The initial actions of an incident commander can have a profound effect on the end result of a fire or emergency situation. That's why it's important for any officer pulling on the scene first know what to do and when, says Michael Daley, a lieutenant and training and rescue officer with Monroe Township, N.J.
Daley presented a class called "First Due? Then It's Up To You! The Role of the Initial Incident Commander" at the Firehouse Expo in Baltimore.
"Lack of ICS, inadequate risk assessment and lack of accountability are real problems," Daley said, noting that inadequate communications and poor standard operating procedures are also factors in poor results at fire scenes and lost property.
"If you don't know the rules on how to play, how do you go out the door and try to place by the rules," Daley asked rhetorically.
One of the first things an incident commander must decide when arriving on the scene of a working fire is whether to attack the fire offensively or go to a defensive mode, Daley said. The conditions found will dictate which tactic the officer should take.
Remembering the time honored mission of firefighters, to protect life and property, Daley said houses and buildings of today's construction leave very little time for rescue and fire suppression before fire consumes them.
Humans succumb to fire at temperatures about 212 degrees, the temperature at which water boils – a very low temperature when it comes to fire and some buildings can get to a point of flashover in five minutes or less.
Smoke is also extremely toxic when compared to fires in legacy buildings with natural materials and heavy construction, Daley said, noting that an initial incident commander has to determine whether a fire is survivable or not immediately upon arriving to effectively dictate fire attacks.
Daley said it's also important for incident commanders to remain situationally aware at all times, something that is difficult to achieve when an officer is assigned to tasks at a fire scene.
"The IC should give an initial radio report and take 30 seconds or so and do a quick walk around to see what's going on and get his head in the game," Daley said.
After establishing command, giving an initial assessment, first due officers should then develop an action plan and determine if they have sufficient resources to care it out, he said.
Using slides and scenario based situations, Daley walked the class attendees through a sequence of what should happen on a fire scene.
Given a structure fire in a 2,000 square foot residential building, Daley walked the audience through an exercise on how many firefighters it would take to handle the fire on a first alarm.
Based on a thumbnail analysis, the participants decided it would take upwards of 19 firefighters to achieve all the tasks normally assigned at residential house fires.
"How many people in here can get 19 firefighters on a first alarm," Daley asked. Not a single person raised a hand. "That's what I thought."
Given that reality, Daley said the incident commander will have to make decisions based on staffing.
"You might say; ‘I've got a lot going on, I don't have a lot of manpower, I'm going to focus on extinguishment,'" Daley said. "You might decide to go to defensive first and then go into an offense." As staffing arrives on the scene, or conditions change, it's good to reassess going offensively or defensively and not being afraid to switch tactics.
"Make a plan and stick with it, but don't be afraid to make adjustments if the situation changes," Daley said. "Make a plan, but keep plans B, C and D in your pocket."
Daley acknowledged that in his years of experience, he's lost a few structures -- its part of the business. But, one should always try to avoid that scenario if possible.
That's why he is a devotee of reading smoke, Daley said. It's a good indicator of how the fire is progressing and what might happen next. As velocity, volume and color changes, it can tell if firefighters are making a successful attack, or if conditions are deteriorating which would dictate a change in strategy.