Command Interaction

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 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.

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.

In coordinating the chief officer resources that are responding, it should be absolutely clear to all chief officers that they must report to the IC on their arrival to receive an assignment. This isn't a problem if the roles are clearly assigned and understood beforehand. However, what should be avoided is for any chiefs to respond and assign themselves to roles or positions without checking in with the IC.

One suggestion for the efficient use of the arriving chief officers is to keep them in staging with their companies until their units are needed. If a specific job is identified that requires a chief officer, the operations chief or the IC can request a chief from staging to take the assignment.

The use of identifying vests for functional areas and sector assignments are an important tool to minimize any confusion. Chief officers working in these areas must wear their vests to assist incoming resources to readily identify who they should be reporting to at the scene.

Don't discount the value of using a coordinator to help manage the influx of chiefs officers. An IC has many areas to manage at a scene; assigning chief officers is just one of them. Just as incoming units will be requesting instructions, so too will incoming chiefs. The coordinator will be able to develop a list of available chief officers and assist the IC in assigning these chiefs as the situation dictates.

Another aspect of command interaction is the working relationship between the chief officers operating at the scene. Coordination is paramount here.

Interaction implies an exchange of information between personnel. On a fireground, good communication is at the heart of effective coordination of resources and activities. One process of the command structure is the assignment of chief officers to various sectors on the scene. These sectors will work with the available resources in a coordinated manner with the other sectors to ensure that the overall strategy that has been set for the incident will be followed.

When sector commanders are designated, they need to have certain information available to them to help manage their segments of the incident effectively. Sector commanders must know the overall strategy that has been set. If the strategy is a defensive operation and all units are to operate on the exterior, then that should be spelled out clearly to the sector commanders. Likewise, when a sector commander is assigned, the resources that already have been committed to that sector and the incoming resources should be communicated to the sector command.

Two-way communications are vital. Frequent progress reports from the sector commanders provide snapshots of what is occurring in their sectors and can help the IC determine whether the set goals are being accomplished. Progress reports also let the IC address any concerns that he or she has about conditions, status of resources and safety.

As the IC develops the command structure for an incident, the possibility of personalities getting in the way of smooth operations may occur. An IC should not hesitate to exert strong control over all of the incident resources, including the chief officers. It may be necessary to be very assertive in dealing with other chiefs, especially those who try to work outside of the incident's command structure; however, once that control is established, the IC can concentrate on managing the incident and not the personalities.

Command interaction implies that the incident commander have some knowledge of the chief officers operating at the scene. If a good working relationship exists between chief officers, an IC will have some knowledge of the capabilities of other chief officers operating at the scene. Those planning sessions beforehand will help us to evaluate each others skills and develop a trust in the judgment of another chief officer.

At a multi-alarm fire where I was the IC, the top floor of an exposure was a critical area. The fire had spread from the original fire building and was traveling into the cockloft of the exposure.

The second-alarm response included an experienced chief officer with a reputation for sound judgment. From prior experience, we had established a trust in each other's capabilities. On his arrival, I communicated to him the sector assignment, the problems that had been identified and the units that were operating in that sector already. He would tell me what he had in his sector and what resources he needed.

After his own size-up of conditions in his sector, he reported that there was heavy fire throughout the cockloft and that there was one line in service and firefighters were opening up the ceiling. He requested one more engine company and two more ladder companies for his assignment and that he would contain the fire with those resources.

Because of good command interaction and trust in the skills of this chief officer, I was confident that the fire would be checked in this exposure. It was.

This fire emphasizes the value of knowing the personnel who are operating at the scene and trusting in their skills. We do this assessment as a normal course of action and it can have great merit in gauging conditions at a scene.

Like pre-planning the target hazards in your area, effective command interaction requires planning, forethought and practice to ensure that the command and coordination of firefighting resources, including chiefs, are used in an optimum manner. With good command interaction, the notion that there are too many chiefs trying to stir the "fireground" pot can be eliminated.

Bernard D. Dyer, a Firehouse® contributing editor, is a deputy chief of the Philadelphia Fire Department in charge of the Fire Prevention Division. He holds a master's degree in public safety from St. Joseph's University in Philadelphia, is a graduate of the Executive Fire Officer Program at the National Fire Academy in Emmitsburg, MD, and has completed the Program for Senior Executives in State and Local Government at Harvard University's John F. Kennedy School of Government.