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. 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!

What's the solution? Have an incident commander at every response. The incident commander should arrive in a vehicle other than a fire apparatus and be solely responsible for command of the incident from arrival until the incident is concluded. The incident commander could be a chief of department or maybe a battalion or district chief. Some departments have a captain who is the "shift commander" and responds in a "chief's car" along with an assignment of engines and ladders to certain categories of alarms.

The jobs of incident commander and company officer are important. One person cannot do both jobs effectively. If your department expects someone to do this, the only comment I have is, "Where's the chief?"

JOHN J. SALKA JR., a Firehouse® contributing editor, is a 28-year veteran battalion chief with FDNY, the commander of the 18th battalion in the Bronx. Salka has instructed at several FDNY training programs, including the department's Probationary Firefighters School, Captains Management Program and Battalion Chiefs Command Course. He conducts training programs at national and local conferences and has been recognized for his firefighter survival course "Get Out Alive." Salka co-authored the FDNY Engine Company Operations manual and wrote the book First In, Last Out — Leadership Lessons From the New York Fire Department. He also operates Fire Command Training (www.firecommandtraining.com), a New York-based fire service training and consulting firm.