Intelligent Response Structures, Part 2

By Eric G. Bachman

For Part 1 of this article, click HERE


Certainly, there are aspects not included in the above example such as rapid intervention and the size and occupancy of the facility. These facets may necessitate increasing the response structure. But at the very least, understanding the methodology and knowing the capabilities creates a benchmark that a CO and IC can compare to the situation found.     

There is no shame in calling for an additional alarm (response structure) when the incident presents cues of potential worsening conditions or for other circumstances such as extreme weather conditions that will quickly exhaust personnel. The shame here would be failing to recognize overwhelming conditions and not calling for help. Fires on higher floors—those impinging on exposures or at venues with peak occupancy—may be cues to request a subsequent alarm even if the fire footprint has not exceeded fire flow calculation.

Offensive fires are typically dependent on staffing. Having adequate fireground staffing facilitates task initiation and completion. Most defensive fires are equipment dependent to deliver voluminous water using unmanned master streams. When an offensive profile fire is understaffed, it typically becomes a defensive fire. Emergency service effectiveness is achieved when the problem is overwhelmed, not vice versa.     



It is crucial to train COs and potential ICs on the response structure methodology. If the CO or IC is not presented the science of the response structure methodology, he may not effectively manage the “art” of strategy and tactics initiation (photo 4), with the art being early recognition of overwhelming conditions and calling for subsequent response structures.

(4) Company officers conduct a resource capabilities tabletop exercise on a target hazard.


Internal response structure training coupled with other programs such as building construction, extreme fire behavior, and reading smoke will enhance the CO and IC cognitive cues. Supporting tabletop and functional exercises centered on specific district facilities may enrich the COs and potential ICs early recognition of overwhelmed resources against the organizations response structure. 



The benefit of conducting a postincident analysis is to highlight what went right, identify what could have gone better, and develop and implement corrective actions. Too often, this is not performed. Uncorrected actions or inactions will only result in similarly (photo 5).

(5) Fire officials analyze and discuss water supply demands for a rural target hazard using maps to identify static water supplies from which to draft.


From a response structure perspective, postincident review on the effectiveness (overwhelming the incident) is necessary to identify resource shortfalls. This is not to say that after every fire which resulted in defensive actions needs the entire response structure reformed to encompass an absurd amount of resources early. But, it should be a time to refine certain capabilities that may have been overlooked or not accounted for.

Sometimes, however, there are recurring oversights that foster déjà vu incidents. The lack of response structure training, postincident analysis, and unimplemented corrective actions becomes ever-so apparent in certain organizations. Take, for example, a rural community with many agricultural venues and no water infrastructure. In a span of four months, the local volunteer fire department was dispatched to three working barn fires. Each resulted in total destruction. Although the construction, fire load, and disposition certainly were factors, the response structure was not modified after any instance. The first alarm included four engines and two mobile water tenders. For the first fire, the IC requested three additional mobile water tenders after observing a smoke column while enroute three miles away. After arrival, he called for a second alarm, which only brought four mobile water tenders. All units responded directly to the scene to extinguish the fire. Late in the incident, the IC realized no engines were directed to establish a fill site to refill the mobile water tenders. This created a delay in refilling tenders.

A couple weeks later, the department was dispatched to another barn fire, and with the same IC. This time, after the first alarm, the IC requested five mobile water tenders. A second alarm was called a short time later, which again brought four mobile water tenders. Again, no engines were directed to establish a draft/tender fill site, and refilling the tenders was delayed.

And yet, a few weeks later—déjà vu.  After each incident, no postincident analysis was conducted, which could have resulted in modifying the first alarm to bring more mobile water tenders and having engine companies on the second alarm to support rural water supply.    



Related to response structure apparatus is personnel resources. This is important from many standpoints including accountability (photo 6). For the initial and developing incident, the IC may not have the ability to expand supervisory staff. All of the responsibilities fall on the IC. Dispatch centers typically can track the units dispatched to an incident. Some may capture apparatus staffing, which can be communicated to the IC. In other incidents, it is a haphazard practice if the responding unit advises the communication center of staffing.

(6) A modified white board can be posted quickly for ICS staff to track resources.


In a career department, each unit may have specific staffing levels, and the shift commander knows how many personnel are available and working. In a volunteer setting, that is not the case. An engine may be coming with a driver only or six crew members.



Developing a standard practice of capturing apparatus staffing, especially in a volunteer setting, is important for safety, incident management, and accountability. My county is comprised of 70 independent fire departments including one career and one combination department. Response structure compliments vary across the county. Recommended in the countywide incident command system standard operating guideline (ISC SOG) is that responding units announce staffing. Some companies comply and announce staffing, which the dispatcher usually captures in a narrative field in the call log and communicated to the IC. Some companies do not provide staffing, or they provide vague staffing reports. A report of “responding with a full crew” is vague as it is not specific. Is the unit fitted with riding positions for four or 10 personnel? Others report “responding understaffed.” This, too, is vague. The ICS SOG does not establish the minimum staffing level to know what “understaffed” means (it is one or three personnel).

Usually, apparatus announce staffing such as “Engine 4 responding with four.” But, just as important as knowing how many personnel are on board is understanding their capabilities, especially in the volunteer fire service. The volunteer fire service relies on many individual dispositions for its operations. Personnel may be trained to National Standard Firefighter standards and can engage in aggressive interior operations. However, some personnel roles, may be limited such as a driver only who does not engage in interior operations but is a superb apparatus operator.

Junior firefighters, ages 14-17, are subject to the limitations of child labor laws, but they can perform important exterior support roles. Announced staffing is important to the IC, and his expectations of an engine are specific. An engine reporting a staff of five but arrives with a driver, two juniors, and two interior firefighters influences the effectiveness of the engine and the fireground tasks that can be effectively initiated.

Some staffing announcements are misleading. One department may not include the driver in its final number, i.e., when they respond with five, there are actually six personnel in the unit. Another company may combine staffing, i.e., one unit reports staffing of all responding units such as Engine 6, Truck 6, and Squad 6 with 12. Per unit staffing distribution, however, is necessary so that the IC can effectively assign units. One department may expand its staffing report with two numbers, i.e, “Engine 8 responding with four and one.”  The first number represents the staff that can engage in interior operations and the second number represents the exterior support staff such as a driver-only or junior firefighter. Previously, this company did not include juniors in the staffing, which can be an accountability issue if the unit is involved in an accident.

COs and potential ICs need to be able to capture concise apparatus and staffing numbers for more effective incident management, accountability, and safety. Whether your department develops its own incident management documentation (photo 7), relies on communication center references, or uses ICS forms, ensure he is capable of knowing staffing to understand the capabilities of the response structure.

(7) Incident command worksheet developed for local application and resources is an critical ICS tool.


Response structures are a critical piece to the incident preparedness, response, and survival puzzle. Haphazard resource response strategies lead to unfavorable outcomes. Trained-on, methodically structured response practices will not magically make problems go away. However, it will provide benchmarks for the IC to evaluate the incident needs to the response structure capability and make prudent upgrade. This will allow an IC to more effectively use resources and improve responder safety. When contemplating your fire department’s response structures, ask yourself, What can I reasonably expect to accomplish? 


Eric G. Bachman, CFPS, is a 32-year fire service and a former chief of the Eden Volunteer Fire/Rescue Department in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania. He is the hazardous materials administrator for the County of Lancaster Emergency Management Agency and serves on the Local Emergency Planning Committee of Lancaster County. He is registered with the National Board on Fire Service Professional Qualifications as a fire officer IV, fire instructor III, hazardous materials technician, and hazardous materials incident commander. He has an associate degree in fire science and earned professional certification in emergency management through the state of Pennsylvania. He is also a volunteer firefighter with the West Hempfield (PA) Fire & Rescue Company.

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