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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The ICS in place should be common to both the host department and to any mutual aid companies that may respond to the scene. The system will detail functional areas in an orderly manner and clearly provide roles that will need to be filled as the incident dictates. In an escalating incident, the number of functional areas will be large and jobs will readily be found for all the chiefs. However, if the responding mutual aid department doesn't use an ICS or is not familiar with your system, coordination of resources may be severely strained.
Career departments aren't immune from the problem of having too many chief officers on the scene either. However, many times the problem in a career department is the response of additional chiefs from staff positions to the scene.
Photo by Jay. L. Heath
A deputy chief (left) makes a report by radio as other officers confer during a four-alarm fire in Lawrence, MA, on Jan. 14, 1997. Effective command interaction with mutual aid companies requires planning, forethought and practice.
In one career department, a major fire in the downtown district was being managed by the field deputy chief with a sufficient complement of field battalion chiefs. Sectors were established and resources were being coordinated in an efficient manner. Because of its proximity to fire headquarters, many chiefs assigned to staff positions turned out to watch the fire. Several, however, not being content to stay out of the way, became actively involved in the operation. Their meddling in the scene not only frustrated the deputy chief but resulted in some confusion and coordination problems with incoming forces.
Incidents like this demonstrate the value of having a written ICS in place to clearly define the roles of responding chiefs from staff units.
In smaller career departments, staff chiefs provide additional personnel at the scene. Many times, a staff chief will have an active firefighting role. Other departments will use a staff chief in a support role, such as public information officer. Either way, the role of a chief from a staff unit should be determined beforehand in the department's standard response plan.
Mutual aid requests may also bring a large contingent of chief officers to the scene along with the mutual aid companies. You can't request mutual aid and not expect chief officers from the requested companies to respond. They must. It is their firefighters and equipment that have been summoned and a primary concern for them is the safety of their personnel.
My department never sends any company on a mutual aid call without dispatching a battalion chief. If several companies are requested, a deputy chief is also sent to the scene. We are the supervisors of our personnel and are responsible for their safety and well being. We will work closely with the on-scene IC and provide what assistance we can but we will never give up the supervision of our personnel to outside forces. So too most mutual aid fire chiefs will take the same approach. It is not a matter of territorial rights, it is a matter of responsibility.
With the potential for a sea of white helmets arriving at the scene, an incident commander needs to ask the question, "What do I do with all of them?"
After completing a size-up and implementing a strategic plan to control the incident, the IC will usually commit resources to various sectors and start to develop a command structure.
The value of planning ahead with the mutual aid chiefs in your area cannot be overemphasized to ease the building of this command structure. Monthly meetings for chief officers in your area to discuss problems and work on solutions will help to ensure that everyone understands the playing field before the incident occurs.
Determine beforehand what the proper protocol should be for arriving chief officers from outside your company or township. Should the number of chiefs be limited? If the chief of the next department on the assignment is responding with the company and that response includes the deputy and two assistant responding, that's four chief officers that can be given assignments. It's also four chief officers that can get in the way if control is not exerted. Some areas use a radio designation for each chief officer. When a unit responds the company number and the chief designation is given to the communications. This lets the IC be aware that there are chief officers from mutual aid companies coming in with the requested resources.