Command Principles For Fire Service Leaders

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The incident command system (ICS), in its simplest terms, is a management process for handling an emergency incident. It allows a manager (the incident commander) of resources (fire apparatus and firefighters) to account for and direct efforts to reach specific incident priorities.

The system provides a platform for the process to be repeatable and consistent from situation to situation. The incident commander (IC) will be able to retain his or her sanity in an otherwise stressful environment. All the while, the IC must direct people and equipment in a safe, effective and efficient manner. Without the aid of the ICS, much is left to chance at a time when organization and order are needed the most.

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Photo by Paul Franz
A chief officer directs firefighting operations at a February 1996 fire in Greenfield, MA. An incident commander must direct people and equipment in a safe, effective and efficient manner.

Think back a few years to a time before the general use and acceptance of ICS. A phrase that would have coined the fire service's experience then would be "chaos" or other similar unflattering terms. This column will address the basic, time-tested principles of the ICS. It will prove to be a good refresher for those well- schooled in this discipline and a good starter for the novice.

The best way to get started is to discuss the laws, regulations and standards that require fire departments to adopt, train on and use an incident command system. The Occupational Safety & Health Administration (OSHA) and Environ-mental Protection Agency (EPA) have laws that mandate the use of the ICS for departments that operate at hazardous materials incidents. This directive is found within the Superfund Amendments and Reauth-orization Act of 1986. Within this regulation, it is clearly stated that an ICS process must be used. For those in non-OSHA states and who just breathed a sigh of relief, your elation was too quick the EPA adopted the same language so that all 50 states must comply with this law.

Let's face it, all fire departments respond to hazardous materials alarms. About half of all hazmat calls occur within this nation's transportation system. Therefore, your next response may be the overturned tanker or derailed train car. Further, the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) cites the need for a documented and utilized ICS. In both 1500 (Occupational Health & Safety Standard) and 1561 (Incident Management Standard), the need for departments to operate under an incident command system is spelled out for all types of alarms. So much for the heavy-handed approach; let's move on to the foundation components of the system.

As you study the ICS process, you can quickly see that it models sound management principles. The desire to have a reasonable "span of control" is a highlight of the system. Span of control refers to the number of subordinates one boss can effectively supervise. The ideal number is five employees/members answering to one officer. The range of the span of control ratio is three to seven or eight (according to the various textbooks). If an officer supervises fewer than three people, the term "over-managed" comes to mind; the supervisor- to-employee ratio is too low to be efficient. The supervisor is under-utilized in this situation.

The reverse is true if the number is higher than seven. Supervision is spread too thin and a sharp decline is realized in the effectiveness of the people who work in this environment. Accountability and safety oversight are also compromised when the span of control is too wide.

The next principle is unity of command. This term simply states that all operating members at an incident must answer to one boss and one boss only. If you operate a system that allows more than one person to give orders to any individual or group of individuals, there is a great potential for trouble ahead. When the rule of unity if command is broken, orders get countermanded and the operation starts into a confusing circular motion and the IC may not be able to re-establish control.

Always remember that resources must be directed through the chain of command with attention to the unity-of-command principle. Think about what it was like when you were new and a lieutenant gave you an order to retrieve a much-needed piece of equipment to support an ongoing interior fire attack (or something similar at other types of calls). When you emerged from the building to eagerly locate the requested item, a captain countermanded the lieutenant's direction. You found yourself on a different assignment just that quick. The lieutenant was awaiting your return with great expectations that you would supply his or her need. In this vignette, the captain violated the unity-of-command principle. (For the purists, the member on the lieutenant's assignment did have the responsibility to make the captain aware of the previous assignment. But how many new members would discuss their assignments during the heat of battle?)

In the incident command system, there is one big boss. There is only room for one single, central, well-supported incident commander. Notice there is no rank added to the title of IC. A person who is well-qualified through a combination of training, education and experience is the right person for this job. The emphasis is on qualifications and not rank. Generally speaking, the mentioned adjectives go with higher-ranking members but not always. In fact, a well-respected fire chief has taught for years that if you cannot improve command, don't transfer command just to satisfy rank egos. This is good advice.

The role of incident commander is critical at all incidents, regardless of size. Always designate an IC. Some procedures identify the IC by name or at least by company number designation. In the words of total quality improvement, this is an excellent example of ownership of work effort. The incidents where two or more "chiefs" attempt to run the show are typically our best parking lot makers.

Back to chaos; in some situations this term has been defined as "Chief Has Arrived On Scene." Even worse, in some cases the incident commander is never identified. The best description might be that the "tail is wagging the dog." All chief officers hate to hear that "all was going well and then the chief got here."

Equally important is the principle that states the ICS must be used at all incidents, no exceptions. Some folks were of the opinion that the system was needed only when the incident reached a specific proportion. This is confusing and brews trouble. If a department is going to perform well at the big ones, it must perform well at the little ones. We all go on a lot of little ones before we see a significant situation. The public and most fire chiefs are very happy with this fact. The logic is the system starts early and can grow with the needs of the incident. Therefore, it must be used at all of them. Accordingly, the ICS process is an all-risk system. This means that it is used for all types of incidents. Some organizations have included the use of the ICS to manage non-emergency events, such as conferences and other public gatherings.

To summarize the items discussed, ICS is simply a management tool to handle all response-related work. There are many laws, regulations and standards that mandate the use of this system by all fire departments (volunteer or paid). However, the driving force to use this process should be the increased safety of the members who are engaged in this nation's most dangerous labor occupation. Coupled with the fact that our customers directly benefit from our ability to perform at a higher level, it only makes sense to use this system.

The effective span of control must be factored into the structure of this system. Keep in mind that the ideal ratio of subordinates to a supervisor is five to one. The principle of unity of command states that all members are entitled to have only one boss. The system must have an identified IC who is well-supported and it is used for all types of alarms, regardless of the size or type.

If your department is using the ICS process, congratulations. Consider the need to grow and expand your system. If your department is not taking full advantage of this management tool, your challenge is to fully integrate this required process into your everyday operations. Good luck and safe firefighting.


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

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