Walking the Point in Incident Command

BY GARY SEIDEL

The capacity of local agencies and communities to manage the effects of a disaster goes back to preparedness. This means command officers must invest in training, certifications, qualifications, and the readiness of emergency service leaders to effectively mitigate the disasters with which they are charged. To do this, there must be a heavy commitment from the executive branch of local government. These individuals must be willing to anticipate, prepare, support, and commit themselves prior to the disaster.

The one mission in the firefighting profession is to plan to protect and act to save. A firefighter is expected to perform 24 hours a day and 365 days a year. What this means is a maximum commitment; anything less, then firefighters are letting themselves down. More importantly, they are letting their fellow firefighters and the citizens down. Firefighters are willing to accept those expectations and to perform under stress in emergency and nonemergency situations-in other words, firefighters are able “to walk the point.” Firefighters take an oath of office to protect the citizens, city, and country. That oath means that nothing but the best is expected from us. So, how dare we fail to give them nothing but the best?

“ON SCENE AND IN CHARGE”

What does “on scene and in charge” really mean? Hopefully, for a command officer, it encompasses the key elements that have prepared you to become an incident commander (IC): education in all-hazard incident management and mitigation and the ability to manage the incident while ensuring the safety of all personnel on scene. This is a huge responsibility!

In the realm of the emergency services, when a command officer takes a course of action, it must be the right course or someone may get hurt or even die. A command officer’s course of action is based on education, training, experience, and the willingness to be accountable for your decisions. There is no time to second-guess a decision when fighting a fire. In the early 1980s, the Los Angeles City (CA) Fire Department established this policy: “Train as though your life depends upon it because, for someone, it does.” Therefore, as command officers, our role as leaders and managers is to ensure that we expose ourselves to the same risks as those we ask our personnel to face. This is the premise of being certified and qualified. So, as ICs we need to “manage the incident as though your life depends upon it because, for someone, it does.”

How do command officers ensure credibility? They make sure their people know the expectations. Command officers resist the temptation to micromanage; they let their people see them out in the front, leading by example, truly commanding the incident. Be aware of your relationship with yourself: Uncover those emotional triggers that can sink your leadership and control them in a positive fashion. This is a powerful statement. In the emergency operations field, command officers have one major priority, and that is life safety. Therefore, we need to evaluate the risk; decide on the safest tactic to rescue that life; and if it is safe, employ it. Allow incident personnel the freedom to do their jobs and apply their talents in the way they see fit. As a leader and a manager, setting standards for all personnel on the incident through encouragement, developing values, and instilling positive attitudes is crucial.

To be successful in the command and control of an incident, there has to be a true understanding of what the incident command system (ICS) is all about and the realization that success depends on an “adaptive response.” Adaptive response necessitates purposeful and proactive leaders who manage capable and resilient teams. This involves learning from both didactic and practical experience and realizing there is a need to become certified and qualified as an IC or a member of the command or general staff so you can develop your own climate and command presence. The IC does this in part by demonstrating innovative thinking and clearly articulating his intentions and expectations. The IC also must manage diverse resources and interface with political executives and the community.

ICs often find resilient and capable teams that respond and act according to their levels of training and their standard operating procedures. What ICs often find missing are purposeful and proactive leaders! The principles of “tactical command” are often demonstrated at emergency incidents, which deal only with the issues at hand or those that are immediately apparent. It is true that the ICS looks at the holistic approach and then effectively manages the whole scope of the incident.

The premise of any incident is to determine what is happening, what the priorities are, and what the objectives are based on those answers. From there, the IC determines the strategies and tactics with the assistance of the Operations section chief. This is the continual process that identifies what is happening, what ICs are going to do, and what they may anticipate happening; this is the process ICs need to use to manage incidents effectively.

SITUATIONAL AWARENESS AND STRATEGIC ASSESSMENT

Successful incident management also necessitates situational awareness and strategic assessment. Situational awareness involves awareness of what is happening around you, interpreting this information, and putting the two together to develop your plan of action. It refers to your state of knowledge and the picture you have developed to form your plan of attack. To obtain a complete picture of the incident, make sure that you view as many sides of the scene as possible. ICs should view at least three sides on any incident. If you can’t see the fourth side, ensure that someone gets you that assessment. Constant situational awareness will enable the IC to move into the strategic assessment, which ICs will use throughout the incident. It will be the IC’s plan of attack, which initially comes from the first size-up of the incident and is updated according to the findings of the ongoing size-ups throughout the incident. This evolving plan forms the incident action plan (IAP), which is based on the IC’s priorities, objectives, strategies, and tactics.

As command officers, you have been taught to use the Planning “P” to assist you throughout the incident and ensure that you are following the sequences outlined in an effective IAP. Use this process for every incident even though the plan will be simplified in the majority of our responses. As we have witnessed at small incidents, the use of a tactical worksheet will suffice.

The tactical worksheet should encompass the following specific points:

  • A map or diagram of the incident and where resources are being assigned.
  • Safety considerations, the incident objectives, and the actions being taken.
  • A list of all resources at the incident as well as those requested.
  • The ICS organizations and the names of their supervisors.

The top of the worksheet should include the incident date and time, the time you arrived on-scene and took control of the incident, address/location, and tactical channels being used.

•••

When an alarm sounds, you are not sure of what you will be facing. You know the area, the type of alarm, the available resources, and the current conditions. What you do not know is the situation awaiting you on arrival and how conditions may change and affect responders’ safety and change operations. Every incident is unique. All incidents have the potential to become extreme, demanding, or dangerous. ICs must truly command the incident.

In the emergency operations field, command officers have one major priority, and that is life safety.

GARY SEIDEL is chief of the Hillsboro (OR) Fire Department and a retired assistant chief from the Los Angeles (CA) Fire Department. He serves on the FDIC editorial advisory board and is a fire service consultant.

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