The Command Bubble: A Tool for the Fireground and For Life

At its core, firefighting consists of confronting and overcoming a series of challenges, which are similar at most of the incidents to which we respond. Standard operating procedures (SOPs) and past experience guide us at the structural fires, automobile accidents, and medical emergencies that make up the bulk of our work. We must make individual decisions about response routes, the initial size-up, and hands-on tactics, but generally, our knowledge allows us to manage these operations quickly and efficiently. However, unless there is something really distinct about these incidents, over time, many of them seem to blend together.

Incidents That You Remember

Only when something goes wrong or someone gets hurt does an incident ultimately remain in your memory. You tend to forget the fire that went very well because, most likely, the operation didn’t deviate much from the challenges you expected to face. Sometimes the SOPs work brilliantly and you don’t need to make any really significant decisions at all.

The “bad” fire is the one that you will intimately recall and learn from. When SOPs fail or the unexpected happens, you face a totally different kind of test. The very worst scenarios leaders face on the fireground have the potential to stress, confuse, and overwhelm them. They demand you instantly recognize a problem, dramatically and suddenly change your strategy and tactics, and be a leader who can make and communicate such decisions—in short, someone who is capable of maintaining and operating in the so-called “command bubble.”

The command bubble is a firefighting tool, a management technique, and a general mindset. To function properly inside that bubble, a firefighter must be able to maintain situational awareness and at the same time distance himself mentally and emotionally from the numerous distractions at every fire. If you have ever experienced a situation that required you to make a key decision in the midst of confusion, uncertainty, noise, and rapidly changing conditions, you have known a scenario that called for the command bubble.

In that state of mind, although numerous urgent demands are still present, you are holding them at arm’s length to prioritize and evaluate alternate courses of action. The bubble itself is porous: You absorb relevant information and filter out the things that must be put on hold.

Four Situations

You can use this technique at every fire, but four situations mandate it: a missing or trapped firefighter, a structural collapse, a loss of water, or the sudden need to transition from an interior to an exterior attack. These are the worst events that can occur on the fireground. All of these situations impose high levels of stress and demand decisive action. At the same time, they necessitate an ability to organize rapidly and communicate effectively, and all of this taxes your ability to maintain a command bubble.

Do not assume that it is only a chief who is put in this situation. In a large fire department, a company officer will often arrive at the scene before a chief. In a suburban or rural department, a senior firefighter may be placed in a position in which he must make a significant strategic decision when no officer is present. The transition from an interior to an exterior incident commander (IC) is not easy, particularly if you must do it immediately in confronting a major problem.

Instant IC

If you are suddenly thrust into the IC role, you will discover that it is indeed lonely at the top. You will instantly take possession of the fire along with the responsibilities that go with it. One of the greatest frustrations of command is that, although you are responsible for the operation, you can’t personally accomplish any of the required tasks. An IC cannot supervise from a position inside the building; he will have to delegate tactics. Time seems to slow, and it may feel as though it takes forever to reposition a hoseline, withdraw personnel from a building, or have additional resources arrive at the scene. This is especially true for the four scenarios mentioned above and the added dangers they bring to the table.

Some basic tools can help you function from within the command bubble. First and foremost is communication. Nothing will affect an operation more positively or negatively than your ability to verbalize instructions clearly and calmly. You cannot expect firefighters to function confidently if their leader does not project a sense of direction and control.

This does not mean that you will be unaffected by stress or feel total confidence in what you are doing. A bit of acting may be necessary. You will probably have to make a conscious effort to slow down and simplify your instructions and speech patterns. If necessary, move away from working fire apparatus or other sources of fireground noise to collect your thoughts and formulate a plan of action. This will allow you to immerse yourself in the command bubble while you continue to sift through visual and verbal input and establish a strategy. Walk away from panicky individuals. They will prove to be a major distraction and will inhibit your ability to think clearly.

Command Means Responsibility

Most important, realize that once you assume command, you accept responsibility for the operation. Do not make decisions haphazardly, but do not be afraid to make a decision. You must be willing to “pull the trigger” if your gut feeling within the command bubble tells you to take immediate action. If the result of a decision doesn’t work out the way you expected, you can often reevaluate and adapt it as needed. If you make no decision at all, the situation may spiral out of control.

We often face a version of the “fog of war” in our line of work. We must sometimes make vital decisions quickly, under stress, and while lacking adequate information. We can allow these situations to incapacitate us or we may choose to cling to familiar tactical perspectives and avoid making the difficult strategic decisions that are sometimes necessary. It is certainly a better option to make use of any technique that can guide us when we are being severely tested. The command bubble is a tool that can insulate you from fireground distractions, allow you to maintain an IC’s perspective, and help you make the right call at the right time.

Perhaps the command bubble can be useful in everyday life. The ability to think clearly and separate oneself from the occasional chaos of life is a challenge that we face as firefighters and as human beings. How many road rage incidents could have been avoided had the drivers involved employed a version of the command bubble to better cope with the frustrations of commuter traffic? Could people confronting fires, hurricanes, and other disasters use the technique to choose more informed, appropriate actions instead of responding emotionally? The command bubble is a tool for the fire service and a skill for life.


THOMAS DUNNE is a retired deputy chief and 33-year veteran of the Fire Department of New York. He was the incident commander at hundreds of fires and emergency incidents in mid-Manhattan and the Bronx. Dunne is an adjunct instructor for the National Fire Academy and has contributed to Fire Engineering. He lectures on a variety of fire and safety topics to civilians and firefighters through his Third Alarm Fire Training seminars.

Thomas Dunne will present “Think Like an Incident Commander” at FDIC International in Indianapolis, Tuesday, April 9, 2019, 8:00 a.m.-12:00 p.m.


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