The Ten Command-ments of Intelligent & Safe Fireground Operations

Mark Emery continues this series with Command-ment #5: Thou shall not exceed a span of control of five.


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...


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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).

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