The Ten Command-ments of Intelligent & Safe Fireground Operations

The master craftsman incident commander relies on a structured, systematic, strategic process to manage strategy, resources and risk. This structured, systematic process will serve reliably during most square-foot fireground operations. However, because the fireground is dynamic, not static, this strategic framework must be flexible so that the incident commander can quickly adapt to changing conditions.

The principles in "Ten Command-ments" and the Integrated Tactical Accountability methodology have been crafted to provide a reliable, yet nimble structured, systematic process. A strategic framework was assembled with Command-ments I through IX. Prior to Command-ment I, you were introduced to "13 Fireground Indiscretions" (Firehouse®, April 2006) that have caused hundreds of firefighter deaths and injuries, as well and thousands of unreported close calls.

The "Ten Command-ments" have been crafted to help ensure that none of the "13 Fireground Indiscretions" are transgressed on your fireground. In addition, you will serve your community with a high degree of strategic professionalism. Rather than include the lack of a competent incident commander as one of the "13 Fireground Indiscretions," they provide evidence that a competent, proactive command presence was absent.

Proactive strategists are not born, they are developed and they play by the rules of engagement. It requires hard-work, preparation, discipline and diligence to become an informed, proactive command presence. It also requires poise and confidence; poise and confidence are also not genetic, poise and confidence are a byproduct of hard-work, preparation, discipline and reliance on a structured, systematic process.

Command-ment X will provide final pieces to your strategic framework; these final pieces will help ensure that you are a proactive strategist rather than a reactive tactician. Command-ment X will offer guidelines that will help you manage an effective command post during a square-foot fireground operation. If you are willing to work-hard, prepare and trust the structured systematic process, if you routinely address each of the "Ten Command-ments" and you ensure that none of the 13 Fireground Indiscretions are transgressed, you can be referred to as a master craftsman fire officer.

The 10-Minute Clock

A key component of Command-ment X — as well as a crucial component of competent incident management — is clock management. Two National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) standards, specifically NFPA 1500 and NFPA 1561, require dispatchers to provide 10-minute notifications to the incident commander:

NFPA 1500

8.2.4 — The fire department communications center shall start an incident clock when the first-arriving unit is on-scene of a working structure fire or hazardous materials incident, or when other conditions appear to be time sensitive or dangerous. — The dispatch center shall notify the incident commander at every 10-minute increment with the time that resources have been on the incident until the fire is knocked down or the incident becomes static. — The incident commander shall be permitted to cancel the incident clock notification through the fire department communications center based on the incident conditions.

A. — Common procedure is for the dispatch center to announce "incident clock is 10 minutes," "incident clock is 20 minutes," "incident clock is 30 minutes," and so forth. (Author's note: I prefer "Main Street Command, you are at 20 minutes" or simply "Main Street Command at 20 minutes.)

NFPA 1561

4.3.16 — The incident commander shall be provided with reports of elapsed time-on-scene at emergency incidents in 10-minute intervals (bold emphasis by NFPA) from the ESO Communications Center, until reports are terminated by the incident commander.

The 10-minute clock addresses Fireground Indiscretion 8: Nobody watching the clock. While the 10-minute clock is an essential piece of the structured, systematic strategic framework, what the incident commander does with each 10-minute notification differentiates the proactive strategist from the reactive tactician. At each 10-minute notification, I recommend the following:

  1. The incident commander acknowledges each notification and affirms or changes the operational mode. Examples:

    "Main Street Command, copy 10 minutes, Main Street Command still offensive from side A on floor 2."

    "Main Street Command, copy 20 minutes, Main Street Command now defensive, repeat, Main Street Command now defensive."

    As the notifications pass — 20 minutes becomes 30 minutes, 30 minutes becomes 40 minutes, etc. — it will become harder and harder to broadcast "still offensive." If after 40 minutes they're still asking for more ventilation and additional hoselines, it could be time to punt and get the defense on the field.

  2. Incident safety officers perform a fireground safety survey. This survey dovetails with Command-ment III, Thou shall identify, factor and monitor THREE situations that kill firefighters. Any negative changes, problems or hazards are immediately communicated to the command post. Rather than add to the radio chatter, these notifications should be conducted face to face at the command post. (That is, unless the hazard is urgent and immediate action is required.)
  3. The incident commander updates the Value-Time-Size assessment. Determining value, time and size are critical elements of an intelligent and safe fireground strategy.

    • Value — Is there still value? Who has the most value? What has the most value? Where is the most value? Once you have determined your firefighters have the most value, do the right thing.
    • Time — Do you have time to protect and preserve what you have determined has value? This involves factors such as time, distance and Btu. For example, during a high-rise operation, time and distance and Btu may make it impossible to confine a fire to the floor that is now burning. That floor no longer has value…no value, no time…move your strategic focus to the floors above.
    • Size — If you determine that there is still value, and you determine that there is time to preserve and protect that value, your next strategic consideration is the size of the operation it will require. Operational size includes two key resource components: personnel and water. Do you have enough personnel to start and finish the operation? Do you have enough water to start and finish the operation? If you don't have enough personnel, water — or both — then shift your strategic focus to value that can be preserved and protected with the size of operation you can sustain from start to finish.

Another key component of size is how much time it will take to muster the resources that are necessary to preserve and protect the value you have identified. Sometimes, a city council or a board of fire commissioners will make your strategic decisions years before the fire happens.

Four Not-So-Easy Pieces

There are four key pieces to the puzzle of a competently managed square-foot fireground:

  1. Incident command
  2. Tactical accountability
  3. Action planning
  4. Communications

Together these four key pieces form the acronym ITAC. Each piece contributes no more than 25% to a competently managed incident. For example, flawless incident command system (ICS) implementation will contribute no more than 25% to a successful, competently managed square-foot fireground operation. Without achieving and maintaining tactical accountability for all personnel at all times, without quickly drafting and implementing an incident action plan, and without clear, concise, and disciplined communications, it is impossible to experience an intelligent, safe and coordinated fireground operation.

How you address each of these ITAC pieces is not as easy as the acronym; however, grabbing hold of the structured, systematic strategic framework described during the "Ten Command-ments" series is a great place to begin assembling your strategic puzzle. ITAC also provides four meaningful questions to ask each fire officer after a fireground operation:

  1. Was incident command competent?
  2. Was everybody tactically accounted for at all times (who-what-where-when-why)?
  3. Was there an action plan (and do you know what piece of the plan you were responsible for)?
  4. Was communications clear, concise and disciplined?

Although "yes" or "no" qualify as an answer to each question, probe deeper for evidence why some officers answered yes and others no. If you were the incident commander and received a thumbs-up from each fire officer for each question, what else could you ask for? The goal is to consistently receive consensus thumbs-up for each question. Should there be a thumbs-down, find out why and fix the problem.

Command Post Benchmarks

Often, status reports will be tied to the 10-minute clock. Division and group supervisors can anticipate being asked for a status report every 10 minutes, particularly during the primary phase of the operation (before the fireground has been stabilized). As offered in Command-ment II, Team Leaders "CARE" for their team members by continually monitoring Conditions, Air, Radio and Egress. This, of course, requires the team leader to keep the team together and for the team leader to stay with the team. When asked for a status report, team leaders report Progress, Air, Conditions and Team ("PACT"). Also recall that a team leader can be asked for PACT portions such as a progress report, a conditions report, or any combination of PACT. A typical PACT status report would sound something like this:

"Floor 2 in progress, 50 plus, smoke increasing, Engine 33 with three."

Notice that because Engine 33 is tactically accounted for (who-what-where), the team leader did not need to report what is "in progress"; whoever has Engine 33's passport knows what the company is doing and where members are operating. The PACT report confirms where the team is located, how much air (generally speaking) the team has, what the conditions are, and if the team is together ("with three" conveys the team leaders plus two team members). This concise, clear and meaningful status report can be used by a division or group supervisor to determine if the plan is working, if an exchange team will soon be needed, if inside conditions match conditions viewed from the supervisor's perspective, and if the team is in the CARE of the team leader.

When asked for a status report, division and group supervisors report Conditions, Progress and Resources (CPR — not to be confused with compressing a deceased person's chest): conditions from the supervisor's perspective, progress of the supervisor's piece of the primary or secondary phase action plan, and resources (teams assigned to the supervisor). A CPR status report would sound something like this:

"Conditions improving, primary phase in progress, Division A with five."

"Primary phase in progress" conveys that all objectives assigned to Division A are still in progress. "Division A with five" conveys that the division supervisor has accounted for five teams. (Recall that division and group supervisors are responsible for tactical accountability of assigned teams, team leaders are responsible for personnel accountability of team members.)

The incident commander must also provide status reports. I refer to command post status reports as strategic benchmarks. It is imperative that these strategic benchmarks are recorded on tape. Thus it is imperative that command post benchmarks are conveyed through a dispatcher. For example: "Dispatch from Main Street Command, primary search all clear." If the dispatcher repeats (clarifies from the 4-C communication model) the benchmark, then you are assured it has been recorded and time-stamped. There are three reasons why you want to have command post strategic benchmarks recorded:

  1. Legal — If there is any question about if or when an action or event took place, the time-stamped recording will provide evidence.
  2. Training — Recorded, time-stamped benchmarks provide valuable time-line information for conducting an after-action/post-incident review session.
  3. Redundancy — If anybody missed your benchmark announcement, they'll likely hear the dispatcher's clarification.

Command Post strategic benchmarks include:

  • Name and location of the command post (when establishing or assuming command
  • Water supply established
  • The operational mode
  • Apparatus park or base
  • Personnel report to staging (temporary at the command post or location of formal staging area; recall that rehab is co-located with staging)
  • Utilities stabilized
  • Divisions, group or branch established
  • 10-minute operational mode updates
  • Rapid intervention team or group established (recall that is also means you now have a backup team protecting egress)
  • Primary search in progress
  • Safety officer established
  • Rescue (or search and rescue) in progress
  • Rescue (or search and rescue) complete
  • Primary search "all clear"
  • Evacuation in progress/complete
  • Exposures stabilized
  • Primary phase in progress
  • Primary phase complete
  • Secondary phase in progress
  • Secondary phase complete
The Action Plan Template

On page 90, you will find my one-page Incident Action Plan Template (APT) for a square-foot (building) fireground operation. This template will work for the majority of square-foot firegrounds (building fires) that you respond to. I prefer to use a laminated APT that has Velcro affixed to the back. I simply pull the appropriate APT and attach it to the command post board at my command rig. I use a grease pencil or a blue (for contrast) permanent marker.

Shown below is an example of a primary phase action plan that is in progress:

(Bold text = standard offensive game plan.)

Circled objectives need to be initiated or assigned. A single diagonal line is placed through an objective when it is in progress. When an objective has been completed, the diagonal line is crossed making an X. At least once every 10 minutes you should glance at the Incident APT to quickly determine how your plan is progressing. If you don't know how things are progressing, obtain status reports. (A good primary phase rule of thumb is to obtain status reports every 10 minutes.)

Think of the APT as the strategic equivalent of the laminated game plan that you see NFL offensive or defensive coordinator using on the sideline during a football game. There's no question that the coordinator knows the playbook, he doesn't need to roam the sideline wrestling with the entire playbook. The laminated game plan, often ledger-size and crammed with information, is used as a quick reference so that nothing important is overlooked or falls through the cracks during the heat of battle. Same with the APT, you don't want anything important to be overlooked or fall through the cracks during your game. Besides, the stakes are much higher for you than they are for all of the NFL offensive or defensive coordinators combined.

Call to Action

That's it, the "Ten Command-ments" series is finished…or perhaps it has just begun. What you do with the information and the methodology described by this series of incident management solutions is up to you, your fire department and perhaps to your region.

My hope is that this series provided a few "nuggets" that will help you manage strategy, resources and risk. If the goal is to become an informed strategist and a master craftsman fire officer, the structured, systematic strategic framework introduced during past year is a good place to start (or at least a good source for sharpening your strategic saw).

Firefighters often represent the most value on the fireground. When you take care of strategy, you take care of your people. Once your firefighters are taken care of strategically, they will take care of "Mrs. Smith" tactically.

MARK EMERY, EFO, is a shift battalion chief with the Woodinville, WA, Fire & Life Safety District. He is a graduate of the National Fire Academy's Executive Fire Officer program and an NFA instructor specialist. Emery received a bachelor of arts degree from California State University at Long Beach and is a partner with Fire Command Seattle LLC in King County, WA. He may be contacted at or access his website

  1. Thou shall have ONE competent incident commander.
  2. Thou shall maintain teams of at least TWO personnel.
  3. Thou shall recognize THREE situations that kill firefighters.
  4. Thou shall ensure that FOUR sides are seen and compared.
  5. Thou shall not exceed a span-of-control of FIVE.
  6. Thou shall operate within one of SIX operational modes.
  7. Thou shall perform the SEVEN-step action plan process.
  8. Thou shall make EIGHT assignments early.
  9. Thou shall address three strategic priorities with NINE tactical objectives.
  10. Thou shall evaluate the situation, mode and plan every TEN minutes.
  1. Lack of knowledge and information
  2. Problems not identified and/or factored
  3. Inappropriate operational mode
  4. No plan formulated or communicated
  5. Insufficient resources (especially people)
  6. No tactical accountability
  7. Random, undisciplined communication
  8. Nobody watching the clock
  9. Poor fire-growth management
  10. Span of control out of control
  11. Insufficient gpm for Btu
  12. Officers at task-level (especially while firefighters watch)
  13. No ongoing, periodic, situation reassessment