Shifting Gears: Making The Right Choices During Incident Operations

Mike Wieder points out why an incident commander must be prepared to shift into a "higher gear" when the needs of the incident dictate.


I don't think anyone can disagree that sound, established, always-followed standard operating procedures (SOPs) are one of the keys to a successful, well-run fire department. SOPs provide the foundation for predictable actions on the emergency scene and equally predictable outcomes at the...


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I don't think anyone can disagree that sound, established, always-followed standard operating procedures (SOPs) are one of the keys to a successful, well-run fire department. SOPs provide the foundation for predictable actions on the emergency scene and equally predictable outcomes at the termination of the incident. In the emergency service delivery business, being predictable is good; we dread the unpredictable.

There is, however, a hidden danger in SOPs that all agencies and the people who operate in them must recognize. In order to cover the full gamut of incidents we are responsible for handling, we have SOPs for the common types of incidents that we respond to on a daily, or at least very regular basis. As well, we have SOPs for the larger and more rare incidents that occur very infrequently, and in some cases maybe only once in a firefighter's career.

As you would expect, we tend to become very familiar with those SOPs we use regularly and polished to the point of being robotic at implementing those procedures. But unless our fire department has an exceptional training program, we tend to be less polished and less proficient at knowing and implementing the SOPs for the larger, more complicated incidents, though they are precisely the incidents where we need to be at the top of our game.

Therein lies the danger of SOPs. It is simple human nature that we tend to gravitate toward the familiar when faced with decisions to make under stressful situations. However, in emergency operations, often the familiar, commonly used SOPs are not the appropriate choice when faced with an incident of a greater scale. In these cases, the company officer or incident commander's failure to recognize the difference between a routine incident (to which routine SOPs should be applied) and a major incident (requiring different SOPs) may put the organization in the position of playing catch-up throughout the duration of the incident.

Appropriate Measures

In many ways, the company officer or incident commander's ability to determine the appropriate SOPs to implement at a given incident can be compared to an apparatus driver/operator who is driving a manual transmission apparatus.

The driver/operator must understand the principles of gear selection and shifting before being able to efficiently drive the apparatus. Knowing what gear to be in and when to shift is essential to getting the apparatus to its destination in a safe, timely and effective manner.

The same can be said for the incident commander's ability to recognize the scope of the incident and apply the appropriate SOPs to handle the problem. If the incident commander fails to shift into a "higher gear" when the needs of the incident dictate such a requirement, the system will not run properly and the incident outcome is likely to be unfavorable.

Suppose your fire department operates engine companies that rely on a split load of three-inch hose as your primary water supply hose. In most communities, the most common type of structural fire incident we respond to is the typical single-family dwelling, room-and-contents fire. Your department's SOP for water supply on these fires is to perform a forward lay of a single three-inch supply line and operate off of hydrant pressure. Generally, one or two small (11/2-inch or 13/4-inch) handlines are used to attack the fire. The water supplied through the single three-inch supply hose is certainly adequate for this type of operation. As well, those small handlines are very adequate to extinguish most of these types of fires.

This is where the danger part comes into play. Most members of engine companies will respond to dozens or more of these types of fires over the course of a year or more, without responding to any larger incidents. Over time, we risk the possibility of developing an almost robotic mindset: See smoke … catch a hydrant … lay a single three-inch line … pull the 13/4-inch pre-connect.

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