Four Styles of Command
There appears to be four different styles of fireground command presently being used: ridiculous, rigid, rotational and right. Only the last uses any management principles or applies such basic fire fighting concepts as unity of command, span of control or chain of command. Identification and availability of the commander, as well as the necessary communications to run the fireground are often lacking.
The ridiculous form of command is better defined as no command at all; no leadership of the overall situation is shown by any officer on the fireground. Responding units enter into “free enterprise” fire fighting. Each company or sometimes each individual or group does its own thing. There is no coordination, no team effort to control the fire, resulting in companies working against each other. For example, two engines stretching frontal and rear attack lines into an unvented building will usually cause one of the companies to be driven out of the building. Other results include a total lack of truck operations, master streams being directed into structures where an interior attack is being made, and streams placed in ventilation openings. Generally at fires where this ridiculous type of command is operating, there is excessive radio chatter but little real communication.
The rigid style employs unity of command and availability of the commander. There is one person in command who is accessible on the fireground—but this commander suffers from tunnel vision. The commander stays in front of the building and that is the only side of the fire for which there is concern. The rear, sides and interior may need additional resources, but as long as the front looks good, this rigid commander assumes everything is proceeding satisfactorily. The commander may make a single trip around the building, but then assumes entire command and does not delegate to sector commanders. With no real command for the other areas of the fire building, free enterprise again takes over. Losses generally escalate under this rigid system.
In the rotational command, either a single commander constantly circles the building and never establishes a command post, or several chief officers rotate individually around the building. This results in a continual changing of orders to the working companies as the different chiefs come by, seeing the situation differently. There may or may not be unity of command; the commanders are usually moving and unavailable. Also, there is often contradictory communication, constant confusion with companies never knowing what to expect, and little if any coordinated fire extinguishment.
The final style of command is the right command. Currently, there are two methods being used that lead to successful overall fireground command, the fireground commander system and incident command system. Although these two methods use different terminology, they basically employ the same principles. Both systems have a single commander working within span of control limits and delegating through a chain of command. Both systems also have a wellidentified command post with the commander available and ample communication up and down the chain of command to direct the operations.
In the fireground commander system, the fireground commander divides the scene into sectors by operational areas and/or functions. Constant intelligence is fed back to the command post where the commander, assisted by a group of staff officers, can make decisions leading to the control of the situation.
The incident command system (ICS) also divides the scene by working through an operations branch responsible for fire and rescue activities. This branch is broken into divisions, using available resources in groups called strike teams (a leader and five units of the same type), or task forces (a leader and five units of different types. Resources can also be used individually.
The ICS will be coming into widespread use and can be developed to control large-scale, multijurisdictional operations. In this case, ICS would then involve a command section and branches for operations, planning, logistics and finance. An important point about ICS is not to be overwhelmed by the entire system and its size, but to remember that only those portions needed are used at an incident.
Fire departments throughout North America need to study the two right command systems and adopt one for use. The system then must be implemented during training and drills so that it becomes automatic. Proper command can be practiced by using the system at every fire. The honing of command operations on small fires will carry over to large incidents, making management more successful.