THE SECTOR OFFICER: THE “WORKHORSE” OF COMMAND

BY GARY P. MORRIS

The importance of an incident management (command) system to the efficiency of emergency incident operations has been well demonstrated. Much has been written about the command organization and the incident commander. Little has been written about the sector officer-the workhorse of the organization.

Sector officers are those persons the incident commander assigns to organizational positions with the responsibility of getting things done. They are assigned geographical or functional responsibilities at the scene and supervise companies assigned to them. In a sense, the sector officer becomes the “mini” commander of all resources assigned to the sector.

A REVIEW OF SOME BASICS

Let’s first step back and review some basics that allow the sector officer to be effective. Most important is the mandate that the incident management system (IMS) be implemented at all emergency incidents. The first-arriving fire department member or company officer must assume command. An appropriate size-up should immediately follow to develop an initial action plan. The incident commander should assign other arriving companies to various positions and tasks based on the action plan and related tactical priorities.

When a chief officer arrives, command responsibilities should be transferred. This transfer should involve direct contact with the current incident commander (IC) (face-to-face preferred) or by radio. A detailed briefing on the action plan, companies’ assignments and their locations, the organization developed, and other critical information must be communicated. The chief officer will be in a position to assume command only after he receives this information. Repeat this process if additional “senior” chief officers choose to assume command.

A key element to the effective organizational design is using sectors to divide up the incident scene. As such, the first company assigned to a geographic or functional position should be assigned a sector responsibility. This early sector responsibility is essential to effective command organization operations. It will be impossible to “catch up” with organizational development if a fire department waits for additional chief officers to arrive on the scene before sectors are implemented.

Placing a sector responsibility on the first company officer ensures that the tactical tasks and organizational needs are addressed from the outset. Sector officers become the IC’s eyes and ears, feeding the IC critical information on the situation and resource needs from various parts of the incident while supervising resources assigned to the sector. These needs simply cannot wait for a chief officer to arrive and be assigned a sector responsibility.

When assigning sectors, the IC must provide sector officers with tactical objectives based on the size-up and action plan. Also included would be the radio designation for the sector and any resources that will be assigned to that sector. For the company officer and crew about to be assigned to protect the east exposure at a strip mall, the following types of objectives would be communicated:

  • Lay a supply line, position one occupancy east.
  • Take an attack line into the east exposure.
  • Pull the ceiling to check for fire.
  • Stop the fire from spreading eastward.
  • You are assigned the East Sector.
  • Ladder 2 will be assigned to you to provide ventilation.

THE SECTOR OFFICER’S RESPONSIBILITIES

As a subordinate officer to the IC, the sector officer is responsible for the functions listed below. These are “generic” in nature, in that they apply to all the various sectors that may be assigned. Some sectors, however, may be so specific in their responsibilities that a preexisting dedicated standard operating procedure (SOP) should be used. For example, a Decontamination Sector would have many additional responsibilities specific to the decon function that would have to be integrated with the generic functions listed below:

  • Complete objectives assigned by the IC.
  • Account for all personnel assigned to the sector.
  • Ensure that operations are conducted safely.
  • Monitor and supervise work progress within the assigned sector.
  • Redirect activities as needed to achieve progress and goals.
  • Coordinate activities with other sectors.
  • Monitor the health and welfare of assigned personnel.
  • Assess sector needs, and request additional resources as needed.
  • Provide command with frequent and essential progress reports.
  • Reallocate and release resources within the sector as needed, and decommit.

COMPLETING OBJECTIVES

As previously noted, the IC is responsible for establishing the strategy, incident goals, and action plan for the incident. These are further broken down into specific objectives communicated to the sector officer.

The sector officer is responsible for completing tactical objectives specific to the sector. They all lead to the overall goal of mitigating the emergency. The East Sector example, cited above, has several initial objectives assigned. Eventually, these objectives will be accomplished, and the IC will develop others (preferably jointly with the sector officer) as progress reports and other information are exchanged.

The sector officer converts these objectives into specific tasks to be completed by fire companies assigned to the sector. Objectives keep the sector officer and companies focused on the overall plan and priorities that need to be completed. The sector officer, however, has the freedom to determine how the objectives will be achieved through the use of appropriate companies and tasks.

ACCOUNT FOR ALL PERSONNEL

Accounting for all assigned personnel is a first priority for sector officers. The sector officer must know who are assigned to the sector, know where they are working within the sector at all times, be aware of when a crew may be delayed from an interior assignment, and institute an immediate rescue if needed.

It is the IC’s responsibility to advise the sector officer of all resources assigned to the sector as soon as they are committed. This will allow the sector officer to communicate directly with the resources (i.e., company members) while they are moving from staging to the sector and to know if the company will be delayed in arriving.

The fire department must adopt and routinely use an accountability system that allows for accurate tracking of personnel. This generally involves some form of dog tags or passports that are turned in to an accountability officer within each sector. In Phoenix, the “initial” accountability officer is the engineer of the first engine to each side of the incident, or point of entry. Crews turn in their passports to this individual.

For accountability to be effective, monitoring must be done at the point of entry. It is the only way to know who’s in and who’s out at any point in time. Staff officers should be assigned to assume this responsibility on their arrival on-scene, or a company can be brought in from staging and its crew split so that individual firefighters are sent to points of entry to manage accountability. The sector officer, however, remains responsible for ensuring that the accountability system is implemented and for supervising the sector’s accountability officer.

The company officer also has the prime responsibility to account for all members of individual crews. The company officer can maintain accountability only if he can see, hear, or touch each member. A “buddy” system of at least two members must always be employed. Crews must go in together and come out together. All crews must have radio communication. No freelancing can be permitted.

SAFE OPERATIONS

The sector officer is responsible for the safety of all assigned crews. He is the first-line safety officer for the incident. All hazards need to be identified, assessed, and integrated into the overall fireground safety plan. An appropriate risk plan for the sector should follow and be communicated to crews. Close coordination between the IC and the safety sector is required. Risk must be managed to ensure safe operations.

I cannot overemphasize the need to manage safety on the fireground-and to limit the risks firefighters take. The sector officer is (or should be) in the unique position of being able to obtain a bigger picture of sector conditions than company officers. Communication is also often better, as is the sector officer’s awareness of the entire fireground operation.

When conditions begin to change for the worse, the sector officer must communicate these changes to company officers and the IC. Immediate corrective action should be taken to minimize risk. The sector officer does not have to wait for the IC’s approval to take immediate corrective action in life-threatening situations. The sector officer should “just do it” and report the corrective actions to the IC when time allows.

SUPERVISE WORK

All crews assigned to sectors must be closely supervised. To supervise, the sector officer must be in the work area. As such, he must wear proper protective clothing and SCBA and have a partner (buddy system). The sector officer must also adhere to the accountability system (i.e., turn in a passport).

Since all incidents are fluid and changing throughout the event, supervision is continuous. Objectives are communicated by the IC to the sector officer, most often by radio. The sector officer must convert the objectives into tasks to be assigned to companies. Most of the task assignments and supervision will take place by face-to-face communication between the sector officer and company officers within the sector. Assigned tasks require the sector officer’s ongoing supervision to ensure safe operation, completion, revision, or reassignment of companies.

REDIRECT ACTIVITIES

As sector activities progress, conditions change continuously throughout the incident. Progress is made or not made. Tasks are completed. New objectives and tasks are identified.

The sector officer must keep crews working toward completing changing objectives. Crews will need to be redirected as conditions and priorities change. The sector officer must cause needed changes in sector operations to occur in a timely manner-as soon as the need is identified. The sector officer has the freedom to determine how to effect change based on conditions and adherence to the incident plan and objectives. To do this, the sector officer must be in a position to continuously monitor the big-picture conditions of the sector and effect the changes as needed.

COORDINATE SECTOR ACTIVITIES

All sectors established at the incident must be operating as a team striving to achieve a common goal. Activities in one sector often affect those in another sector. Thus, close coordination between sector officers is required.

As examples, the Ventilation Sector Officer may need to communicate directly with interior sectors to closely coordinate ventilation activities. A Treatment Sector Officer at a major medical incident will need to coordinate the transfer of a treated and packaged patient to the Transportation Sector.

The IMS permits sector officers to communicate directly with one another to coordinate activities. However, any coordination or decisions that affect the strategic plan or incident goals in an adverse way must be communicated to the IC for approval or modification.

MONITOR HEALTH AND WELFARE

In addition to the overall responsibility relating to risk and safety, the sector officer is also responsible for the health and welfare of assigned personnel. Crews can work only as long as they are fit to do so. Each firefighter has a different work capacity. Climatic conditions will also affect capacity. Hot, humid work conditions will shorten work time. Winter conditions have their own unique effects on a firefighter’s ability to work.

The sector officer must monitor crews for negative effects. Tired and exhausted crew members are at higher risk for an injury or a medical emergency. Crews may need to be rested-even for brief periods. Food and fluids may need to be provided. The sector officer should project the need for fresh crews, based on conditions, so that crews can be rotated as needed. This need must be communicated to the IC early in the operation to allow resources to be on-scene when the need for rotation occurs.

On some occasions, a member of a particular crew will become incapacitated and can no longer work. In these cases, EMS should provide medical support. If at least two members of the crew remain healthy, they may continue as a crew that is recycled back to fire combat or be assigned to another company. When only one member is healthy, however, that member should always be assigned to another crew to maintain supervision and accountability.

Many fire departments use a formal Rehab Sector operation and a standard process to deal with the health and welfare of on-scene firefighters. Some use specialized vehicles to support rehab services. Rehab sector operations and support vehicles are of great value to emergency operations. I fully endorse their use.

REQUEST ADDITIONAL RESOURCES

Each sector will require different resources to achieve objectives. One of the sector officer’s first obligations is to size up the situation and request appropriate resources. In some cases, only a single company may be required. At other incidents, multiple fire companies may be needed.

It’s important that the IC be advised as early as possible of “big picture” resource needs. It is better to look to the future and provide a rough estimate of total projected resources: “Command, I’ll need a total of three engines and a ladder for North Sector,” instead of making requests piecemeal, company by company, as the fire drives the situation. This early estimation also allows the IC to formulate a more accurate plan and get resources on-scene promptly.

PROGRESS REPORTING

Virtually every emergency incident to which the fire department responds starts with limited information on the situation. As noted previously, the sector officer is the eyes and ears of the IC. The IC cannot make effective decisions without information. Information is critical to establishing strategy, goals, and action plan objectives. Progress reports deliver the information needed for this decision making.

Progress reporting should start with the sector officer’s arrival in the assigned work area. The IC will need an immediate report on conditions and the sector’s needs to build an initial plan. Progress reporting should continue throughout the incident. Reports should be made when progress toward objectives is or is not made. Progress reports typically are needed more frequently in the early stages of the event and become less frequent as the incident approaches stabilization. Often, the radio frequency can be crowded with traffic, particularly in the early stages of the incident. As a result, progress reports should be brief and concise, transmitting only critical information.

To provide accurate progress reports to the IC, the sector officer often must first obtain information from assigned companies. To reduce radio channel saturation, this should be done face-to-face with company officers whenever possible.

REALLOCATE, RELEASE, DECOMMIT

As the incident approaches stabilization, resources may need to be reallocated or released from the sector. It’s not uncommon for one sector to complete objectives and have resources available for reallocation to another sector. For example, the Ventilation Sector may have completed the rooftop ventilation and is now available for reassignment. In this circumstance, the IC must be advised of the ladder company’s availability for reallocation. The IC will determine any additional assignments for the company (perhaps reassignment to the interior as the Salvage Sector).

As control is gained and incident operations approach termination, the sector officer should work with the IC to determine which resources will be retained and which will be released. The sector officer is in the best position to analyze sector resource needs for transition to termination-based on conditions, the critical location of apparatus, and the health and welfare of assigned personnel. As such, the sector officer will assess the sector’s priorities, coordinate the release of resources with company officers, and advise the IC.

ENHANCING SECTOR OPERATIONS

In the natural escalation of the command organization during a working incident, sector officers are typically company officers in the initial stages of the incident. If the incident is going to escalate or be long term, these sector officers should be replaced with chief officers as soon as possible.

Although a company officer can effectively balance basic sector responsibilities, such as the supervision of two or three crews and related tasks in the early stages of the incident, effective management is stretched as more and more resources are assigned to the sector. Replacing the company officer with a chief officer (i.e., line battalion chief or staff chief) allows the company officer to return to the direct supervision of his crew. A chief officer also brings enhanced skills and experience to the sector operation, improving the overall effectiveness of the command organization. For those fire departments that have a limited number of chief officers available (i.e., on duty), a special call should be made for additional officers, and it should be made early. In some cases, the special call should include mutual-aid chiefs to obtain the numbers needed.

As the chief officer arrives at the sector work area, a transfer of command process must also be applied to sector operations. The new sector officer must be thoroughly briefed on sector operations. For safety and accountability purposes, the new sector officer must also turn in a passport to the accountability officer and must always be teamed with a “buddy” firefighter.

IN-FILLING SECTORS

Multiple sectors may need to be established for evolving major operations. Based on conditions, a varying number of fire companies may be assigned to individual sectors. The sector officer will be responsible for managing this resource.

Companies assigned to a sector must understand that they work for, and report to, their assigned sector officer. Individual companies do not have the authority to move from one sector to another without the direction of their sector officer. Nor are they permitted to bypass the sector officer and contact the IC or the dispatch center directly to give progress reports or request resources. All communication in this regard must be directed to their assigned sector officer except when life-threatening emergencies occur at the fireground or a company cannot contact its sector officer. Under these emergency circumstances, any member is authorized to contact the IC or Dispatch.

CONTROLLING COMMUNICATIONS

One of the benefits of sector operations is the ability to control radio communications at major incidents. When sectors are in place, the IC communicates primarily with the perhaps six or so sectors instead of perhaps 20 individual fire companies. The primary reason for this is that the IMS requires intrasector companies to communicate with their assigned sector officer, most often face-to-face. This type of communication discipline must be encouraged and enforced.

SPAN OF CONTROL

How many sectors can the IC (or the operations section chief) supervise effectively before implementing branches? This question is often hotly debated. The bulk of incident command training literature refers to the rule of five to seven as the maximum number of sectors the IC can effectively supervise. Much of the literature strongly suggests five sectors as the maximum before the sectors are divided up and assigned to separate branches. These recommendations are generally based on a 40-plus-year-old business theory. The reality is that most greater-alarm fires typically require more than five sectors.

The 25-plus years of experience my department has had in IMS indicate that span-of-control numbers are influenced by several factors, including the speed and complexity of the incident, the skill and experience of sector officers, the skill and experience of the fire department as a whole in the application of IMS, and the ability to communicate on the fireground. Chief officers, as sector officers, bring a level of experience and skill that enhances operations. The greater the skill and experience, the broader the span-of-control factor. It is not unusual for the Phoenix Fire Department to establish eight or 10 sectors at a major incident and still maintain highly effective supervision.

Keep in mind that splitting the command organization into separate branches brings its own unique set of complexities and communications needs. Escalation to a branch operation should not be automatically based on an academic span-of-control number but rather on actual need. When the IC (or operations section chief) is hard pressed to maintain an effective exchange of information or the radio channel becomes increasingly saturated with critical information, it’s time to split.

Sectors will always remain the workhorse of the command organization. It’s where the rubber meets the road in incident management. Because of the arrival sequence, the company officer is a critical asset in sector operations. To maximize the command organization’s effectiveness, the first company assigned to each tactical geographic or functional position must be assigned the sector responsibility. If the incident continues to escalate, the company officer should be replaced with a chief officer by using a transfer of command process. The lesson learned from the early establishment of sectors is that the command organization is well-tuned and operations are more effective.

The IC’s obligation to the sector officer is to provide tactical objectives and, eventually, a picture of the overall plan. Further, the IC needs to deliver the needed resources to the sector.

The sector officer’s responsibility to the IC is to complete the objectives and keep the IC informed on progress and needs and a picture of what’s happening in the sector. The sector officer needs to be in the work area to supervise resources, and he must be properly protected and teamed with a buddy.

To be effective, the sector officer must fully understand the “mini-command” concept of sector operations. Once the IC provides the sector officer with the strategic plan and objectives, the sector officer “commands” the resources assigned to that sector toward that goal. The sector officer must take ownership and make things happen. Close coordinating and progress reporting with the IC remains, but the sector officer does not need the IC’s approval to assign individual tasks at the sector level.

Finally, many fire departments, because of their size, are often challenged in obtaining an adequate number of chief officers to serve as sector officers. During escalating incidents, “special calls” or mutual aid for chief officers should be requested. If we can special call from our neighboring fire department tankers or ladder trucks that may be needed at the incident, surely we can special call chief officers. Chief officers as sector officers enhance the command organization’s capabilities and should be used whenever possible.


A captain turns in the crew’s passports at the point of entry. An accountability system must be adopted and used routinely. All members, including sector officers, must comply. (Photos by author.)

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Sectors, Divisions, and Groups

In the American fire service, the terms sectors, divisions, and groups are commonly used to identify geographic or functional positions in the command organization.

Divisions and groups evolved out of the California FIRESCOPE Incident Command System (ICS), developed in the early 1970s. A division represents a geographic responsibility (i.e., “North Division” for the north side of the incident). A group represents a functional responsibility, such as “Ventilation Group.”

The term sector originated out of the Phoenix Fireground Command System (FGC), also developed in the early 1970s. Sector is generic to both geographic and functional responsibilities (i.e., North Sector and Ventilation Sector). Sectors, divisions, and groups hold the same hierarchical position in the command organization.

In 1990, the National Fire Service Incident Management System Consortium was formed to merge the best elements of both systems into what is now known as the Incident Management System. The Consortium published a series of “Model Procedures Guides” reflecting the merger. The documents allow the local jurisdiction to select the terms it prefers.

All three terms are popular with the fire service. Because they originated out of California, divisions and groups are commonly used by that state’s and other western states’ fire departments, the wildland fire services, and many other fire departments around the country.

Sectors are very common in urban fire departments (one survey indicates 74 percent use or prefer sectors). Fire services in other countries, such as Australia, South Africa, and Great Britain (and soon the European Union countries), have adopted sectors as the preferred term for their fire services.

GARY P. MORRIS is an assistant chief and a 29-year member of the Phoenix (AZ) Fire Department. He is the immediate past president of the National Fire Service Incident Management System Consortium.

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