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...


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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."

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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.

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