Thinking Like an Incident Commander

Thinking Like an Incident Commander

By Thomas Dunne

The chief or incident commander (IC) is expected to devise a strategy, assign the necessary tactics, and monitor that strategy until the incident has been successfully concluded. Since most fire personnel are primarily involved in hands-on tactical work, it can be tempting to leave the big strategic decisions to the “person in charge.” In a typical career path, firefighters will master increasingly difficult technical skills as they perform physical tasks over and over at various fire operations. This “hands-on” perspective is reinforced by the fact that most firefighter recruit school training involves the development of physical skills rather than encouraging the ability to view a fire from a strategic point of view.

However, there will be occasions when individuals will have to exercise skills that are “above their pay scale.” Big decisions often involve big risks. They also call for an ability to make strategic as well as tactical commitments. Consider the following scenarios:

Scenario 1

A senior firefighter in a small volunteer department has arrived at a fire on the first floor of a two-story wood-frame dwelling. One engine and four firefighters are on scene and are operating a hoseline inside the building. The chief is not present, and his arrival is likely to be quite delayed because of a severe ice storm. From his position in front of the structure, the firefighter notices that fire is venting out of a window and threatening to extend to an adjoining private dwelling on the exposure D side. Moments later, personnel operating inside the original fire building notify him that they have lost water in the hoseline, fire conditions are rapidly expanding, and they are having difficulty making their way back to the main entrance.

Scenario 2

An emergency medical services (EMS) unit arrives at a multicar accident on a hilly section of the interstate highway. There are no police or fire units on scene, as the weather conditions have created an exceptionally high demand for emergency responses. There are multiple injuries, and fuel is leaking into the sewers. Traffic is backed up on both sides of the highway, blocking access to the area for any additional responding units. As the emergency medical technician (EMT) walks on the side of the road, several motorists inform him that there is a heavy odor of gasoline throughout the area.

Scenario 3

The principal of a public school is dealing with a heavy smoke condition near the electrical panels in the basement. Smoke is starting to spread to the upper floors, alarms are sounding throughout the building, and a number of students and teachers have already gone outside. No one seems quite sure of the number or identities of the people who have already left the premises. There are disabled students in classrooms located throughout the school; and, in the background, the phones are ringing constantly as concerned parents are calling to check on the welfare of their children.

Thinking as an IC

The individuals in the above scenarios have been suddenly thrust into situations that are far more complex than those they normally experience. The firefighter, the EMT, and the principal all face extremely demanding challenges that will necessitate that they assume a role and maintain a perspective with which they are not likely to be comfortable. They are experiencing many of the issues a fire chief must contend with when supervising a difficult fire or emergency operation. Overwhelming demands, insufficient resources, time restraints, and high stakes are all involved.

Thinking strategically is a great skill for a firefighter even when performing usual tasks on the fireground. The window he breaks, the nozzle he opens, and the way he communicates affect the safety of the people around him as well as the successful outcome of the operation. In short, all firefighters can and should develop the ability to think like an IC.

Thinking like an IC encompasses five essential factors: a willingness to accept responsibility, an ability to envision the big picture, a capacity for obtaining detailed information, an ability to organize, and a knack for calming down a stressful situation.

Willingness to Accept Responsibility

If you are suddenly thrust into a leadership position, you must accept the fact that you are no longer functioning just as a firefighter, an EMT, a school principal, or whatever your job normally is. Even if you are not placed in a command position, you must accept the ramifications of your tactical duties and ensure that what you are about to do will not adversely affect someone else – for example, prior to opening a heavy-caliber outside stream into a building, notify the people around you to avoid causing injuries.

The firefighter in scenario 1 is responsible for the safety of the personnel operating the hoseline inside the fire building. Perhaps they can continue an interior attack, or they may have to be withdrawn as quickly as possible. In either event, the firefighter present is the only person there to make that call. It is his responsibility.

The EMT in scenario 2 is the only one available to make command decisions on the logistics of getting other units to the scene of the accident, addressing a hazardous-materials situation, and establishing site safety.

In scenario 3, pending the arrival of emergency responders, the school principal is responsible for the safety and accountability of his students.

Envisioning the Big Picture

All three players in the scenarios must battle myopia and force themselves to see the big picture when managing their individual operations. The firefighter in the first example is functioning as an IC. As an IC, he must manage the personnel operating the hoseline inside the fire building and at the same time consider the possibility of a rapidly expanding operation if the fire extends to other buildings. He must also consider the weather conditions and the immediate lack of additional resources as he develops his strategy.

The EMT in scenario 2 has been tasked with a lot more than the first aid work he normally faces. The injuries are certainly a concern; but if traffic control, access routes, and the leaking fuel are not addressed, the situation will get much worse.

The school principal may have even a harder time visualizing the big picture. He is not an emergency responder and is being asked to perform in a role that is radically different from his normal day-to-day work. He has more than personnel accountability issues to deal with. Prior to the arrival of emergency personnel, he must initiate search activities, address any possibility of controlling the spread of the smoke, and maybe even function as a public information officer to address the parents’ concerns.

Obtaining Detailed Information

Obtaining all of the necessary information is seldom possible at the very beginning of an operation. Often, there is just too much initial activity and confusion. However, our three scenario role players will have to gather the details as soon as possible. Does the firefighter know for certain the number and identities of the personnel working inside the fire building? What are their exact locations in relation to their means of egress? With how many rooms of fire are they dealing?

The EMT must establish the number and location of the accident victims involved and the level of care they will require. He must determine where the sewer grates are and ascertain which are emitting the strongest gasoline fumes.

The school principal must verify attendance sheets, check on locations of disabled students, and get a handle on identifying which students have already left the building.

Set Up an Organization

To help them to obtain the detailed information they will need, the “ICs” in these three scenarios must establish some semblance of an organization. There will be no complex incident command system in place, but the firefighter in scenario 1 can chose to withdraw his personnel, assign two firefighters to reestablish a water supply, and assign the two other firefighters to search and evaluate the condition of the building exposure on the D side.

In scenario 2, the EMT initially has no other individuals to organize. However, he can establish the basis of a functioning organization by identifying the most hazardous work areas and recommending locations for a staging area and a command post.

The school principal in scenario 3 has some staff to work with and can make use of the two most basic organizational tools: delegating tasks and dividing his incident into manageable sectors.

Destressing the Situation

All of the scenario “ICs” can positively affect the management of their incidents by acting as a calming influence. Even if they can take responsibility, maintain an overall perspective, organize, and obtain the needed information, they will still have difficulty if they come across as indecisive, erratic, or confused. Clear and confident communication is the most effective tool in calming down a situation. The firefighter, EMT, and principal must force themselves to project a controlled, optimistic tone as they speak, even if the stress and chaos keep them from feeling confident. A little “acting” may be called for. Each may have to slow down and speak in positive, relaxed tones when communicating plans or issuing orders.

These individuals were required to think like ICs. They had to step up and accept the taxing and solitary position of making difficult decisions under stressful circumstances. The art of thinking like an IC involves developing an appreciation of the strategy as much as recognizing the necessary tactics. If we fail to envision an overall plan, we are likely to end up with a series of uncoordinated individual tasks rather than a successful outcome – or, as the ancient Chinese general and philosopher Sun Tzu put it, “Tactics without strategy is the noise before defeat.”

THOMAS DUNNE is a retired deputy chief and a 33-year veteran of the Fire Department of New York. He has had extensive experience working in Mid-Manhattan and the Bronx. He was the incident commander at hundreds of fires in residential, commercial, and high-rise buildings. He lectures at conferences, colleges, and fire academies across the country on fire safety, emergency management, and human behavior in a disaster. He is an adjunct instructor for the National Fire Academy, has written numerous articles for Fire Engineering, and writes and lectures on a variety of fire service topics through his “Third Alarm Fire Training” seminars. He is a graduate of Fordham University.

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