The Ten Command-ments of Intelligent & Safe Fireground Operations

Span of control is the key that will open the door to competent incident management. Aggressive span-of-control management frees an incident commander to be an informed, proactive strategist rather than an uninformed, reactive tactician. It is impossible to manage an incident competently if you don't manage span of control, for that's when the incident will manage you.

A proactive strategist does not wait to manage span of control; a proactive strategist manages span of control before span of control needs to be managed. Remember: if you need "it" and "it" is not there and available, it's too late. "It" may be a rapid intervention team, a safety officer, a division supervisor, a staging area, exchange teams, teams in staging, a branch director, a backup team or other resource. If you drag your strategic feet until you need to establish a division, it's too late, you're reacting; if you drag your strategic feet until you need a rapid intervention team, it's too late, you're reacting.

Staging Area Manager

The assignment of an "accountability officer" is a sure sign that incident managers don't know how to use the incident command system (ICS). The system has always featured a position with "accountability" responsibility: the staging area manager (SAM). The SAM has no span of control — there can be a hundred teams in staging. Used properly, a SAM checks in and tracks resources throughout the course of an incident. In and around the hazard area, division and group supervisors track tactically active resources. This accountability redundancy means that nobody falls through strategic cracks or is able to freelance.

The SAM should track every on-scene resource during the course of an incident. "Track" means who's there and where they went. Example: You are the incident commander during a major multi-alarm fire. There are multiple branches, multiple divisions, multiple groups and dozens of companies. You must convey an urgent family-related message to a member of one of those companies, Engine 66.

If you have been managing span of control proactively, and you have a SAM who knows how to manage staging, it should be easy: you would connect with the SAM and ask: "Status of Engine 66?" The SAM would respond: "Engine 66 sent to Division 12 at 1620." You would then connect with the Division 12 supervisor and ask "Status of Engine 66?" The supervisor would respond: "Engine 66 is performing salvage on floor 13." You could then say: "Have Engine 66 report to the command post." Soon, Engine 66 would be on their way to the command post.

Notice that the SAM tracks who is at the incident, what time they left staging and where they were sent. The SAM does not track what they are doing or where they are working. Thus, SAM span of control is not an issue. On the other hand, the Division 12 supervisor is responsible for tactical accountability, what Engine 66 is doing and where they are working.

Tactical accountability requires aggressive, proactive span-of-control management; tactical accountability requires that the command post, branches, divisions, and groups obey Command-ment V: Thou shall not exceed a span of control of five. Let's see what you know about span of control and the incident command system.

Command-O-Quiz 1: You are the incident commander. Without exceeding a span of control of five, and without assigning "Operations" (section chief), what is the maximum number of teams that you could have tactically active at an incident ("tactically active" means assigned and working; do not include teams sipping Gatorade at staging)?

  1. 5
  2. 25
  3. 50
  4. 125

Answer: d. 125 teams

Discussion: Here's how you arrive at 125 — The incident commander manages five branch directors. Each branch director directs some combination of five division and group supervisors. Each division/group supervisor is supervising five team leaders. Thus, 5 x 5 x 5 = 125 teams. The ICS chart would look something like the condensed ICS chart shown by Figure 1 (condensed so that I didn't have to cram 125 boxes onto the chart).

No "operations" section chief, 125 teams and everybody with a nice, comfortable one-to-five span of control. If each of the 125 teams is comprised of two personnel (one team leader and one team member), you would have 250 tactically active personnel. But wait, there's more.

Command-O-Quiz 2: If you were to factor strike teams and task forces the math would change as follows:

  1. 225
  2. 350
  3. 475
  4. 625

Answer: d. 625 teams

Discussion: Here's how it would work — Strike teams and task forces fit into the system between divisions/groups and teams (individual resources). Each division/group supervisor would supervise some combination of five strike team leaders and task force leaders. Each strike team/task force leader would be leading five team leaders (5 x 5 x 5 x 5 = 625 teams). If each team has two personnel (one team leader and one team member), there would be 1,250 tactically active firefighters. If each team has three personnel (one team leader and two team members), there would be 1,875 tactically active firefighters! Did I mention that everybody still has a nice, comfortable one-to-five span of control?

On the square-foot fireground, there is no need for the incident commander to exceed a span of control of five. Evidence that Command-ment V is being obeyed suggests the following:

  • The incident if being managed by informed strategists
  • Span of control is being managed proactively
  • Tactical accountability has been achieved and is being maintained
  • The Ten Command-ments are being obeyed

Span of control is managed by using components of ICS. Incident command is not the same as incident management. Basically, the incident command system is an organizational chart with position names in boxes and position responsibilities defined. (ICS defines position responsibility, but does not suggest how to carry out that responsibility on the square-foot fireground.) Competent incident management has four components, one of which is ICS:

  1. Incident command that is, competent and proactive
  2. Tactical accountability of all resources at all times
  3. Action planning that addresses strategy, resources and risks
  4. Communications that are clear, concise and meaningful

Notice that the ICS component contributes no more than 25% to a competently managed incident. In other words, flawless ICS implementation — attractive charts and colorful vests — without tactical accountability, without an incident action plan, and without clear, concise and meaningful communications is not enough to ensure an intelligent and safe fireground operation.

Bottom-Up ICS Vs. Top-Down ICS

The local, square-foot, single-address fireground is a bottom-up incident. After the command post has been established, ICS is routinely implemented from the bottom of the ICS chart working toward the top. On the other hand, the regional, square-mile, ZIP code fireground is a top-down incident; ICS positions are established from the top of the ICS chart working toward the bottom. Should the space shuttle crash into your regional shopping mall two days before Christmas, you would be a prudent incident manager to implement ICS from the top down; should rapid oxidation beset the local strip mall, you would be prudent to implement ICS from the bottom up.

Figure 2 represents the "Accountability Responsibility Pyramid." This pyramid mirrors the layers of the ICS chart. Notice that there is a critical interface between a team leader and the division/group supervisor (or the individual with division/group supervision responsibility). This interface is where accountability and communications break down.

The best way to solve this interface problem is to make sure you are managing span of control and that there is a clear, tangible connection between team leaders and division/group supervisors. The perfect tool for establishing a dynamic connection between team leaders and division/group supervisors is the passport. Once Engine 66 reports to and surrenders its passport to the Division 12 supervisor, the supervisor would convey the assignment and where the company will be working — face to face. Once Division 12 receives the passport and Engine 66 receives its "what and where" (objective and work location), the members are tactically accounted for.

The passport becomes an important strategic connection between Engine 66 and Division 12. Of course, the Division 12 supervisor would supervise no more than five teams; "supervising" teams means tactically accounting for each team supervised. The passport establishes a strategic thread that connects the command post to the division supervisor to each team being supervised.

Command-O-Quiz 3: What is the most reliable and accurate way to identify someone's true ICS position?

  1. Who they are talking to
  2. Nametag on ICS chart
  3. ICS vest
  4. Radio designator

Answer: a. Who they are talking to.

Discussion: A nametag on an ICS chart, an ICS radio designator or a colorful ICS vest is not a reliable indicator of your true ICS position. The most reliable indicator of your true position is who you are talking to down the ICS food chain. For example, if you are talking to companies and teams, you are functioning (technically) as a strike team/task force leader. Even if your radio designator is "Main Street Command" and your colorful vest reads COMMAND, if you are talking to companies and teams (individual resources), you are functioning as a strike team or task force leader.

This is another reason why the designator "Operations" on the square-foot fireground is a reliable indicator that incident managers may not know how to use ICS. (For more discussion, see my article "Operations Overkill" in the March 2006 Firehouse®.)

Just remember this ICS caveat: An operations section chief should not talk to companies, teams, strike team leaders and task force leaders. An operations section chief is a high-level strategic resource. It is even possible that an operations section chief may not talk to division and group supervisors. An operations section chief talks to the incident commander, other section chiefs and branch directors. During a square-foot, single-address incident, the individual with operations section responsibility is the incident commander.

The System Is Flexible

It's no accident that flexibility is included in the National Incident Management System (NIMS) document; it's right there on page 2 of Chapter 1:

1. Flexibility. The NIMS provides a consistent, flexible, and adjustable national framework within which government and private entities at all levels can work together to manage domestic incidents, regardless of their cause, size, location, or complexity. This flexibility applies across all phases of incident management: prevention, preparedness, response, recovery, and mitigation.

There you have it. NIMS lets you flex and adjust the standardized system. Don't get me wrong, NIMS is a great resource. The problem with NIMS and other standards is that they advise us what we should do, but don't instruct how to comply; thus the need for local and regional ICS flexibility and adjustability. What follows is some flexing and adjusting of the system so that it works (and makes sense) at the local, square-foot incident.

Divisions and Groups

Traditionally, a division has been described as geographic and a group described as functional. I apologize to all the ICS purists out there, but these definitions are weak. Consider this three-part Command-O-Quiz:

  1. Do resources assigned to a division do something functional someplace geographic? (Answer: Yes)
  2. Do resources assigned to a group do something functional someplace geographic? (Answer: Yes)
  3. If divisions and groups are both functional and geographic, then what is the true difference between them, other than their names? This requires some explaining. The difference between a division and a group is:
    • Division supervisor — Supervises multiple teams performing multiple objectives from or at a geographic location.
    • Group supervisor — Supervises multiple teams performing a single objective from or at a geographic location. (Note: Multiple teams traditionally have meant "three to seven, five being ideal." I like ideal, thus I like five and thus you're reading Command-ment V: Thou shall not exceed a span of control of five.)

Did you notice the difference? The true difference between a division and a group is what objective or objectives they will supervise: a division supervisor supervises five teams performing multiple objectives; a group supervisor supervises five teams performing a single objective. Divisions and groups reside at the same level, side by side, on the ICS chart. A group never reports to a division and a division never reports to a group. Division supervisors and group supervisors report to the next level up the ICS chart food-chain — to an individual with branch responsibility. (Not necessarily to a branch director, but to an individual with branch responsibility.) On the square-foot fireground, this individual is usually the incident commander.

Division and Group Designators

Since we're doing some flexing and adjusting, traditional division and group definitions work great as radio designators. For example, during a house fire, you are directed to report from temporary staging (at the command post on side A) to Division C; your team would proceed to side C, surrender your passport to the Division C supervisor and receive your assignment. This resource tracking and check-in procedure ensures that the Division C supervisor obtains your passport, conveys your assignment face to face and tactically accounts for your team (who you are, what you'll be doing and where you'll be working). Done properly, this resource tracking and check-in process eliminates freelancing.

Rather than simply a device for quickly identifying missing and dead firefighters, the humble passport becomes your team's ticket to play; no ticket, no tactical recreation. In this example "Division C" is the supervisor's designator; the Division C designator tells you where you'll find the supervisor, not necessarily where your team will be working. Once your team's passport has been surrendered to the Division C supervisor, you may be assigned to execute your objective on floor 2 of the house. Important note: The division supervisor does not need to baby-sit your team on floor 2; as team leader, that's your responsibility. Your responsibility is to C.A.R.E. for your team (monitor Conditions, Air, Radio and Egress).

Once again, more important than where the supervisor is located is that the Division 6 supervisor has tactically accounted for your team: who you are, what you're doing, and where you're working (and that Command-ments II and V are obeyed):

  • Division designation examples — Division A, Division 29, Division A, South Division, West Division, Exposure B Division
  • Group designation examples — Rescue Group, Evacuation Group, Ventilation Group, Triage Group, Decontamination Group, Water Supply Group, Exposure Group, Gatorade Group, etc. One supervisor, multiple teams, a single objective from or at a geographic location.

Divisions are the workhorses of square-foot ICS. Rarely, perhaps never in your career, will you see an operations section chief. You may see a branch director on a handful of occasions. You should often see, and will likely report to, a division supervisor (or whoever still has that responsibility). Less frequently you will see, and likely report to, a group supervisor. Where I work it has become routine to establish a division early during an incident. This is not incident management overkill; this is proactive strategic front-loading. Never forget Command Caveat 1: If you need it and it's not there and available, it's too late. "It" could be second-alarm personnel available in staging, a rapid intervention team, a backup team, a safety officer, a division, rehab — perhaps even a branch. Without establishing a division early during a square-foot fireground operation, an incident commander will quickly morph into a division supervisor by talking to companies and teams.

Go Out on a Limb With a Branch

The most versatile and least-used ICS position is the branch director. Many square-foot incident commanders implement ICS from the top-down; they bypass divisions, groups and branches and stampede directly to operations (OK, I have to admit that "Operations" does sound important on the radio). NIMS suggest that a branch be assembled for two reasons:

  1. Operations section chief span of control
  2. The nature of the incident

This is sound, simple advice; however, allow me to add a couple of branch and group caveats that can serve you well. Consider the functional word "rescue":

  1. Establish a Rescue Group if the rescue problem is short-term and part a larger incident. Example: the rescue of a victim during a house fire. (Other examples: multiple apartments/hotel rooms to evacuate, Evacuation Group; multiple exposures to stabilize, Exposure Group, multiple patients to triage, Triage Group.) The command post will provide the supervisor with group objectives and resources.
  2. Establish a rescue branch if the rescue problem is long-term and IS the incident. Example: a challenging trench rescue. (Other examples: technical hazardous materials incident, hazmat branch, mass casualty incident, medical branch.) The director will provide the command post with branch strategy, resource requirements and a risk/value profile.

At a long-term, technical-level incident, strategically front-loading a branch does no harm. By "going branch early," you are prepared to expand the system with groups and divisions; if you start by establishing a group, you would have to expand the system in both directions, up and down. For example, during a confined-space rescue, if the rescue group supervisor needs to assemble and deploy groups, you will need to "promote" the group supervisor to branch director and then assign the needed groups to the branch. Even if groups and divisions are not needed below the branch, who cares? No harm, no foul, no invoice.

Another benefit of a branch director is that the incident commander can retain operations section responsibility; the branch director would report directly to the command post. To address problems/situations unrelated to the branch operation, the command post would be free to assign and supervise divisions and groups. Likewise, during a square-foot fireground operation, front-loading a Rapid Intervention Group is prudent. For example, say you are going to assign Engine 45 (staffed with three personnel) as the rapid intervention team. Good for you; however, consider this strategic modification: Assign Engine 45's team leader (likely a company officer) as the Rapid Intervention Group supervisor and the remaining two members as the rapid intervention team. Should there be an actual event requiring rapid intervention, a single team can't do much more than size-up the interior situation and perhaps deliver air cylinders. However, if there is an actual intervention a front-loaded Rapid Intervention Group supervisor will have tremendous value. Multiple teams can quickly be assigned to the Rapid Intervention Group, yet command post span of control would not be affected.

Finally, don't forget that a branch can also be designated geographically. For example, you may establish a north branch and a south branch; exposure David branch, Atlantic branch, Pacific branch and so on. Each branch would have divisions, groups and teams. My personal branch threshold is two; when two branches have been assigned, I will give strong consideration to establishing an operations section chief, which would not be incident management overkill.

Command-O-Quiz 5: Based on Figure 5, the span of control of the incident commander (each engine has three personnel, each truck four personnel, the medic unit two personnel) is:

  1. One to two
  2. One to four<
  3. One to six
  4. One to 29

Answer: b. One to four.

Discussion: The incident commander's span of control is one division supervisor, the staging area manager, one engine and one truck. Command staff (public information officer and safety officer) are not counted as part of the incident commander's span of control. Had the incident commander established "Operations," the command post could not directly supervise the engine and the truck.

Call to Action

It is impossible to be a competent incident manager if you don't manage span of control. Span of control is the key that unlocks the door to competent incident management. Span of control management is the difference between being a proactive strategist and a reactive tactician. Unless you are the staging area manager, there is no need to exceed a span of control of five during a square-foot fireground operation.

Front-load the incident with an appropriate balance of strategic resources and tactical resources, so that you can achieve and maintain "incident equilibrium." Make adjustments as necessary. Know when the incident command system should be implemented from the top down or implemented from the bottom up.

Use passports to manage span of control, supervise your piece of the action plan, and to tactically account for teams. Use passports to establish a strategic thread that connects the command post to division/group supervisors and to each team being supervised. Strive to be an informed proactive strategist rather than in uninformed reactive tactician. Bottom line: Manage span of control or the incident will manage you.

MARK EMERY, EFO, is a shift battalion chief with the Woodinville, WA, Fire & Life Safety District. He is a graduate of the National Fire Academy's Executive Fire Officer program and an NFA instructor specialist. Emery received a bachelor of arts degree from California State University at Long Beach and is a partner with Fire Command Seattle LLC in King County, WA. He may be contacted at or access his website

  1. Thou shall have ONE competent incident commander.
  2. Thou shall maintain teams of at least TWO personnel.
  3. Thou shall recognize THREE situations that kill firefighters.
  4. Thou shall ensure that FOUR sides are seen and compared.
  5. Thou shall not exceed a span-of-control of FIVE.
  6. Thou shall operate within one of SIX operational modes.
  7. Thou shall perform the SEVEN-step action plan process.
  8. Thou shall make EIGHT assignments early.
  9. Thou shall address three strategic priorities with NINE tactical objectives.
  10. Thou shall evaluate the situation, mode and plan every TEN minutes.