Tailboard Discussions: The Role of the Incident Commander

Photo by Tony Greco.

By Paul Luizzi

Scenario: Just after midnight, as you finally settle in for some downtime, the tones go off for a house fire. Engines 1, 2, and 5; Ladder 3; Rescue 1; and Battalions 2 and 5 are assigned to the call. The dispatcher provides further information that the call is now a reported working structure fire with multiple calls confirming fire and smoke from the residential structure. As a chief officer assigned to Battalion 5, you know this area well, and you start reviewing the critical fireground factors which includes the time of day, rescue profiles, type of structure, exposures, strategy, and resources.

As the first companies arrive, the incident seems to go well with good size up by the company officer, confirmation that everyone got out safely, the hydrant being nearby with little delay stretching into the structure, transfer of command, getting a ventilation hole cut, and extinguishment of the fire. As the crews start to begin picking up, it dawns on you that one of the more important parts of the incident still needs to occur: the postincident critique or tailboard discussion.

The tailboard discussion is a critical part of the postincident review or after action report (whichever term you prefer). It provides an opportunity to review the effectiveness of actions and procedures during actual incidents. It is extremely valuable in improving procedures and incident operations. There are certainly several ways to conduct an incident review.

Companies must complete the tailboard discussion before they are released back into service. Allowing the crews to return to quarters usually will create a distance from the incident and allows for crews to possibly forget what really happened. Getting the story at the scene allows everyone to hear the story once and while it is fresh in everyone’s mind. Certainly, there are certainly issues that may require you to release companies as soon as possible. However, typically, a tailboard discussion with experienced crews can take less than 10 minutes.

Companies must accomplish these tailboards on all incidents when there are multiple companies working. However, to build crew integrity and effectiveness, a chance to review after any incident makes for better operations. As the chief officer or incident commander (IC), your role is to listen critically as your crews tell their stories and focus on all the details that are being laid out in front of you. Listen for details which created safe AND unsafe situations during the incident and what was done to correct them if they were unsafe.

Although none of us like surprises, I recommend that you have an initial conversation with all of your work peers and then your company officers to let them know that you will be implementing this program. During this conversation, remind them of the importance of this discussion and how their support of this discussion will make for more effective and efficient firefighting crews. It is also an opportunity to review the overall quality of the services that you are providing to your citizens at the incident.

Last, a review allows for firefighters to better understand the role of all those involved in fireground operations. As a new firefighter, I found these debriefings an opportunity to better understand all of the decision points that the company officer and IC had to work through. This also allowed me to begin to create a file in my head on how to deal with certain types of incidents.

To start, ask your company officers to gather every crew and meet in a safe location, away from as many distractions as possible. As the crews gather for the tailboard, allow all crew members to give their views of the incident. I typically start by asking the first-due company officer what conditions he was presented with on arrival and what actions he took? During this phase, use open-ended questions to allow members who are nervous about speaking in groups the opportunity to provide the necessary information.

I then ask the engineer/driver if he had any issues with continuous water source or pump issues. I then move on to the firefighters to understand their views of the incident as well as the obstacles that they had to overcome stretching into the structure. Next, I talk to the next-arriving company’s other chief officers that were on scene and allow their respective views.

As the IC, I would typically speak last and provide to the assembled group what I saw, how operations looked from my vantage points, and the actions that I was considering in my incident action plan. I look for one or two items to provide some quick teaching points and expectations for my crews. Last, I ask everyone if there are any injuries, remind them to stay hydrated, clean their gear, and if there is anything that we missed from the discussion.

Any operational or training concerns that I have will be addressed individually with the company officers as time allows. Any safety issues as well as the expectations of their resolutions need to be addressed right away and privately with the company officer. Above all else, a safety concern needs to be addressed immediately, even if it means taking the crew out of service until it is resolved.

Following is a good list of operational questions to use, especially if you are new at incident critiques or you need something to add to your list if you already use this process:

  • Describe the conditions of the incident when you arrived.
  • Apparatus positioning.
  • Where the crews in the correct strategy?
  • Critical fireground factors.
  • Describe your actions or assignments:

            o Did you lay a supply line?

            o Size of initial an attack line.

            o If you change attack lines, why and to what size was the line changed?

  • Where did you deploy your attack lines?
  • If you were a sector officer, describe the objectives of your sector.
  • How effective was communications within your sector and with the IC?
  • Identify and describe any unique problems you may have encountered.
  • Describe any events or actions at this incident that assisted you in accomplishing your objectives or tasks.
  • Did anything hinder you in accomplishing your tasks?
  • Did you encounter any safety problems?
  • Did you have any equipment failures?
  • Do you have any recommendations on changes for the future as a result of the incident?

As the IC, it is imperative that you keep the tailboard safe and supportive for the crews. When being supportive, use positive phrases, encouraging tones, functional concepts, and courteous language. This type of communication style helps with anyone that may be having issues with the discussion and puts the overview back into balance.


Paul Luizzi has served in a number of leadership positions for the City of Goodyear, Arizona, including deputy city manager, deputy fire chief, and battalion chief. Luizzi has more than 26 years of fire and EMS experience in public safety organizations in Massachusetts, New Hampshire, and Arizona. He received a designation as a chief fire officer, is a certified public manager, and he has an MBA from Franklin Pierce University and a bachelor’s of science degree in public administration. 

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