Safety & Survival: The Second-Responding Incident Commander

The duties of a first-responding incident commander at a major fire are well documented. In many instances, that person’s experience and skill in bringing fires under control eliminate the need for a second incident commander to respond. However, if a fire spreads or the scene must be expanded, a second incident commander must respond.

In many fire departments, the first incident commander (usually a battalion chief) responds with several engines and ladder companies and directs firefighting strategy. When a greater alarm is transmitted, a second incident commander – often a deputy chief, assistant chief or chief of department – responds.

When the fire scene must be expanded because of spreading flame and smoke, the initial actions of a second-responding incident commander are critical. These actions have great consequence, but they are not well understood and seldom are taught in incident command training courses.

The following are some actions and orders a second-arriving incident commander may take upon arrival at a spreading fire. (Note: The terms “assistant chief” or “chief of department” may be substituted for “deputy chief.):

1. The duties of a deputy chief and battalion chief at a fire are different. You need both. A deputy chief and a battalion chief execute different strategies at a fire or emergency. A battalion chief employs an offensive strategy at a fire; a deputy chief applies a defensive strategy.

2. A deputy chief’s mission is to assess and protect surrounding life hazards in the path of a fire while the battalion chief’s mission is life safety and incident stabilization inside the structure on fire.

3. A deputy chief defends adjacent buildings from fire spread while a battalion chief supervises firefighting inside the fire building.

4. A deputy chief orders ladders raised to protect the lives of occupants who suddenly appear trapped at windows while a battalion chief commands interior firefighting operations.

5. A deputy chief conducts risk analysis of the exterior of a burning building while the battalion chief conducts risk analysis of conditions inside the building.

6. A deputy chief orders ground and aerial master streams into operation and a battalion chief directs fire companies using mobile, small-diameter attack hoselines.

7. A deputy chief sizes up and controls perimeter outside fire spread while a battalion chief sizes up and controls interior fire spread.

8. A deputy chief prevents radiated heat transmission from building to building; a battalion chief prevents convection heat transmission from moving room to room and floor to floor.

9. A deputy chief analyzes a large-area exterior fire scene while a battalion chief analyzes a narrow interior fire scene.

10. A deputy chief plans and executes a backup (or “fail-safe”) strategy in case a battalion chief’s strategy is not successful.

11. A deputy chief discovers structure collapse dangers and warns the battalion chief and firefighters to evacuate the building.

12. A deputy chief stops fire spread on the combustible exterior walls of a wood-frame dwelling while the battalion chief manages interior fire spread.

13. A deputy chief directs outside streams to stop auto exposure – flames spreading upward window to window – while a battalion chief manages interior operations.

14. There are four priorities of firefighting: life saving, including lives of civilians and firefighters; incident stabilization; property protection; and reduction of environmental impact from fire and smoke. A deputy chief manages three priorities on the outside: life safety of civilians and firefighters; property protection; and reducing impact on the environment. Battalion chiefs manage two priorities on the inside: life safety and incident stabilization. You need both chiefs to control all four mission priorities.

15. A deputy chief establishes a command post outside the burning building. Incoming units report here and receive orders at this location from the deputy and assigns some of them to the battalion chief inside.

16. A deputy chief manages a large-scale incident that may include several battalion chiefs. The deputy declares a battalion chief as operations officer; assigns a planning chief officer; calls logistical support to the scene, such as medical, water supply, police, buildings; and records all potential costs generated by mutual aid and outside advisors.

17. A deputy chief exhibits a defensive attitude that is necessary when responding to unusual high-risk terrorism, hazardous materials and bomb incidents. A battalion chief has an offensive, attacking attitude, which may not be effective.

18. A deputy chief’s defensive approach balances a battalion chief’s offensive skills during a fire. You need both.

19. A deputy chief and five battalion chiefs are necessary to effectively command and control a fire in a high-hazard occupancy such as a high-rise building that houses thousands of people. The following critical command functions require chief officer skills: one deputy in command; one battalion chief at the lobby command station; one battalion chief as operations chief directing fire operations; one battalion chief supervising companies performing search and evacuation on the floors above; one battalion chief as personnel and equipment staging officer; and one battalion chief as apparatus staging area. You need all of these command chiefs to protect the thousands of people and the firefighters in a dangerous high-rise environment during a fire.

20. A deputy chief can best conduct a post-fire analysis for training because that person has overseen the entire operation. Battalion chiefs can best conduct post-fire analysis for a sector or portion of the fire. You need both views.

21. A deputy chief establishes command, communicates and monitors a fire through a command portable radio channel in addition to a fire company tactical radio channel at a major fire. On the command channel a deputy coordinates fire strategy through radio messages between battalion chiefs and fire companies. Battalion chiefs coordinate tactical radio messages between fire companies.

22. A deputy chief must assess the need for more resources at a fire while the battalion chief directs interior operations. Upon arrival, these incoming units are dispatched to the battalion chief to help him or her accomplish the objectives of the operation.

23. A deputy chief calls for mutual aid fire companies from adjoining communities to the operations; battalion chiefs integrate mutual aid fire companies into the firefighting activities.

24. A deputy chief coordinates operations of several battalions at large fires to prevent opposing hoselines, which may injure firefighters and delay fire extinguishment.

25. A deputy chief directs and controls operations of the rapid intervention team during a Mayday signal for a missing or trapped firefighter. Battalion chiefs must continue to supervise firefighting operations during a Mayday search.

26. A deputy chief orders the emergency withdrawal of battalion chiefs and firefighters from dangerous fires and emergencies.

27. A deputy chief directs demobilization operations after a fire is extinguished. Demobilization includes: obtaining and recording results of secondary-search reports; maintaining traffic control; and securing the perimeter of a dangerous, burned-out property after a fire. Battalion chiefs direct interior salvage overhauling and rekindle prevention during demobilization.

28. A deputy chief plans, administers, directs, controls and coordinates training activities of battalions and companies to ensure future life-saving and fire-extinguishing effectiveness.

29. A deputy chief directs community fire education programs, fire prevention lessons learned and holiday safety messages. Battalion chiefs supply deputies with information for these education events. You need both.