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I had the opportunity to be assigned as the plans section chief at a multiple-alarm fire. A major chemical plant was ablaze (sounds just like "Backdraft"). The fire would destroy five floors of a manufacturing building causing over $100 million in direct fire loss. About 400 jobs were lost, causing an untold financial burden on our community.
The situation and resource status units were deployed. All available information was gathered and presented to the incident commander. Further, a chemical engineer was summoned to assist with the chemical reaction, decontamination and cleanup concerns. The chemical engineer was assigned the role of technical specialist and worked directly with me. Interestingly, that person was on the development team that invented the specific material that was involved in and accelerating the fire. The chemist was able to thoroughly discuss the product under normal operating conditions but very little was known about this material under fire conditions. I got a little nervous when the chemist was questioned about a fire-related reaction and his answer sounded like, "I have not a clue what the product will do in the fire. I can't wait to see the results myself." A certified industrial hygienist was called into develop a decontamination plan based on the hazards identified in the Material Safety Data Sheet to develop these plans.
The logistics section chief is the "supply sarge" in the system, ensuring that all of the material, facilities, hardware and mechanical needs are met at the incident. Consider a campaign incident that will require a long time to complete. The firefighting forces will need to be fed and maybe housed. Restroom facilities could be required as well as moving people to various locations. Vehicle servicing on scene and radio equipment maintenance and repairs could be requested. All of these items are the responsibility of the logistics section chief. The two branches are services and support. The services branch includes facilities, rehab and communications units. The support branch consists of the supply, food and ground support units.
The last general staff position concerns administration/finance. The administration section chief oversees the legal and financial considerations. The "admin chief" is the "bean counter" who is concerned with limiting liability and managing financial resources. With laws, regulations and standards constantly changing, the IC will need help at catastrophic situations.
Consider the legal exposure and associated expense at a large-scale hazardous materials incident. There are several case studies where the incident commander intentionally allowed a hazmat problem to burn out to cause the least amount of environmental damage. It's times like these that will require legal advice for the IC. The financial considerations might be reimbursement of funding from government or private sources. In either case, documentation and tracking of funds is the key for remuneration.
In summary, the general staff positions are established when needed to help the IC look at the strategic picture. Each of the five areas has specific identified segments of responsibilities that make up a comprehensive management system that can handle any type of alarm.
One key component is the training, education and experience needed to handle a general staff position. It's not often that operations, planning, logistics and administration/finance are all utilized at an incident. About 1% of the time, the full system is required to manage an alarm. This fact emphasizes the training commitment that departments must make to be ready for the "big one." Look toward state and national training opportunities to sharpen your skills.