IC ‘Yes’: Everyday Incident Command for the Everyday Response

By Bud Davenport

I have a friend who played professional baseball at the Major League level. I asked him one day what was different about the majors. He said, “The playing field is basically the same no matter what level you play at. The fences are relatively the same distances, as well as the bases. The rules are equal for all levels, from rookie leagues to the Major League.” He added, “The most noticeable difference in the game is not on the field. The field stays the same, but the bleachers get taller.”

This is true in the fire service as well. Our bleachers grow as our incident grows. This added attention has created a plethora of material on the incident command system (ICS) for major responses. What about the bedroom fire? How can I adapt these major principles to the everyday motor vehicle collision (MVC) or fire alarm? Our game must stay the same, even when we do not have anyone in the bleachers. A room-and-contents fire is a major call (especially if you own the house!). It takes the same management principles as a three-alarm warehouse fire. Advanced ICS requires meetings and paperwork. It requires planning and paperwork. It requires briefings and paperwork. An everyday response requires the same attention. It requires planning, meetings, and briefings. However, I have never seen a chief officer draw an organizational chart and put together a written incident action plan (IAP) before deploying lines.

There have been many classes over the years hammering home the importance of incident command. Make no mistake: all incidents need management. Regardless of whether if it is a sick call on an ambulance or a mass-casualty incident with hundreds of patients, the management principles and priorities stay the same. Most ICS classes seem to cater to the mass-casualty aspect. These “what if” scenarios certainly increase our awareness of the proper documentation and prioritization needed to handle the career call. However, they never seem to help us on the everyday routine responses. How can the formal ICS approach and all of its meetings be adapted to the average room-and-contents fire?

The Invisible Planning “P”

Everyone who sits through ICS learns the Planning “P,” a visual guide to the steps involved in planning for an incident. This tool is posted in many command posts throughout the nation. It lays out the schedule of meetings and briefings needed for each operational period. It serves as a reminder of what is coming next in the planning process so everyone can be prepared. We never have a Planning “P” when we are at a routine response. That is why we must commit the invisible Planning “P” to memory.

Sizing Up the Scene

It all starts with the initial dispatch. Information given to the first responding crews immediately starts the planning process for everyone involved. The information dispatch gathers from the caller lays the initial groundwork for a solid foundation. I love the television show The Deadliest Catch. In an early episode, one of the captains talked about stacking the crab pots on the deck of the boat. If the initial layer of pots is off by just a fraction, the stack could be so unstable when finished that the boat could turn over. As with much in life, it all starts with a good foundation. The well-trained dispatcher helps provide that firm footing. One innovative tool some dispatch centers use to strengthen the platform is the fire priority dispatch system. The system, which is approved by the National Academy of Emergency Fire Dispatch, enables the call taker to ask pertinent questions to narrow down the emergency. Any immediate life hazard is quickly dispatched ahead of lower priority calls. The first responders are given an alphanumeric code to best describe the incident. This system allows the responding officers to begin the initial size-up before arriving on scene. If a department has been dispatched to a MVC with subjects pinned on an interstate during rush hour, the officer may request additional resources for scene safety.

Another valuable asset in the initial size-up is the first-in crew’s familiarity with the district. Knowing the existing hazards in and around their response area can help avoid unwanted surprise on arrival. A driver with good street smarts can direct best routes of travel for a quick water supply or to avoid traffic snarls. Firefighters’ knowledge of construction types in the area can help determine the tools needed for initial actions.

The initial size-up paints a picture for all incoming personnel. This size-up serves the same purpose as the incident briefing. The first-in officer briefs all incoming units on the current situations, conditions, and actions needed on arrival. 

This Meeting Is Now Called To Order

While the officer is performing the initial walk-around, he should ask what needs to be done right now to mitigate this incident. This begins the process of setting the initial incident objectives. It may include several units or agencies. When all agencies work together to create a plan to conquer this incident from the foundation, they must work together to ensure that they have no overlapping priorities. We have all seen such meetings on video. Everyone calmly takes his turn stating the agency he represents and its priorities, and a consensus is reached on the overall priorities. It all looks great until you smell the smoke and hear the screams. We need to act quickly and in the best interest of safety to ourselves and our crews, as well as the general public. We will not have time to call a formal meeting to discuss our organizational chart. We will quickly decide command roles and operations on the side of the road. Our command post will most likely be a chief’s vehicle. A stand-alone command unit is not practical when the incident will be over in a few hours. As priorities are set, so are the objectives. Most departments have standard operating guidelines to follow on scene. They can eliminate the need for a tactics meeting. A well-trained department can safely perform these skills with precision and efficiency. 

The Best-Made Plans

It’s important to remember that the incident commander (IC) assumes all roles and responsibilities unless they are assigned to someone else. It is quite possible that there will be no need for a planning meeting. The IC may have done all of the planning. The planning meeting may involve all agencies as well as operations. All parties involved, including the safety officer, should be on the same page. The planning meeting will not be drawn out. The situation should be updated, and everyone should quickly agree on the game plan. At this point, the mental IAP will be implemented. 

Timing Is Everything

How long should this “P” take? Just like any other system, it has to be practiced. Officers will develop the skills needed over time. Most of the incidents can be put into motion within two minutes of being on scene. There are several variables that need to be tossed around.

  • Scene safety is a must. A safety officer should be appointed early in the incident. This person should be involved in all decisions. Safety can become mundane and routine. It is vital that an experienced safety officer can feel the pulse of the incident.
  • Will the scene expand? One instructor at the North Carolina State Fire Marshal’s Unified Command and Control Class used to end his tabletop exercise by bouncing a six-foot Godzilla inflatable across the landscape. He reasoned that you never knew when the monsters were coming. All scenes have the potential to expand. If things vary from the original plan, be ready to react quickly to correct the problems.
  • Is the main thing the main thing? Books on top of books have been written about situational awareness and avoiding tunnel vision. There are two key things to remember about avoiding the pitfalls of tunnel vision. First, do not focus on one thing for too long. Focus on “the main thing,” but pay attention to everything going on around the scene. Listen carefully to radio traffic. Check in with the safety officer. An IC should ask himself if he is up with the scene activities. The second pitfall is treating everything as routine: Everything gets routine, and the commander overlooks a key discrepancy that ends up hurting responders.
Keep it Simple

Remember, every call is not a Type III incident, so it should not be treated as one. Safety should always be in the forefront in decision making. Handle the emergency by remembering life safety, incident stabilization, and property conservation. As long as the emergency gets mitigated with no further damage or injuries and every responder goes home, it’s a good day. Treat a Major League call as a Major League call and a Single A call as a Single A call. Leave the bleachers to baseball and get in the game.

Bud Davenport is a 19-year veteran of Garner (NC) Fire-Rescue, where he has served as captain for the past nine years. He teaches ICS throughout North Carolina for North Carolina Emergency Management. He served as the Planning Section chief during the Con-Agra Explosion, which killed four people in 2009.

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