“The Command Process: Getting Started”

The founding principles of the incident management system are establishing, maintaining, supporting and terminating command. A strong, central single incident commander is the starting point of the incident action plan process. The roles and responsibility of the incident commander are to develop and communicate strategy and tactics; assess the incident priorities (life safety, incident stabilization, and property conservation). Then he/she must develop and manage an organization that meets the needs of the incident; produce and support the incident action plan; obtain, allocate, coordinate and direct resources; and assess outcomes with action plan adjustments accordingly.

In order to be able to do these functions consistently and accurately at each alarm, the incident commander needs a structure or operational framework. This article will address three basic, but critical components that are part of the "incident command framework".

Essentially there are two types of command levels, they are single and unified command. Single command occurs when only one agency is involved and only one jurisdiction is impacted by the incident. The single type of command is used by emergency response agencies most of the time.

Examples of the single command process are emergency medical calls, automobile fires or an apartment complex burning that would not require outside help. The concept of "single command" is straightforward and simple to apply. To summarize single command concept, only one jurisdiction has the duty and authority to act at a given incident.

In contrast, a unified command structure assumes that multi-agencies and/or jurisdictions are actively involved in solving the emergency. Because of each agency's involvement or community impact, they are allowed (encouraged) to have input at the strategic level.

In the unified command structure there is still only one single, central incident commander and one incident action plan. However, the other response agencies/jurisdictions interact and provide direction to the entire operation. This activity may sound a little tricky, but if the egos are set aside, the unified process should strengthen the command team concept.

A great example occurred several years ago in a community next to mine. A gasoline tank was struck by a dump truck erupting into flames. This accident happened in a densely populated area that had a great deal of human and property exposures. Instantly, there was a major rescue and fire problem to resolve. As well, there was a tremendous potential for an environmental assault with 9,200 gallons of gasoline. This incident occurred at the jurisdictional boundary line, which just happened to be a major river. Both departments that were near this alarm were summons by multiple 9-1-1 calls to their respective communications centers. The two departments send full fire-rescue responses to handle the type of request that was received.

The departments worked together very well that day. "All hands" were needed to support this major operation which had several fire fatalities, injuries and ignition of two exposure buildings. The run-off situation had to be handled by the hazardous materials response team from the larger of the two jurisdictions. Both departments provided senior fire officers for the command post operations. The "host" department (the county that the accident occurred in) took and maintained the incident commander position. In fact, their fire chief handled the command duties.

Valuable input was provided by the "assisting" department, as well as a significant amount of personnel and equipment. Further, the communications network (each agency uses a different frequency) was improved considerable through this application of unified command. Coincidentally, about 90 minutes into the operation, a chief officer from a third community arrived on location and requested to be added to the "unified command team".

The reason for his request (that was granted) was the fact that the river in question made up his community's water supply. As you can see, each individual of the command team had unique and special interests. By working together as a team, all issues were addressed in a timely and effective fashion. The unified system maintains control and ensures that only one game plan is used and all of the incident needs are meet.

The next element that we will examine is the command modes. There are three ways that command can be established. The three modes are, mobile, stationary and passing command. The idea of mobile command is that the first arriving company officer assumes command and assists with the delivery of tactical level operations. This mode should only be selected when the personal effort of the company officer will have a significant impact at the alarm. If his/her presence will favorable effect the outcome of the incident, this is most likely the correct initial command mode.

Remember that the down side of selecting this mode is that it is extremely difficult to command an incident from inside a facepiece. The concept of "tunnel vision" is exaggerated when you're trying to get the big picture looking through a scba mask. If mobile command is selected, the position must be transferred to a qualified member to set-up a stationary command position as soon as possible.

The conditions may sometimes indicate the need for being able to pass command to another officer. If this mode is selected, the following rules should be applied. The receiving officer should be arriving at the same time as the company officer that is passing command. For instance, a station that houses an engine and a truck typically get to the job at about the same time. Next, command can only be passed in this fashion once. There is no "double" passing (the hot potato syndrome) of the commander position. Once again, the stationary command position must be utilized as soon as possible when enough qualified personnel arrive.

The final command mode is stationary command. Upon arrival, command is established at a suitable location and is staffed for the duration of the incident. This is the type of command that needs to eventually be developed at all calls. In some systems, it may take a while to get a command level officer on location with an appropriate vehicle for this type of duty. That is why the other modes may be selected as needed.

An example of this situation would be at a major incident that would clearly indicate that the company officer's personal presence would not have an impact at the tactical level. At a major incident, the other two modes are not effective and can be dangerous to the welfare of operating troops. The initial incident commander must start the system off the correctly, by selecting the proper command mode. By following these few rules, the correct decision can be made when it is time for the "rubber to meet the road".

The last item that we will examine is the command post facility. Command post locations may range from very sparse to a well appointed one. Typically, the complexity and duration of the incident will drive the type of facility that is used. The command post is a place where the incident commander can retain his/her sanity and utilize support materials and equipment to manage the operational resources.

The initial command post might be the officer's seat on the first or second arriving piece of apparatus. This vehicle is most often strategically located and has a host of support information and equipment that will be needed by the IC. On board might be preplans, map books, and hazardous materials reference sources. The cab will provide a reasonable level of weather protection, lighting and climate control. The communications systems tend to be better on a mobile radio versus a portable hand held radio. Some of the noise and confusion can be removed from the commander by the physical barrier of this enclosure. Althought the "front seat" is limited; this isn't a bad starting point.

If the incident continues to escalate and require more resources to manage it, the next command post facility will be a vehicle designed for a chief officer's response. These units can range from sedans to suburbans. The function of the front seat of the engines are reformed and embellished. The work area has sound insulation, cellular phones, and maybe a fax machine. The ability to add reference and other printed resource materials is available with these types vehicles. A standard AM/FM radio is helpful, if news coverage is released about the incident. The standard radio will allow you to closely monitor information on evacuations and road closures to ensure the accuracy of the information. There is more interior space in these types of vehicles to add staff officer positions.

When the alarm out distances the "chief's buggy", the command van is the next step up. Many departments have designed motor home shaped vehicles to serve as field command posts. The vehicles expand the range of electronic support to computers, copiers, battery charges, and increased radio capability. The command post vehicles have more seating capacity for staff support officers. For example, the "plans chief" or "liaison officer" should be close to the IC, this type of vehicle will allow for this interaction to occur.

Many of these types of vehicles have the ability to provide a few necessities such as food, drink, and rest room facilities. As the incident continues to grow, each of these support elements get to be very important for the maintenance of the command staff.

The last stop for command post facilities will be a building. Major, long duration events may be best managed from a close by school or fire station building, for example. The building variety command posts offer the most space and other long term support items. An extended hazardous materials incident may take a very large command and support staff a long time to conclude the incident successfully. A building might be the most appropriate location to house the commend post and support functions. As with the other three types of command posts the transition to the next level will take time, planning and coordination.

In summary, we have discussed some of the basic components for establishing and maintaining command. The location and the agencies that are deployed at the incident determine the type of command that gets selected. The command mode selections are based on the initial needs and available personnel at the incident. And finally, the complexity, size and duration of the alarm drives the command post facilities.

Hopefully, this article has provided you with some insight to improve your command operation procedures. Only through proper training and preparation will fire-rescue departments be able to improve delivery of service to our customers. The command function is the process by which we will be able to be able to safely, efficiently and effectively deliver this service. Good luck and safe fire fighting!