The Essence of Command


The incident management system (IMS) is as much an attitude as it is a management tool. When I was a young man, my father tried to teach me the game of golf. At that age, a young man learns many lessons from his father. In those days, cutoff blue jeans were the fashion trend for young adults. My father wouldn’t even let me practice in cutoff blue jeans. He’d say, “You have to look important to feel important!” He would go on to say, “You never see Jack Nicklaus or Arnold Palmer in a pair of shorts, playing golf.” Just as golf is a game of attitude as much as a game of skill, running an emergency incident is as much an attitude as it is a skill.

The IMS is built on focus. It is the incident commander’s (IC’s) responsibility to focus on the entire incident. Division and group officers then need to focus on their specific assignments. If everybody focuses on their individual tasks, all the tasks get done and the bigger picture is accomplished. As an IC, my job is to stand out front or wherever I can get the best view of the incident and get an overview of the entire scene. It’s best if you develop your own “pose” while running an incident. What I mean by pose is a way of standing or slightly pacing in front of the fire scene that allows you to maintain a focus on what is in front of you. In my case, I stood in front of a fire with my hands crossed across my fire coat with one arm somewhere near my chin or mouth. One of my goals at every fire was to try to stay in that “pose” throughout the majority of the incident. If I could do this, then there was a much better chance that I was in control of the fire as opposed to the fire’s being in control of me. I also believe that it instills confidence in the troops. Who would you rather have run your fire, a chief who is running all over the place or a chief who is calmly focusing on the fire?


I’ve heard a lot of speakers and read several articles that discuss command presence. Command presence is pretty much an attitude. This attitude is directly related to the situation, one’s knowledge and experience, as well as specific personality traits.

(1) Command presence is how you portray yourself at incidents. (Photos by Martin Grube.)
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The key to command presence is an attitude that allows you to run the fire and not let the fire run you. This is not to say that you can’t get excited, anxious, frustrated, or mad or experience a wide range of other emotions while running a fire. The key is being able to control these emotions. I believe that this is as much a learned trait as performing a perfect golf swing or riding a bike.

Here are a few tips for creating and maintaining a command presence throughout routine and stressful fires:

• Assume your pose. When firefighters on the scene saw me standing at a fire with my arms crossed and one hand somewhere around my mouth, I believe that they felt confident that I was in control of the situation. The converse is also true. They also knew that something was wrong if they were to see me, for whatever reason, pacing pensively or, worse yet, running at a fire. Their confidence in me, the situation, and perhaps themselves would be in doubt. That’s not a good thing.

• Listen more than you talk. Anyone who knows me knows that I was not shy about talking over the radio. If something had to be said, I certainly was not afraid to say it. My job as an IC was to gain as much information concerning the incident as I could in the shortest possible time. You can do that in several ways. One is by listening to the radio and knowing your people. If Captain Jaksetic started yelling in his face piece at the fire, I knew something was wrong. Listen to communications between officers and crew members as well as you listen to conversations from your dispatch center.

• Bunker up. I’m not going to start the debate concerning the location of command posts. I don’t care if you sit in your car. I don’t care if you stand outside, with slightly less favorable lighting and communication in the frigid cold. It’s your job! If you do choose, however, to stand outside and run your fire, then bunker up. Every leader needs to lead by example. I understand the temptation of sticking your head in, walking in between buildings, and going in other areas in the warm and hot zones. Be prepared, bunker up, and lead by example.

(2) Bunker up! Do as you say. If you require your crews to use it, you use it. Lead by example.
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• Communicate. I don’t care if you yell over the radio, but yell all the time. If you’re a “low talker,” be a low talker all the time. Be consistent! Firefighters crawling down the hall of a fire don’t want to hear a chief who normally talks quietly start yelling at a fire. Nor do they want to hear a chief who usually yells to start to whisper and mumble at a fire. Consistency is the key. It’s okay to raise your voice, but get back to your own normal speaking level as soon as possible.

• Make your own decisions. I know chief officers that let company officers run their fire for them. Some solicit advice from group or division officers and then act on that advice without weighing any other factors. These company officers are so familiar with the way these chiefs work that they now provide advice unsolicited. Please don’t get me wrong here. I asked a lot of questions at fires. “What’s it looking like in there? Are you working your way toward the fire? Did you find it yet?” In the end, though, you need to make your own decisions. When you’re ready to make your own decisions, you can be influenced by group and division officers, feedback, and comments and conversations. You must always remember, however, that you will be responsible for your decisions, so make them your decisions.


I realize that this text is directed at mostly single-family residential structure fires. The huge command staff is not normally needed or advisable at these incidents. I have come to the realization that even at the most mundane fires, two chiefs work better than one. There is an interesting trend happening across the United States. Some of the larger, busier departments in the country are sending two or more chiefs to working fires. The more I think about this, the more I believe it is essential. Two chiefs create a think tank. It doesn’t matter if one takes command and the other is assigned to side C or if both operate at the command post. Four eyes, four ears, and two brains are better than two eyes, two ears, and one brain.

Things almost always run more smoothly with two chiefs running the fire, even if one chief is very experienced and a great chief and the other is a poor strategic or tactical chief with very little experience. One can help, prod, and mentor the other. As a side note, stop complaining about people you consider poor strategic or tactical chiefs and start to work with them to build their abilities and confidence. It’s our own fault, as administrators, if we have chiefs who are poor on the fireground.

As relates to this text, I still advocate the use of two chiefs running a single-family house fire whenever possible. Things almost always go more smoothly when two chiefs are on-scene working together. As the initial IC runs the fire, the second chief, once on-scene, can do a 360° evaluation of the building, talk to witnesses and owners, make specific (nonfire-related) requests to dispatch on a different fire frequency, and perform a host of other tasks, which allows the initial IC to do one thing—focus on the fire.

In some departments, one chief goes in and does origin and cause while the other chief concentrates on overhaul and demobilization. They then switch places and compare notes to see if they have identified the same origin and cause. If they both come up with the same origin and cause, they can rest assured that they probably have it pinpointed.

(3) An operations chief is normally not required for a house fire.
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Routine house fires normally do not require an IC and an operations chief. Under most conditions, in a room-and-contents fire, one chief can handle command and the operations sections simultaneously. I have been to many single-family residential structure fires in my career where an operations chief was a godsend. These fires are normally in large buildings with fire on several floors in several areas and heavy heat and smoke conditions throughout the structure, with life-safety issues for civilians and firefighters a concern. Most of us can picture this type of fire. It is truly a blessing at these fires to pass off to the operations chief the responsibilities of supervising divisions and groups and ensuring that the objectives of the incident are being met, while the IC takes care of other aspects of the incident, including addressing the victims’ needs, ensuring that the utilities to the structure are secure, providing canteen service for the crews on-scene, addressing the media, and so on. While the IC tends to all of this, the operations chief can, in essence, run the fire. How much easier can it get?

The ability to grab another chief officer or company officer to fill the role of operations chief depends on the size of the fire and the number of crews and firefighters on the scene. Unless it is a procedure, it may not be prudent in most circumstances to grab the first-in officer for your operations chief once you arrive at the fire. Having an operations chief is a luxury to most ICs unless it is a procedure that two chiefs respond on every fire. If your procedures do not dictate the response of the second chief officer, consider special-calling for an additional chief when the need arises. I suggest, however, that you think very carefully about pulling a company officer from the crew initially at a fire to give you an operations section chief. What you gain may not be worth the loss to the crew.


An IC’s job is to direct and lead crews in emergency situations. The job is not to micromanage company officers. Once the IC gives assignments (or they are set by procedure), the IC should let the company officer do his task. That is not to say that if I assign a crew attack and I envision the crew pulling a 2½-inch line, but it is grabbing the 1¾-inch preconnect, that I shouldn’t stop them and tell them to grab a bigger line. Much in the same way, if you tell the ladder crew to vent the building, and positive-pressure ventilation (PPV) is all that is required but you see them approach a house with a 28-foot ladder and a chain saw in their hands, you should tell the firefighter to drop the ladder and get the fan.

All officers should be trained to about the same level in the department. There should be no doubt in any chief officer’s mind as to the tactical evolutions that will be conducted once an assignment is made. If you assign a crew to attack, once they enter that building and disappear in the smoke, you should have a good understanding of exactly which evolutions will be conducted inside the structure. The only way to know what is being done by crews is to drill together and conduct tailboard critiques immediately after the fire is darkened down. The IC should ask questions as to what, how, and when specific tasks were done. If the answers weren’t in the IC’s game plan, he should take corrective action immediately (not in the form of discipline) to ensure that there is no misunderstanding as to what he will expect at the next fire. How else are the crews going to know? And how else are you going to know what they’re doing inside once they disappear into the smoke? A structure fire is no place to make assumptions concerning the actions of your crews. That’s how people get killed. The only way to know exactly what they’re doing in there is to train them before the fire and then ask them after the fire, so you can make sure that the training matched their actions.

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To direct without interfering, train, train often, train all on the same items, update all firefighters on new changes, and then train some more. Conduct tailboard critiques. Ask the firefighters what they did, how, and when. If it doesn’t match what you would have done or what procedure dictates, correct it immediately. Repeat these steps.

JOHN “SKIP” COLEMAN retired as assistant chief from the Toledo (OH) Department of Fire and Rescue. He is a technical editor of Fire Engineering, a member of the FDIC Educational Advisory Board, and author of Incident Management for the Street-Smart Fire Officer (Fire Engineering, 1997), Managing Major Fires (Fire Engineering, 2000), and Incident Management for the Street-Smart Fire Officer, Second Edition (Fire Engineering, May 2008).

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