officer should “paint the picture” when talking on the radio. This means give a good description of what the officer is seeing. The description should contain the following:

•         The arrival side of the building;

•         The number of its stories;

•         The type of its occupancy;

•         Conditions evident on arrival, with associated geographic location, using ICS terminology;

•         A request for additional resources (example: a call for additional alarms);

•         Any deviation from the SOP, designating other unit assignments.

This information will give all incoming units a great mental picture of what they will encounter. This allows the IC to formulate a plan and enact it.

Transferring Command

Once the chief officer arrives on the scene and receives a quick “CAN” report (condition, actions, needs), he/she announces the assumption of command and the location of the command post. Most command posts are marked with a green light or flag.

Writing It Down

The IC continues to receive updates from the crews working and documents crew assignments and their location in the structure on the tactical worksheet. The IC limits the span of control by assigning crews to work under supervisors. A typical fireground may consist of divisions and groups. In a two-story house, the IC may assign two divisions with two units working in each. The IC may also have a search group and a vent group. The IC will need to speak only to the supervisors to get updates–in this instance, that would be four supervisors (between the two divisions and the two groups).  Although there may be 30 people on the fireground, the IC will need to speak with only four. This reduces the span of control and radio traffic. All of this information will be captured on a tactical worksheet.


A fire incident scene can be a chaotic place. It is important that all personnel have a good working knowledge of the NIMS, the ability to effectively communicate an IOSR, and know the difference between tactics and strategies. This knowledge and a strong command presence should produce a smoothly managed fireground with reduced radio traffic.


FEMA. (2005a). NIMS FAQ.   Retrieved from http://www.fema.gov/pdf/emergency/nims/nimsfaqs.pdf.

FEMA. (2005b). NIMS Glossary.   Retrieved from https://training.fema.gov/emiweb/is/icsresource/assets/icsglossary.pdf.

David Polikoff has been in the fire service for 28 years. He is a battalion chief with the Montgomery County (MD) Fire Department, a life member of the Kentland Volunteer Fire Department Station 33, and a volunteer firefighter with the Sykesville Freedom District Fire Department. He has an associate degree in fire science. He is a Maryland State certified instructor. He previously taught at FDIC. He is an adjunct instructor at the Montgomery County Public Service Training Academy and has taught for IFSI in Champagne, Illinois, where he assists with the Truck Company Operations class. He is lead instructor for Capitol Fire Training LLC, teaching truck and engine company operations, incident command, and forcible e

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