Command Interaction

Bernard D. Dyer discusses the importance of a good incident command system.


If you took a poll of experienced firefighters and asked them to identify a common problem at incident scenes, how many of them would answer that there were too many chiefs all trying to stir the fireground "pot" at the same time? Photo by Bill Eisner Command interaction involves...


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If you took a poll of experienced firefighters and asked them to identify a common problem at incident scenes, how many of them would answer that there were too many chiefs all trying to stir the fireground "pot" at the same time?

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Photo by Bill Eisner
Command interaction involves the effective use of chief officers to support the overall strategy being implemented. Here, two chief officers are deployed at a multiple-alarm blaze in a vacant supermarket in Detroit on Feb. 4, 1997.

Although all of us realize the importance of the experience, knowledge and expertise that a chief officer brings to an incident scene, when this complaint is repeated often enough in the fire service it could be an indication that this vital resource is not being utilized to its maximum benefit. Once assigned, the interaction of chief officers in sector assignments and functional areas is critical to the successful management of any incident. However, are the "white helmets" on your firegrounds being managed as well as the other resources?

When I was a brand-new firefighter, I discovered a building fire while returning from a late-night outing. It was directly across the street from a fire station. As I pulled over to look for a phone, the sirens atop the station began to wail, summoning the volunteer firefighters. Being new to this business, I parked my car and went to watch the fire.

It was a good worker and mutual aid companies were called. I watched as many apparatus with scores of firefighters and chiefs arrived on the scene. Most of the chiefs seemed to gather in the front of the building or milled about the scene. I was close enough to hear introductions being made between chiefs, "Bob, this is Harry...Harry, Bob, hell of a fire you got here." I was intrigued that these chiefs spent more time socializing among themselves than directing operations.

I have always remembered that experience as a lesson of the importance of command, control and coordination at an incident. In retrospect, it could be said that many of those chiefs at that fire either didn't have a role to play or didn't understand what their role was at the incident.

Recently, there was another fire in the same district. Several fire companies responded with a lot of personnel and equipment, including a large contingent of chief officers. Because the fire chief hadn't responded, there was confusion over which assistant chief was the incident commander (IC). Several chief officers from mutual aid companies arrived but because of a lack of organization on the scene, they weren't given assignments. Because their role at the incident was unclear, several of them congregated in the front of the building socializing. Rather than taking an active role to assist the IC and request an assignment, they stood back and quietly criticized the strategy that was being implemented.

Two incidents, 24 years apart, and these chief officers still didn't understand their role at an incident scene.

Command interaction involves the effective use of chief officers to support the overall strategy being implemented. It involves coordinating assignments and ensuring that any conflicts between chief officers are minimized. Command interaction also involves thorough communications between chief officers to provide a clear understanding to all sectors of the incident commander's overall strategy as well as providing the IC with a cohesive picture of the progress of that strategy.

The roots of good command interaction begins with an effective, written incident command system (ICS) that is used and understood by all personnel on the fireground. Nothing will assist the chief who has the role of IC to maintain command, control and coordination of all the incident scene resources, including the other responding chiefs, than a written ICS that clearly defines roles and functions. The system in your district will help you to determine what roles may need to be filled by the responding chiefs.

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