Fire Studies: The Incident Commander: Controlling the Incident Scene

The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) has investigated more than 400 firefighter deaths. A common factor noted in fireground deaths has been attributed to shortcomings in the command function. Lack of accountability on the part of command is another significant factor in fireground fatalities.

Many firefighter line-of-duty deaths are attributed to not adhering to basic incident management principles. Firefighters must ensure that these NIOSH reports are used as lessons while recognizing that standards are developed to ensure the safety and survival of firefighters.


Making use of staff

Effective control of an incident dictates that certain functions be performed. The incident commander at a major incident becomes a manager. He or she must make use of staff by delegating tactical decisions to subcommands, giving an overall objective and allowing those who will achieve the objective the latitude to accomplish the task. Specific, point-by-point orders become counterproductive. They allow no discretion by the individual officer, and if the task can’t be performed exactly as ordered, it frequently necessitates additional questions.

Control means having a handle on what is occurring at an incident. It is having a feel for an operation and seeing that it is being performed properly. Control is changing an order when something is not working. An incident commander who sticks with a plan that is failing to accomplish the needed tasks or is no longer needed due to fireground changes shows poor leadership and lack of control. Organizing skills vary from one individual to another. To ensure proper handling of important aspects, delegation of tasks and maintenance of a manageable span of control is essential.


Command system training

Ample training is required of all members prior to the implementation of a command system. This includes not only simulations and exercises to gain familiarization, but specific training in the command and general staff positions. This training must cross agency and jurisdictional boundaries to prove successful at future incidents. This can be quite time-consuming when training for the positions of incident commander, safety, logistics, planning, finance and liaison. Numerous simulations must be practiced. Each participant should be allowed the opportunity to role-play in each incident command position that he or she will be required to assume at an incident. In fact, multiple opportunities at each position work the best. This training should be done under the direction of a trainer who can point out the correct procedures and pitfalls that could occur. Through the constant use of the incident management system, coupled with training and critiquing of incidents, members will achieve proficiency.

Establishing command

For the incident management system to function properly, there are certain steps that are required to ensure a successful outcome. The first-arriving officer at an incident scene must assume command.

When Command is first established, dispatch should be notified. An example is “Dispatch from Engine 1. Engine 1 will be Broad Street Command.” This accomplishes a number of tasks. It notifies dispatch and other units that command has been established; it tells the unit in command (Engine 1) and where command is positioned (Broad Street).

This action places the responsibility for the management of the incident scene on the incident commander. The function of command must be present at every incident. Someone must be in charge, or chaos will result. The absence of command allows for indecision and duplication of effort. Certain fireground tasks can be overlooked. Units will establish their own priorities.

Command must be initiated at all incident scenes. The everyday practice on minor fires allows for a smooth transition to a major incident. Once command is established, its continuity must be maintained. A system must be in place to allow for command to be transferred to a higher-ranking officer. Some systems require that the senior officer must assume command upon arrival at an incident. A better method is allowing the higher-ranking officer the latitude to take command or let the current officer maintain it.


Assuming command

As higher-ranking officers arrive on the scene, they must decide whether to assume command. Upon arrival and prior to transferring command, one of these higher-ranking officers should visually size-up the incident scene, including a 360-degree walk-around of the scene. This size-up should be conducted as if that officer were the first officer to arrive.

• What do you see?

• How would you attack the fire if you had been the initial incident commander?

• What fire department actions are taking place?

• Are these actions consistent with the problems observed?

The officer, after performing the size-up and discussing the scene with the current incident commander, will decide whether to assume command. An expanding incident may require a higher level of experience, necessitating a transfer of command.

Whether the higher-ranking officer assumes command or lets it remain with the present officer, he or she still assumes the responsibility of the scene. Some have the misconception that if command is not formally transferred, then neither is responsibility. This is erroneous; you cannot disavow responsibility.


Transfer of command

If a decision to assume command is made, then there should be a formal transfer of command. This change should not occur prior to a transfer of critical information and will require notifying dispatch and units via radio. The officer assuming command must have a handle on:

• What has happened?

• What is occurring now?

• The anticipated problems

• The current command organization in place (divisions and groups established)

Depending on resource availability, the incident commander being relieved may stay at the command post for a time after the transfer of command. This ensures the new incident commander that if any information has been overlooked during the transfer of command, it is readily available.

The reasons for not assuming command can vary. There would be no need to transfer command if all major decisions have been made and the current incident commander has the situation well under control. A complex incident often necessitates much time in the transfer of information. In this instance, the higher-ranking officer can assume command and keep the officer who has been relieved to assist until he or she gains familiarity with the incident.

This knowledge or transfer of information must occur before a good transfer of command takes place. It should be noted that it is unfair to let a low-ranking officer or an officer with little experience remain in command of a very complex incident.

Permitting a junior officer to remain in command with supervision from a higher-ranking and more experienced officer is an excellent way of developing fireground command skills and future chief officers. If a problem occurs, the junior officer can make the decision or “call the shots.” If he or she is about to make a critical mistake or seems befuddled, the senior officer can give assistance.

When transfer of command does occur, there should be a standard procedure to be followed. The incident commander should use situation and resource forms to allow a much easier transfer, with a review of the command structure and the units assigned to each function, the strategies that are in place and the tactics and tasks that have been implemented.

For an incident management system to function at peak efficiency, each firefighter involved must contribute to the overall success of an operation. The first-arriving officer at an incident, after sizing-up the situation, has many decisions to make. He or she must decide whether to set up a command post and assume command or if active participation in the incident can have a greater impact.

If the first-arriving officer decides that getting physically involved in the initial stages can save a life or prevent a minor fire from becoming a major incident, he or she can notify dispatch of this decision and pass command to the next-arriving officer.

Passing command

Passing command allows some latitude to the first-arriving officer. When units are responding from a great distance, it will take considerable time for the next unit to arrive on scene. The first-arriving officer may need to become physically involved. Under fire or emergency conditions, it would be impractical if the first engine to arrive is staffed with only two or three firefighters, and one of them sets up a command post and assumes command while a person in need of immediate rescue is not tended to.

Passing command is an option of the first-arriving officer. Should the first officer take this option, dispatch should be notified and command must be assumed by the next officer to arrive at the scene. This must occur to ensure that this vital position is staffed.


Mobile command

Some fire departments, due to closely aligned stations and rapid response of a chief officer, permit the first-arriving company officer to assume command, yet remain mobile. To accomplish this, the first-arriving officer:

• Gives an initial status report

• Gives orders for the incoming units (either specific orders or those units will go to Level 1 staging)

• Identifies and assumes command

Mobile command works well for fire departments where the chief officer arrives practically at the same time, or a minute or two after the arrival of the initial unit. Realize that until the officer who is a mobile command transfers command to another fire officer, or chief officer, he or she still has the responsibilities of any incident commander.

In fire departments that use mobile command and the chief officer will be delayed, the chief can notify dispatch of his or her delayed status, and the next-arriving company officer will assume command as if command was passed.


Command post

A command post provides the incident commander a stationary position from which to command the incident. It is essential when multiple companies are operating and its importance increases as the incident grows in complexity. Its location should let the incident commander be easily located. It gives the incident commander a location to assemble staff and other resources. It is a place where management functions occur to bring an incident under control.

The command post collects and disseminates information. It is a place where decisions are made, strategies developed and orders given. It offers shelter from the elements, light for nighttime operations and a place where reference books can be used.

The actual size of the command post is dictated by the needs of each incident. As functions and incident demands increase, the command post will increase accordingly. Caution must be taken to prevent overloading. This can occur if unneeded personnel are allowed to gather there.

The selection of where to locate the command post should consider a vantage point from which to view the incident. If possible, a good location is in front of the fire building or incident scene with a view of the front and the more critical of the two sides of the structure or the direction toward which a fire may spread. This will be predicated on a number of factors, such as the accessibility of the command vehicle as well as fire and smoke conditions encountered. If apparatus are operating at this location, a high noise level may prohibit use of this site for the command post.

A vantage point lets the incident commander compare reports received from the divisions or groups with his or her personal experience and knowledge. This is especially helpful when receiving conflicting reports, such as an interior division reporting that a fire is knocked down and a roof division reporting continual or increasingly heavy smoke and heat conditions. Conflicting reports need to be assessed by the incident commander, and a view of the building can assist in this evaluation.

A command post can use a chief’s vehicle, a special communications vehicle or a nearby building. The location of the command post should be communicated to dispatch, to the units operating at the scene and to incoming units. The command post location should be indicated by a special recognizable designation. This could be a flag or special-colored light.



The Incident Command System (ICS) is a management system designed to control personnel, facilities, equipment and communications throughout an emergency operation. It is intended to begin developing from the time an incident occurs until the requirement for management and operations no longer exists. The structure of the ICS can be established and expanded depending upon the changing conditions of the incident. n