Command Positions And The Transfer Of Command

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One of the founding principles of the incident command system (ICS) is identifying a single, central and well-supported incident commander (IC). There are just a few absolutes in implementing an ICS program, and the need for an IC at all alarms is one of them.

An effective analogy is the need for a football team to take direction from one head coach. The head coach receives input from the players and other coaches during the game. This allows the head coach to revise the prepared game plan, then make the best decision (call the play) based on this feedback.

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Photo by Jay L. Heath
A district chief supervises operations at a four-alarm fire in Manchester, NH, on Dec. 28, 1996.

Firefighting forces must have unity in purpose and direction to be able to win the big ones. This article will discuss command positions and the transfer of command.

The first-arriving officer (or acting officer) must be able to select one of the three command positions upon arriving at an incident. Remember, the incident command system is not driven by rank but by qualifications.

The three options are: stationary command, mobile command and passing command. The stationary command is best described as the ability of the IC to assume command in a stationary position and remain there until relieved. It's best if the IC is able to obtain a continual visual perspective of two sides of the incident from the command post. Further, the command post must be in a safe location that does not cause traffic problems for inbound apparatus. The determining factors that should be evaluated in making this selection are the conditions of the incident and available personnel resources.

If upon arrival it is obvious that you are operating a major incident, the proper position is generally stationary command. From this position, the incident commander can better size-up the entire situation and make quality decisions. Try to always look at the "big picture" rather than getting "tunnel vision." Avoid the trap of performing tasks. If you, the IC, are doing a firefighter's job, you must ask the question, "Who is doing my job?" It is impossible to see the "big picture" through the lens of an SCBA facepiece.

One of the incident commander's primary responsibilities is to establish the strategic direction for all of the operating forces. In order to effectively and efficiently reach this goal, the IC must be able to think and evaluate a large amount of changing data and communication information quickly and correctly. A proper location should be selected to perform the important functions.

The closest area that resembles an office is the front seat of the first-arriving unit. Typically, it is parked in a place that provides a reasonable view of the incident. The front seat has a few amenities that could be very helpful during stressful times. For instance, the cab of an engine or truck has lights, weather protection, better radio equipment and reference materials to help the IC. The noise and excitement levels are a notch lower inside the cab, making this a desirable place to conduct business.

Mobile command is simply the process of assuming command while still working with your assigned company. Personnel is the driving force behind making this decision. If your presence with your company will make a difference during the initial phase of the operation, then mobile command should be selected.

As an example, a four-person engine arrives on location of a working house fire with reports of people trapped. The company officer may need to be part of the entry team to ensure firefighter safety. Further, the customers are relying on the fire department to be able to rapidly remove them from harm's way and provide medical care. A quick-moving interior attack is required to reach the priority of rescue. As you can see in this scenario, if only three members attempt to handle the necessary tasks to effect a rescue, firefighter safety would be greatly jeopardized and the customers may not be rescued.

There is a stern caution that goes with selecting this option: The company officer must still function as the incident commander. Overall control and coordination are still high priorities and must be addressed. Concerns such as requests for help, apparatus placement and assignments must still be handled.

If engaged in the actual combat part, it is very difficult for the IC to keep the overall scene perspective. This is the situation in which "tunnel vision" may not be avoided. There-fore, if this option is selected, another condition is required: command must be transferred to the next-arriving qualified person. The person who assumed command from a mobile incident commander must set up in the stationary command position. In that mobile command is not the best possible situation, it is desirable to change to stationary command as soon as possible. A basic plan is to place a qualified person in a strategic position to manage the incident effectively at the first reasonable opportunity.

The last option is the process of passing command to the next-in company. Plain and simple a company officer can choose to pass the command position to the next-arriving officer. The rule is that the next-arriving company would arrive within one minute with a qualified person onboard to assume the position of IC.

The officer wishing to pass the command role must radio this request in advance to the officer who will be required to assume command. The officer receiving the command request must acknowledge the message. Command can be passed only once. The second-arriving officer can't ask the third-in company to handle this job. Once again, this option is selected based on personnel requirements.

The element that links the ability to change the incident commander during the "heat of battle" is the process of transfer of command. Whenever the role of incident commander is changed, this process should be used as a matter of routine. The concept is the proper exchange of information before the transfer of command occurs.

The process is a lot like daily shift change. All of the necessary information is formally discussed between the new and old commanders. The strategy, tactics, action plan, resource and situation status, progress and projected outcomes are reviewed. The assuming officer should ask questions to insure complete understanding of the entire situation. If personnel status allows, the officer being relieved could be an excellent aide to the new incident commander.

Once the transfer of the required information is complete, the new IC should announce that he or she is assuming command. For instance, "Fire Chief to Communications, I will be assuming Florida Avenue Command." This action will keep all operation crews connected and informed. The formal transfer of command should also be used when command is turned over to a lower-ranking officer as the incident de-escalates. Skipping this step can lead to a problem of lack of information shortly after the change.

To summarize, the effective utilization of the ICS requires one incident commander. The position that the initial IC selects is based on the size of the incident and the number of available personnel on location. The three options are stationary command, mobile command and passing command. Each has benefits and drawbacks that must be evaluated before making a selection.

The transfer of command from one person to another is a systematic process that requires a significant amount of information to be discussed before a proper transfer can take place. To become proficient in the role of IC, the process of assuming and transferring command should be practiced. Take every opportunity to increase your knowledge of the incident command system. Until next time, safe firefighting!


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

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