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.


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.

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