Duties & Responsibilities Of The Incident Commander

A constant in the incident command system is the need to identify an incident commander (IC) at all alarms. There must be one single, central and well-supported IC during an incident in order for the system to operate properly. An individual must be qualified to fill this most important...


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A constant in the incident command system is the need to identify an incident commander (IC) at all alarms. There must be one single, central and well-supported IC during an incident in order for the system to operate properly.

An individual must be qualified to fill this most important position. Some firefighters compare the IC’s role to that of a quarterback in a football game. The quarterback sets the strategy on how to win the game, then must call the plays (the tactics needed to reach the strategic goals) and assign the other players to tasks. These functions are similar to the list of duties and responsibilities placed on the IC.

The IC, however, has another major objective: ensuring that all members operating at an incident are safe from avoidable harm. The list of the IC’s duties and responsibilities are most worthy of discussion. This column will review each of the primary functions that an effective IC must be prepared to handle while serving in this role.

The first responsibility of the incident commander is to ensure the safety of the firefighters under his or her command. The top safety officer is the IC, who must have a clear understanding of how each decision implemented affects the safety of the operating forces. During the heat of battle and with various other pressures, this is all too easy to forget.

A good IC will be well schooled in firefighter safety practices. One very good source of firefighter safety information is the National Fire Academy’s safety courses. Attending the company officer and scene safety programs are a must to be able to fully understand the IC’s duties in this area.

Further, the IC must possess a reasonable understanding of personal limitations. The best ICs that I have worked under have “walked a mile in the firefighter’s moccasins.” For instance, it is difficult to explain what it is like to work inside a fully encapsulated suit. Incident commanders should get first-hand experience, whenever possible, so as to realize what they are asking their members to do. The IC need not be a “super firefighter” but rather a well-informed firefighter.

The incident commander must be able to assess the incident priorities to determine the strategy and tactics that will be used. The incident priorities are simple and straightforward:

  • Life safety.
  • Incident stabilization.
  • Property conservation.

These three priorities are in rank order and must always be addressed in that fashion. These three priorities must be considered at all types of incidents.

To demonstrate, if the first incident priority of life safety has not been achieved at a serious automobile accident, the IC would develop an action plan to extricate and free the entrapped victim. The extrication function is the strategy, while the tactic would be the rescue company operating the hydraulic tool to remove the obstacles to complete the removal of the customer.

The difference between strategy and tactics is simple. The strategic goal is the “what” and the tactical objective is the “how.” An example of a strategic goal would be to contain the product in the hot zone at a hazardous materials scene, while the tactical objectives would be to overpack and remove the spilled chemical to reach this goal. Often it will take several tactical objectives to achieve a strategic goal.

The incident priorities of life safety, incident stabilization and property conservation coupled with the selected strategic goals, tactical objectives and resource needs make up the incident action plan. Every incident that an IC handles must have an “action plan.” It’s a lot like a playbook for the quarterback. lt keeps the IC focused and prevents him or her from missing the big picture.

Although the term action plan may be new to the reader, you and your department have been using one for handling calls. Let’s take a common alarm to demonstrate, such as a dumpster fire. The action plan implemented would probably look like this: properly place the apparatus; ensure that the area is safe; advance a handline using the proper level of personal protective equipment (PPE) — remember, real firefighters don’t breathe smoke; extinguish the fire; and overhaul the hot spots. If there are additional dumpsters close by, most departments will wet them down to prevent additional responses to the same area.

The steps taken to handle the situation were based on the incident priorities, strategic goals, tactical objectives and available resources. That is the action plan in simple terms. The incident commander must be the developer and reviser of the action plan.

Next, the IC must develop a management structure to handle the incident properly. This structure must be based on the principles of span of control (a supervisor-to-subordinate ratio of five-to-one) and unity of command (each member has only one boss). Difficult and complex incidents will require a substantial management structure to be developed.

Mass Casualty Assignments

In 1993, I attended a mass casualty incident that required just about the entire incident command system to be activated. There were no fewer than 30 members in key supervision roles. These assignments included the operations, planning and logistics sections as well as triage, treatment, transportation and hazmat sectors. Each of these jobs required considerable time and effort to complete the removal of nearly 200 injured customers. Without developing a sound management structure, the IC would never have been able to reach the strategic goal of hospital care within the “golden hour” for the injured. If a single person had to manage such a complex incident, where would you even begin? The effective IC is a good delegator of authority and resources to be able to reach goals and objects.

The incident commander must be continually assessing outcomes to determine the effectiveness of the incident action plan. This function is accomplished through information received from the various operating sectors during the incident. They should be providing the IC with regular updated intelligence (the size-up process). The IC must adjust the plan accordingly to reach the desired goals. This includes the need to call for additional assistance.

Typically, ICs are reluctant to call for enough help early in the situation. Most cases that we handle are fast moving and require that we “front load” the effort if we are going to be successful. If you think that you may need another engine, you probably need two. Don’t forget the requirement to staff a rapid intervention company (RIC) at all working incidents. Ensuring that there are at least a few resources in staging while the incident is escalating may be an effective way of handling this function.

The IC must be responsible for the release of information to the media. Emergency events are newsworthy and are publicly scrutinized. The IC needs to manage the media contacts or be at the media’s mercy (generally not a pretty sight). This assignment is delegated to the public information officer (PIO). However, the IC should invest the time to review any and all information that will be released to insure that it fits the selected action plan.

Evacuation areas are one such situation that you get only one chance to get it right the first time. Misinformation could be deadly and will certainly erode your credibility with the public and the media. Have a press release form and a media plan ready long before the incident occurs. One major hint: NEVER allow the media to set up shop at the command post. This will be a great distraction and assuredly there will be information shared that will not be acceptable for general release. During the combat phase, the IC cannot serve in the role of PIO. The IC’s time and attention must be on the task at hand. Once the incident is under control, the IC may consider making a statement, if the situation warrants this action.

The last of the incident commander’s major responsibilities is to coordinate activities with outside agencies. During a significant incident, many agencies will show up to help and perform their assigned tasks. For example, two highly visited situations are mass casualty incidents and hazmat alarms.

In any situation where outside agencies are deployed, the IC has to coordinate efforts to fit into the incident action plan. Once again, there is a specific position, the liaison officer, to handle this responsibility. The IC will need to be informed about the status and requests of outside agencies, However, in some situations where the support agencies may be to have higher access or specific information about the incident, the IC will have to make the call. The liaison area should not be set up at the command post for the same reasons mentioned earlier.

To be a good incident commander, a member must understand the duties and responsibilities for this post. The IC must be the chief safety advocate for the firefighting forces. Next, the IC must utilize the three incident priorities to determine the strategic goals and tactical objectives. These items (incident priorities, goals and objectives) coupled with resource needs make up the action plan.

An effective IC will build a management structure to handle the incident based on several principles and the incident requirements. The management structure and action plan are continually revised as information is updated. The IC is responsible for the coordination of the release of information to the media and with outside agencies that respond to alarms.

The duties and responsibilities of the IC are demanding and critical to the successful outcome of any incident. The requirement for proper training, education and experience to fill this role cannot be overemphasized. Much like the quarterback, the IC will determine success or failure. Safe firefighting!


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

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