Developing and Maintaining Fireground Command Situation Awareness - Part 2: Best Practices for Incident Commanders

Dr. Richard B. Gasaway explains how decisions made by commanders impact the safety of firefighters and the outcome of events on the fireground, a dynamic, complex decision-making environment critically dependent on situation awareness.Part 2 - Best Practices for Incident Commanders

The decisions made by commanders impact the safety of firefighters and the outcome of the event. But commanders are human and subject to limitations and errors. The fireground is a dynamic, complex decision-making environment critically dependent on situation awareness.

There seem to be several identifiable factors that impact commander situation awareness. First is conducting incomplete size-ups and, more specifically, failing to read the smoke, failing to assess the deteriorating conditions of the structure and failing to conduct a realistic assessment of savable lives.

Second, commanders are underestimating the speed in which the incident is progressing. This can cause a commander to get behind in the incident and apply strategy and tactics that are not appropriate because the incident has progressed beyond the plan. Third, commanders are overestimating the abilities of their crews. This is happening for several reasons, including not having enough personnel assembled to get the job done and personnel who lack the training or experience to be efficient and effective at the assignments they are given.

Fourth, commanders are stressed from the pressure to be tactically aggressive. This pressure may come from the organization's culture or from upset customers who have unrealistic expectations of the fire department. This pressure to perform heroically may cause a commander to take high levels of risk, despite a high level of awareness of the current situation. Finally, commanders struggle because they focus on the wrong things or too many things.

The research I conducted (see part one of this article, November 2008) also identified the best practices commanders use to help them establish and maintain situation awareness. This resulted in 10 recommendations for fireground commanders.

  1. Commanders Must Capture and Process Critical Cues to Project Future Events

    As a commander conducts a size-up at a residential fire, there are dozens of cues and clues that can indicate what is happening and help the commander make projections of future events. However, based on the findings in the literature and the input from expert commanders, the most pertinent cues and clues may include: an evaluation of smoke and fire conditions; consideration for the construction and level of decomposition of the structure; the speed the incident is moving; and a realistic assessment of savable lives in the immediately dangerous to life or health (IDLH) environment.

  2. Commanders Should Set the Strategy and Tactics Based on Available Staffing

    Staffing issues were significant factors that caused commanders concern and impacted their awareness. Commanders recommended conducting continual assessments of the scene until sufficient personnel (e.g., based on quantity, quality, training and experience) arrives. Commanders cautioned against setting a strategy and committing to tactics until the proper number of personnel are present to accomplish the tasks.

  3. Commanders Should Develop and Maintain a Big-Picture Focus of the Incident Scene

    Repeatedly, commanders noted they were impacted when their attention was narrowed because they focused their attention. Commanders recommended developing and maintaining a big-picture focus of the incident by developing meta-awareness, a conscious awareness of the larger incident.

  4. Commanders Should Not Perform Firefighting Duties

    Commanders frequently noted that among the most insidious ways their awareness is impacted comes when they perform fireground duties and consequently overlook critical cues and clues and do not accurately assess the speed to which the incident is changing. Commanders recommend self-restraint to avoid being drawn into performing non-command tasks (i.e., pulling/advancing hoselines, setting up fans or ladders, connecting hose to a fire hydrant or serving as the pump operator).

  5. Commanders Cannot Listen to and Comprehend Multiple Conversations Simultaneously

    Commanders described scenarios where they had been impacted because they missed important radio messages from crews operating on the fireground. This was especially problematic when the radio messages were transmitted from crews operating in the IDLH environment. Commanders noted it was nearly impossible to listen to and comprehend simultaneous messages, be they from multiple radio channels or face-to-face. Commanders recommend giving priority attention to the radio messages of fire crews operating in hazardous environments. This may be facilitated by operating on a single operational channel or by assigning someone to monitor radio traffic for the commander.

  6. Commanders Should be Located in a Vehicle or in a Remote Location

    Commanders were split in their opinions on the best place to run command. Some noted they preferred to be outside a vehicle, in the front yard or standing on the street where they noted they benefited from being able to apply all of their senses to capture cues and clues on the scene. Other commanders noted they preferred to be in a vehicle where they described the environment as calm and free of distractions and interruptions.

    The one universal recommendation from all the commanders, regardless of where their command location started, was when the incident became complex or they were being overwhelmed, they preferred to be remotely located. Every commander interviewed noted they had retreated to the sanctity of a vehicle under stressful conditions. The commanders all stressed the importance of completing a thorough size-up including a 360-degree walk-around.

  7. Commanders Should Take Steps to Control Distractions and Interruptions

    Commanders spoke frequently about how distractions and interruptions impact them at residential fires. Police officers, occupants, neighbors, bystanders and firefighters offering unsolicited advice were among the culprits. Commanders noted they were also distracted by noise (e.g., sirens, air horns, engines, tools, screaming and yelling).

    Commanders recommended a degree of self-discipline to stay on-task, a willingness to tell those wishing to speak face-to-face to refrain from interrupting the commander while he or she is listening to radio traffic from personnel operating in high-hazard environments. Commanders also noted that physically removing themselves from visible sight of the persons who would normally interrupt them was beneficial.

  8. Commanders Should Manage Their Span of Control

    Commanders noted it was easy to get overwhelmed from having to perform too many command roles, processing too much information, listening to radio traffic and completing the size-up while focusing on the safety of the personnel deploying in the firefight. Commanders noted that assigning subordinate command duties (e.g., safety, staging and operations) was essential to keep the commander from being overloaded.

    Commanders spoke favorably of assigning a person to serve as an aide, noting the aide can free the commander to concentrate on the most important aspects of the fireground operations. Commanders also noted the presence of a senior advisor to help the commander with the delegation of duties was beneficial. Commanders felt the use of a unified command, where ranking officers from all agencies involved are physically located together, facilitated an efficient distribution of duties and a sharing of knowledge that enhanced commander awareness.

  9. Commanders Should Establish and Maintain a Strong Command Presence

    Commanders noted it was important to establish a strong command presence by displaying confident and focused leadership at the incident scene. Commanders noted that in order to accomplish this, it was essential to display emotional self-control (e.g., no excitement, frustration, anger, etc.), especially during the most stressful times. Commanders noted their behavior and demeanor often set-up the incident for success or failure because crews react to the behavior of the commander.

    Commanders also noted it was very important to control the action of crews, ensuring personnel do not engage in independent goal setting (freelancing) and that commanders know where personnel are operating and what they are doing at all times. Commanders noted it is also very important to be clear, concise, articulate and confident when giving orders. Commanders were also strong advocates for the need to be consciously aware of the passage of time on the fireground, noting the commander may be the only one with access to a watch or clock to mark the passage of time.

  10. Commanders Should Accelerate Their Expertise

    Commanders spoke openly about a general reduction in the number of residential fires over the past 20 years. This observation was statistically supported in the literature review. Commanders noted the reduction in fires impacts their ability to develop and maintain fireground command skills. Commanders noted the importance of conducting realistic training, stating that challenging real-life training scenarios help to develop command skills and enhance a commander's ability to engage in accurate recognition-primed decision making.

Commanders also strongly recommended the use of simulations, as well as using case studies and watching video clips of fire incidents that are readily available on the Internet. Commanders were also advocates for using near-miss reports to accelerate learning based on the mistakes of others. Commanders also spoke favorably of the valuable lessons learned from National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) line-of-duty death investigation reports.

Performing post-incident evaluations after each residential dwelling fire was another way commanders recommended to identify potential issues and to reinforce the application of best practices. Finally, commanders recommended that a developing commander be paired with a mentor who can provide coaching and feedback so the novice commander is able to learn from mistakes, even if the outcome of the error was not a near-miss or casualty incident.

In high-stress fireground settings, failing to capture critical incident cues and clues, failing to comprehend those cues and clues in to something meaningful, and failing to use that meaning to project future events is the recipe for near-miss and catastrophic events. The foundation to good decision making lies in the ability to develop and maintain strong situation awareness, so that you are paying attention when perception meets reality.

DR. RICHARD B. GASAWAY joined the fire service in 1979 and has worked for six emergency services agencies in West Virginia, Ohio and Minnesota. He has been a career fire chief for 20 years and currently is chief of the Roseville, MN, Fire Department. Gasaway's doctoral research focused on fireground command decision making under stress, and more specifically, the barriers that impact commander situation awareness. He applied the findings of his research to develop 50 Ways to Kill Your Brother©, a program designed to help fireground commanders understand and improve situation awareness. Gasaway is also the host of "The Leader's Toolbox," a podcast program hosted on He can be reached via his website at