By ANTHONY KASTROS and KILEY KEELEY
Over the past several years, we have explored command and the use of the incident command system (ICS) for structure fires in several articles. With the advent of Mastering Fireground Command—Calming the Chaos workshops and other programs such as Blue Card, the American fire service is paying closer attention to structural fire command. That said, there is still much work to be done, and we suspect there always will be. This article focuses on the rapid application of ICS for structure fires in a way that makes your incidents more safe, effective, efficient, and quick.
Unfortunately, many still believe ICS is not necessary or just too complicated to apply in a simple fashion to structure fires, especially house fires. Nothing could be further from the truth. As usual, it comes down to a few common problems: ego, ignorance, resistance to change, and a lack of training.
It seems that as we progress up the ranks, some of us build bad habits, which then become embedded practices that may not be BEST practices. Most new battalion chiefs (BCs) are thrown the keys to the department (like it was an SUV) and are told, “Good luck.” If we put a new BC in an SUV where he is suddenly thrust into a lonely world of driving code 3, looking up response routes on a smartphone app, talking over the radio on multiple channels to dispatch and responding companies, and managing the mobile data computer, he may revert to “survival mode” and form bad habits by merely trying NOT to crash at intersections while breaking every driving rule in the book.
In our system, a BC is placed at a 15:1 span-of-control ratio while responding to a house fire; this includes four engines, two trucks (that often split into two two-person crews), one medic unit, another chief, a dispatch channel, a tactical channel, a mobile data computer, maps, and driving code 3. At last check, the ideal is a 5:1 span-of-control, while the military now espouses 3:1 as being more realistic. Our new BC is now operating at three to five times the “ideal” span of control while driving code 3, trying not to get in a wreck at each intersection. Recently, two of our department’s senior chiefs wrecked at intersections six months apart. They were highly skilled, experienced, and intelligent officers. It could happen to any of us.
When you combine this ratio with a lack of ICS/fireground command training, this new BC is now vulnerable to building bad habits out of sheer survival instinct. When training captains try to promote to BC, we often put them behind the wheel of the BC “buggy” and practice incident response with simulated companies on the training channel. They regularly turn the wrong way or release the gas pedal when keying the radio mic, respond to the wrong companies on the radio, lose track of resources, and miss vital updates from companies on scene. This is not their fault; that’s why we train. These experienced, capable company officers are suddenly thrown into a new environment.
Unfortunately, most agencies do not give their officers—especially chief officers—any realistic command training that is commensurate with the job. Hence, the new BC is thrust into a very demanding environment with little to no training, resulting in bad habits that he may even pass on to the next BC in line. The cycle continues.
As a result, ICS is either not considered, overlooked, not trained on, or simply discarded as not being necessary. Good luck reinforces bad habits, and incident commanders (ICs) get by without ever realizing the lack of accountability, poor communications, or inadequate risk management that is truly present at their fires. They simply don’t know what they don’t know and, combined with luck, become embedded in practices that go against proven principles and best practices of incident command.
Preparing the Incident Commander
In previous articles, we have discussed the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health five factors (NIOSH 5) that cause line-of-duty deaths (LODDs) at structure fires. They are inadequate or improper (1) risk assessment, (2) accountability, (3) communications, (4) incident command, and (5) standard operating procedures.
Not only do these factors contribute to LODDs, but they also are present in most near misses, close calls, significant injuries, and loss of civilian lives. Quite simply, the NIOSH 5 is the list of what is dysfunctional at structure fires and can cause injuries or worse to us and to the citizens we serve.
An IC sitting at the incident command post (ICP) will be overwhelmed quickly when all companies report to him on one radio frequency. When an IC is beyond his span of control, it shows; his voice may go up an octave. How can the IC account for the location and status of crews through a radio? How often have you heard garbled radio transmissions—with feedback—through a self-contained breathing apparatus (SCBA)? The IC often says, “Repeat,” and the same garbled message is sent. Often, the IC succumbs with a simple “copy” or “still unreadable” to the officer.
Recently, at a commercial fire, an engine company officer attempted to transmit a message to the IC. The IC asked the officer to repeat. The same garbled message through an SCBA mask was transmitted. The IC’s response was bone chilling: “I can’t hear you, but at least you are talking, so that means you are alive, and that’s good enough for now.” At least the IC was honest instead of giving a simple “copy” in hopes of sounding effective.
So, how can the IC see conditions at the rear or opposite side of the building? Even if the first officer did a 360° size-up, conditions are changing. The IC cannot possibly see this without the proper tactical support. How do we apply ICS rapidly and easily to quickly prevent the NIOSH 5 factors from aligning? Another way to ask the question is, how does ICS improve risk assessment, coordinated tactics, communication, and accountability on our fires while helping us stay ahead of the incident?
First, we must train our company officers in the role of division/group supervisor. This role is vital to the incident and bridges the tactical gap between the task-level companies on the end of the hose or searching in the smoke and the IC out in the BC buggy.
When a company officer is assigned a division or group, he has three options with his crew: a non-immediately dangerous to life or health assignment (exposure line, pumping an engine, and so on), assign it to another company officer, or assist with the division/group assignment (two-in/two-out, door control, and so on). Simply, division/group supervisors are the eyes and ears for the IC and the “guardian angel” for the companies in the firefight.
The division/group supervisor’s job is to keep the NIOSH 5 from coming into alignment. But how does he do it? With the quantity of equipment on scene, smoke, night, long driveways, poor weather, or any myriad of scenarios, the IC is often unable to see the structure that is on fire. In addition, if the fire is in a more complex structure such as a center hallway apartment, a big box store, or a strip mall, it is even more imperative to develop depth for your ICS structure.
Remember your last fire? If you talked about it afterward, we’d guess that communications were an issue. During any fire, you need to relay a lot of information including conditions, actions, and needs (CAN) reports; the truck that’s coordinating ventilation with the engine crews; the location of a victim; or even emergency traffic and Maydays. How many times have you keyed the mic only to hear another person’s voice or the empty carrier tone because the channel is busy?
Crews and the IC are bombarded with radio traffic, and we need to embrace the process that will reduce radio traffic, provide for a higher level of accountability, and help the IC to conduct his ongoing risk assessment; this is where division/group supervisors come in. Remember, divisions and groups are on the same plane in ICS—one does not report to the other. The division is a geographical designation such as A, B, C, and so on for the side around a fire or 1, 2, 3, and so on by floor. The group, such as a search or vent group, is functional.
Establishing divisions/groups early quickly breaks the incident down into tactical locations/objectives that are better managed by an officer in the proper location, closer than the IC’s position. This also instantly reduces span of control, thus reducing radio traffic and improving communications by creating more face-to-face contact between the tactical boss and his companies. The division/group supervisor has an eyes-on/hands-on level of active accountability rather than an IC who is disconnected, relying on a tactical worksheet and radio only.
The IC needs to pass along critical information to the division/group supervisor, and that supervisor needs to exhibit certain behaviors to be successful. All of the success comes during the drill hours on this subject, preparing your company officers or neighboring BCs on what their expectations should be when given a division or a group.
Acronyms are an important aspect of the fire service. They help us to remember vast amounts of information in short words or phrases. The acronym we will introduce here is BROHAM:
This acronym helps the IC and the division/group supervisor remember the critical information and behaviors they need to exhibit. Every time we teach BROHAM to our captains, they chuckle; more importantly, they remember it! As you can see, the first three letters represent required pieces of information that need to be shared with the tactical supervisor. The final three letters are the behaviors or traits of the tactical supervisor.
Following is this process as it pertained to a fire to which our department responded where Chief Kastros was designated as the IC while then-Captain Keeley was given Division A. When Keeley was still a captain, we spent countless hours training on setting up divisions/groups and rapidly creating tactical supervision to keep the NIOSH 5 from aligning.
A residential structure fire was dispatched. The assignment included four engines, two trucks, one medic unit (fire-based ambulance), and two BCs. The day was rainy with strong winds of at least 20 miles per hour (mph), gusting to about 35 mph.
On arrival of the first engine, the captain reported light smoke from the roof and that they were initiating fire attack (photo 1). He passed command but reported that they were on a long, rural driveway and that water supply would be problematic. He asked for a tank transfer from the second-due engine, giving him 1,500 gallons of water right off the bat. The house was a single-story ranch-style home that had been remodeled over the years. The crews saw it had a concrete tile roof, but they did not see the older roof underneath the tile. This provided significant difficulty for the hose crews to locate the fire in the attic, which delayed extinguishment.
Three engine companies and one truck company were working the interior on fire attack, search, and salvage. In addition, another truck company was on the roof performing vertical ventilation while the fourth engine was laying out to the hydrant about 1,000 feet away. The medic was on scene in case we found a victim or had an injury to a firefighter. The fire then grew (photo 2), which should ALWAYS be expected until final extinguishment.
Boundaries. At this incident, radio traffic was elevated because of the engine company’s difficulty in locating the fire. Multiple crews worked in the same space, necessitating a division. Despite the efforts of the crews on scene, the fire continued to build. Kastros gave Keeley “boundaries”—the front and interior of the structure—and retained the truck on the roof as well as the medical and water supply. Kastros also ordered two more engines and another truck because of the increasing complexity presented by the weather and building construction.
Resources. These are the companies assigned to the division/group. At this incident, Division A’s resources down the chain were Engine 101, Engine 42, Engine 110, and Truck 23. Laterally, Keeley coordinated ventilation with Truck 106, which was on the roof. In very complex incidents, such as large wildland fires, you may not be reporting to the IC but rather to a branch.
Objectives. The objectives were to ensure that a primary search was completed, locate and extinguish the fire, begin a secondary search, and conduct salvage. As the division supervisor, Keeley needed to prioritize those objectives according to the incident priorities and the incident’s current strategy as set forth by the IC (Kastros). The division supervisors then need to relay those objectives to the crews already working so everyone’s efforts are in coordination.
Hostile. By “hostile,” we mean taking hostile ownership of the space or having a strong command presence. Although we are often saturated with tasks and distracting noises at structure fires, we must make sure crews know who their boss is. On most occasions, this communication is done face-to-face. Crews will often still be reporting to command on the radio because they did not hear that a division was created. This is where you (as the division) insert yourself directly and tell them to report to you. The by-products of this face-to-face method of communication are plenty. Accountability, reduction in confusing orders, a firsthand understanding of what challenges crews are facing, and a significant reduction in radio traffic are some of those by-products. For example, crews and the IC may not see a deteriorating roof condition, but the tactical supervisor will.
Agile. This refers to mental agility, not the ability to navigate an obstacle course (although a structure fire can certainly be a mental and physical obstacle course). This is often the most challenging aspect when training company officers. As engine captains, we are often right alongside our crews in the moment—dragging hose, pulling ceiling, or sounding a roof. Developing your tactical and mental agility to think into the “next,” the “then,” and the “what if” all takes practice and experience. At this fire, Keeley was challenged to look into the “next” (second hoseline, secondary search, door control), which is the tactical mindset, while Kastros was in the mentally strategic mindsets of the “then” (salvage, additional companies, investigations, boarding up) and the “what if” (victim, firefighter down, collapse, shift to defensive). Keeley had to remain tactical and fight the urge to “help out” by becoming task oriented.
This need was highlighted when we had a dramatic change in interior conditions (photo 3). Smoke density increased dramatically, so Division A ordered a door to be closed to eliminate a flow path that had become established from the wind pushing fire and smoke from the attic down into the structure. Without the division supervisor’s eyes on the interior, the IC may never know if conditions change (you can’t see much from the ICP). Also, crew members often cannot see their hands in front of their faces or deteriorating roof conditions. If crews could relay this dramatic change, the IC may order a change in strategy and go defensive to protect the lives of the firefighters on scene. In this case, all it took was a division supervisor who remained tactical, who recognized the change in conditions and reduced the risk by closing a door.
Another aspect of mental agility is ordering more companies from command. Thinking into the “next,” working crews that may start running low on air would need to be replaced. Putting that on the IC’s plate in a timely manner aids in the success of the incident.
Mobile. This is necessary for the success of a division/group supervisor. When given Division A, Keeley did not simply stand at the front door of the house; he was inside talking to captains, making sure we were all on the same page and asking them what they needed. Keeley also performed multiple laps of the structure and monitored the effects of vertical ventilation, the wind, and the construction, seeing the work yet to be completed. He also went to the ICP to speak directly to Kastros to give him a good situational update once things turned the corner.
ICS works, and works extremely well. The key is to train company and chief officers on the NIOSH 5, the benefits of tactical supervision on structure fires, and the need to identify key information and attributes of the division/group tactical supervisor. By using the acronym BROHAM, you can easily relay the boundaries, resources, and objectives assigned to the supervisor. And, the supervisor must be trained in remaining highly hostile, highly agile, and highly mobile.
Recently, we had a small, 1,200-square-foot house fire that resulted in a Mayday. Radio traffic was clogged until we established divisions. Once divisions were in place, radio traffic was reduced significantly. Then, the Mayday was heard by a division supervisor; it may not have been clearly transmitted if the tactical channel was overloaded.
Never take for granted that house fires are “routine” and “don’t need ICS” because of the size of the structure or regular nature of these fires. There are no more bread-and-butter fires; we must rethink command and the use of ICS on a regular basis.
ANTHONY KASTROS is a 32-year fire service veteran and a battalion chief for Sacramento Metro (CA) Fire. He is also the author of the Fire Engineering DVD series Mastering Fireground Command—Calming the Chaos, Mastering Unified Command—From Hometown to Homeland, and the book Mastering the Fire Service Assessment Center. He was the FDIC International 2013 keynote speaker and teaches command, tactics, and leadership across America.
KILEY KEELEY is a 24-year fire service veteran and a battalion chief for Sacramento Metro (CA) Fire (SMF). He mentors and instructs others as a hazmat specialist and a paramedic and was a truck company captain working on ladder companies and the heavy rescue company. Keeley has been a paramedic preceptor and was the drill master for SMF’s Single Role Paramedic Academy. He is a lead instructor in the Professional Development Program and a subject-matter expert on the company officer program with SMF.