By Bobby Halton
The fire service is always looking introspectively at practices and tactics and constantly reviewing and revising what we do tactically on the fireground. This is one of our strongest traits. To be effective, we must have that constant drive for improvement. The absolute worst thing that could ever happen to the fire service is to become complacent and satisfied with the level of service or the level of safety we currently enjoy. Currently, there is an interesting discussion on how we need to establish command/direction on the fireground.
With the advent of the incident command system, we began to place more and more responsibility on the first-arriving company officer. The concept of a strong, single, focused point of command was established and widely accepted. Prior to that time, the fireground was largely run based on first-due preestablished responsibilities and preestablished tasks and tactics, which were determined based on the type of apparatus and equipment that particular unit carried.
This preestablished deployment system was developed largely out of necessity, as radios were not widely available and much of the communication on the fireground occurred face to face. Fire departments would regularly review with their members the various types of target hazards that they had in their communities and then determine how the resources that they had locally should respond if there were a fire in that particular occupancy. There would be specific duties for each unit to perform given a fairly general set of arrival circumstances.
For example, the first-due engine on a single-story, 1,800-square-foot residential home would most often be assigned to locate and begin extinguishment on the seat of the fire. That first-due assignment would be predicated on the fact that the fire was one on which the engine company could advance safely and proactively. There would be a different set of tasks if the first-arriving company discovered a large defensive fire—tasks such as establishing a water supply, applying master streams, and deploying two-inch handlines.
Subsequent-arriving units would have other predetermined responsibilities such as establishing ventilation, establishing a water supply if the first due failed to do so (which was generally frowned on), performing search, and effecting rescue when necessary. Command was generally established by the first-arriving chief officer. This arrival was determined by many factors, including the type of organization and the chief officer’s availability.
Many departments have kept much of this preestablished assignment system intact and have incorporated it into their adoption of the National Incident Management System (NIMS). This approach seems to be having good success in those organizations that understand and appreciate the advantages of using NIMS along with maintaining well-established incident response procedures. The preestablished assignment system generally requires only the first-due company officer to determine the initial tactical approach or tactical solution to the event.
This is accomplished by the officer’s announcing his arrival on-scene, describing the event in a size-up, and declaring the company’s immediate tactical objective and any support that may be required. The officer then assumes the responsibility for the company’s preassigned tactical objectives and remains with the crew to perform and report on the tasks needed to be accomplished to achieve those tactical objectives.
Other departments have decided to discontinue using preestablished assignments and have adopted a system that places the first-due company officer in immediate command of the entire event and requires him to specifically assign all subsequent-arriving companies. There is debate currently among the departments that have adopted this position as to whether or not the first-due company officer, after assuming command, should remain with the crew in a mobile command position or should remain in a stationary command location and direct the subsequent-arriving units from that location while his crew deploys without him.
Firefighters and company officers in particular are faced with a wide variety of decisions to make on the fireground and at other emergencies. These decisions range in scope and consequence based on the incident. There are three factors in every event over which we have little or no control: the size of the fire or type of incident, the size of the building or the size of the incident, and our level of experience. Much has been said about how much experience matters, but we know experience alone is not enough in high-stress extremely dynamic and threatening situations.
Although every community has its local needs, it is my belief, based on how officers make decisions under stress, that the preassigned deployment method that incorporates NIMS has clear advantages. First, I believe it’s absolutely critical that the company officer—generally, the most experienced member—remain with his crew at all times. If the officer believes he needs to remain outside to give specific directions to the subsequent-arriving units, then his company should remain with him until they can be attached to a subsequent-arriving officer. The second advantage is that the first-alarm company officers all have a stake in the management and resolution of the event; they all have a responsibility to support one another and to communicate in an effective and a proactive way.
We must continue in our national directives and best practice documents to allow the authorities having jurisdiction to decide locally how the functions of command and NIMS are applied. NIMS is scalable and flexible; its principles and foundations are now so widely understood that it can easily account for regional nuances. We are a profession of thinking firefighters, and we will continue to investigate how we best deploy locally forever.