Tricks Of The Trade

With the continual application of incident command, new opportunities arise to improve how to best apply the system. Just like any other detailed process, better ways are being reviewed and discussed relating to ongoing quality improvement. Further, it seems like firefighters by nature enjoy the challenge to "build a better mousetrap."

Photo by Jay L. Heath
FDNY chief officers review strategy as firefighters advance hoselines to attack a three-alarm fire in the Crown Heights section of Brooklyn on Feb. 24, 1997. Time-tested "tricks of the trade" can to help the incident commander perform his or her job at the highest level achievable.

There is a longstanding fire service joke that states, "If you want to destructively test an anvil, take it to work." With this type of driving force behind us, it is no surprise that some time-tested "tricks of the trade" have been developed to help the incident commander perform his or her job at the highest level achievable. Remember, lots of water properly applied will put out the fire and excellent patient care will save lives, not the use of the incident command system (ICS). The command system, however, lets you and your department apply water or deliver patient care safely, efficiently and effectively. This installment in the "Basics of Command" series will discuss the important tricks that I have learned over the years and how you might be able to apply them to improve your incident command system.

More times than not, emergency incident operations begin with little or incorrect information about the exact problem the fire department has been summoned to solve. How many calls have you attended that start off with the wrong location being dispatched? Only after diligent checking and follow-up telephone calls is the correct location finally determined.

A recent example of this lack of up-front information comes from an incident that my department answered. The alarm was dispatched as a "hazardous net" in the roadway. The engine captain requested additional information about the type of hazardous materials that had been spilled on the net.

After an uncomfortable pause, the dispatcher advised the captain that the caller was trying to state that a net fell from a vehicle and was causing a traffic hazard. In this situation no harm was done and, in fact, it was somewhat humorous. There are many case studies, however, in which firefighter lives were lost because not enough information was obtained to make the right decisions.

As a brief review, on-scene operations usually start with standardized evolutions and the size-up process. That is to say that critical information is gathered and analyzed to update the best course of action. Through the collection and analysis of data, problems are identified, prioritized, and addressed. Leading-edge departments will use the fire pre-planning process to get a head start on the most important function of scene size-up.

In either case, it takes a period of time to obtain, verify and use the gathered information to update the incident action plan. This is a time when a lot of decisions are made without the benefit of having all of the information. The art of firefighting shines through with experience, education and training filling in the gaps. But, I use a little trick to help me gather the real-time size-up data back at the command post.

Early into an incident that covers a large area, I try to assign a capable person a Polaroid camera to take instant photos of the two or three sides of the building that I cannot visualize from the command post. Then, the time the shot was taken is added in grease pencil to the bottom of the frame for comparison purposes. By using the pictures, I get a much clearer understanding of the critical size-up factors for the incident. This process is repeated every five to 10 minutes to help improve the quality of the decisions that I make. This trick coupled with the recon information provided by the company officers lets me get the big picture.

This process is successful at many other types of incidents as well. I have used it in conjunction with helicopter observations at large-scale wildfires, as an example. Further, the good news is that this is a cheap venture with about $30 invested in the camera and film averaging $7 a pack. Another consideration is that the photographer does not need to be a firefighter. Sometimes trained personnel are at a premium and are needed to put the wet stuff on the red stuff. I have used police officers, logistic types and even off-duty members who stop by to watch. I overemphasize that they are to stay out of the hazard zone and get wide-angle shots. This trick has helped me tremendously and is worth adding to your repertoire.

Now for my next trick. I use a microcassette tape player to record the radio traffic that takes place prior to my arrival. Unfortunately, most chief officers must drive themselves to alarms. Budgetary restraints simply dictates this cost-saving measure. This requires that we always pay full time and attention to getting to the scene safely. You owe this responsibility to yourself, your family and the citizens you protect.

I found that a lot of "stuff" can happen prior to my arrival that I must be aware of to be effective. After I arrive, I can write notes, use checklists, discuss information with staff support officers or have the information repeated. But that initial data, while I'm in transit, must be captured and analyzed to be effective in my decision-making process.

The micro recorder is kept on top of the siren control box and in the "ready" mode. When I get dispatched to an alarm, I click on the record button. Once I am on location, I stop the tape player and carry it to the command post area (usually the hood or trunk of my car). When time allows, I rewind the tape and review the early collected information. If an aide is available, I may ask him or her to perform this simple task and record the data. Of course, there is siren noise in the background but the recording is always understandable. The highlighted information, such as companies responding and the initial action plan, helps me to focus in on all of the data from the very start of the alarm. Further, the recordings are great tools to help with the post-incident critique. Once again, this is a very inexpensive but effective process.

Another trick is the use of a pop-up tent. At about a $125 cost, a 10-foot-by-10-foot portable tent can be a lifesaver. Just as soon as possible, I try to have a tent placed over the command post area. The device serves several very important purposes. First of all, the tent provides cover to prevent rain or other precipitation that may negatively affect the command operations. Radio equipment and other electronic devices tend to malfunction when they get wet. Some incidents take an extended period of time, so the weather can change after your arrival. What was blue skies just 10 minutes ago may now look like a downpour. The other big advantage to hoisting a tent is that it clearly identifies the command post area. When the tent is up at one of our incidents, there is no doubt where command can be found.

The directions indicate that the tent can be raised by one person in one minute. So far, we have not been able to reach this advertised "standard." Consider assigning this task to two or more members when time and staffing allow. Recognize that it will take a few minutes to assemble it correctly. Therefore, it is best to set it up long before the first raindrop appears. It is an embarrassment to have the command sheets and other paperwork get soaked and become illegible.

I have found that fire line tape can be of great assistance to the incident commander at the command post. When necessary, I use barrier tape to block off access to the command post area. The tent polls are a great anchor point for this function. I've found that the command post can quickly be overwhelmed by onlookers, media people, police officers and extra fire crews.

It is very easy to lose sight of the incident action plan and pay attention to trivial details. I have witnessed commanders letting their focus be drawn away during the heat of battle, with members in a hazard zone because of distractions. The barrier tape at the command post will help remove the unnecessary personnel from this vital area.

The most effective method to screen command post visitors that I have used has been to assign a capable member to be the "filter." For folks to get chosen for this task, they must have a good understanding of the command process and the needs of the incident commander.

A while ago, I was the second unit to arrive at a major gasoline spill. A pipeline developed a significant crack in an above-ground transmission line. The leak was under high pressure and allowed a large quantity of the product to be released.

After being briefed by the initial incident commander, I assumed the role of IC and continued to implement a simple action plan. Specifically, we were evacuating the area, denying access, eliminating ignition sources and preventing runoff of the product.

The material was quickly identified as high-test gasoline. As more companies were called in, the plan was beginning to take effect. Before long, the command post area had attracted about 25 construction workers, each wanting to see "the guy in charge." To a person, they were relaying to me the fact that they did not strike the transmission line with their heavy equipment (a likely story, I thought).

I was soon unable to carry on a discussion with these workers and manage this fast-moving situation. I assigned the driver of the command post vehicle the responsibility of handling any or all walk-up requests of command. He used the barrier tape to enforce his position.

This was a great stroke of luck for me. Now I could concentrate on the role of command. Since this call, I have used the "gate keep" method of control at the command post at large-scale incidents. This trick is effective in helping the commander to maintain his or her sanity. Funny thing, the construction workers did not cause the pipeline break. Go figure.

The next trick is a requirement to be effective as an incident commander. Develop and use an incident command tactical worksheet. Many different types are available on the market or you may consider developing one designed specifically for your department.

The command tactical worksheet should contain all of the important tactics that must be accomplished to be successful at an incident. Some departments have developed specific charts based on the types of alarm that they might answer structural fire, high-rise, tactical rescue and hazardous materials are some of the variations that I have seen. The chart has a place for a simple sketch of the target hazard and room to draw an organizational chart. The checklist indicates tactical priorities such as "all clear," "under control" and "loss stopped." The effect that the chart has is to make sure that all aspects of the incident are addressed.

A close parallel to the IC using a tactical check sheet is a pilot operating a commercial jetliner. The pilot is required to use written and verbal checklists to conduct business. Even though the pilot has hundreds, if not thousands, of takeoffs and landings under his or her belt, the use of the checklist helps to ensure that no important items are overlooked. Just one landing without the wheels down will ruin a pilot's career (not to mention his or her life). Therefore, the checklist is a quality assurance tool to get the job done right the first time every time. The IC has just about the same level of need for accuracy as does the pilot.

The last trick that I will share is the use of a single-ear headset. By the IC using a headset at the command post, several positive items get handled. Actively listening to the radio traffic becomes a way of life. It is hard to ignore the voices when you can't get away from them. Further, a headset connected to a mobile radio has a much greater capability of sending and receiving messages. The average mobile radio operates on 100 watts of power, while the portable is capable of only operating on three watts.

Knowing how important communications are to our service, it is easy to see why the use of the headset makes sense. The headset keeps the commander close to the command post. He or she can travel only the length of the 10-foot cord. Just another reminder to stay close to the command post and do the job of the IC, rather than wandering about.

Interestingly, these suggestions (tricks) are minimal in cost and easy to implement. Maybe that is why they have worked well for me. It has been fun watching the system grow and become more effective in delivering the best services possible to our customers. After all, isn't that what we are about anyway?

I hope that these ideas are useful to you and your department. If you have any additions, please send them to me at Firehouse® Magazine. Until next time, safe firefighting!

Dennis L. Rubin, a Firehouse® contributing editor, is chief of the Dothan, AL, Fire Department.