Where’s the Chief?

Who’s in command at your fire department’s responses? I mean overall, permanent command from the moment units arrive until the operation is completed.


Who’s in command at your fire department’s responses? I mean overall, permanent command from the moment units arrive until the operation is completed. Many departments leave this important task to a company officer who arrives at the scene on an apparatus as part of a company. Yes, I know the...


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Who’s in command at your fire department’s responses? I mean overall, permanent command from the moment units arrive until the operation is completed. Many departments leave this important task to a company officer who arrives at the scene on an apparatus as part of a company. Yes, I know the first-arriving officer is the initial incident commander, but many departments harness that officer with the job full time. No later-arriving officer relieves the company officer to rejoin his or her crew inside the building. Let’s look at this situation and talk a little about the pros and cons of this practice.

We are talking about two distinctly different jobs here. The company officer is just that – the officer assigned to supervise the operations of a company. Company officers have many responsibilities. If they arrive first, they give a radio report of conditions, conduct a 360-degree survey of the building (if possible), size-up the situation, supervise the stretching of hoselines and the throwing of ladders, and then they enter and keep track of the members of their crews during interior operations. Let’s just say they are busy.

Now, all of these activities are important or we wouldn’t be doing them, but if we must prioritize them, the most important would be the interior operations – entering the burning building with a crew to perform fire extinguishment or search and rescue operations. Once inside, the officer is responsible for the safety and survival of the crew. The officer must be aware of the conditions – heat levels, smoke movement, building stability and fire spread. The officer is absolutely responsible for the accountability of the crew.

Company officers make sure we all get out of a burning building safely. Additionally, they are in the best position and have the most experience to give accurate radio reports to the incident commander about the company’s progress or lack thereof. So, how can anyone require this officer to stay outside the building and perform the duties of the incident commander without endangering not only the success of the firefighting operation, but also the safety of the interior firefighting crew?

That’s the company officer’s side of this story. Let’s examine the responsibilities of the incident commander and take a look at how well the company officer can handle them. In addition to having overall command of the operation and all operating units, the incident commander must:

Take up a position where he or she can see the involved building and where arriving units can see and report in

Size-up the conditions and develop an effective strategy

Assign individual units – engines, ladders or other specialized units – to specific jobs in and around the building

Ensure that a rapid intervention team is assigned and is prepared to be deployed

Communicate with interior units and collect information on conditions and the progress of operations

Reevaluate the operation at measured intervals and provide progress reports to the dispatcher or other officials

Account for searches

Monitor or assign companies to exposures to uncover and prevent extension

Monitor the extinguishment effort

Do you think the company officer is qualified to perform company officer duties? Let’s say yes. Do you think the company officer could handle the duties of the incident commander as described above? The answer, generally, is yes. So, why is this an issue? Because the company officer cannot do both! The company officer cannot respond on the company apparatus with a crew, arrive at the scene and deploy the crew into the building without supervision, establish command, and operate as the incident commander for the entire incident and successfully handle all of the responsibilities of both positions. It can’t be done!

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