Making the tough choices as an incident commander or a fire officer of any rank is never easy, but it’s better than making no decisions and letting things happen by default.
That’s the message Deputy Chief Mario Rueda and Battalion Chief Joseph Castro, both with the Los Angeles Fire Department who taught a class Tuesday at Firehouse World in San Diego called Command Boot Camp.
“Command is all about making decisions without all the facts,” said Rueda, who has 32 years of fire service experience and has operation command over 3,300 firefighters. “It can be dark and wet, cold and scary, but our job is to make sense out of all the chaos.”
Rueda said 95 percent of all incidents firefighters respond to are routine and the rest can be unique and challenging. He said most fire officers have a slide-show like file of images and information they rely upon while making decisions. Through years of experience, they have seen a lot of similarities and they can use that mental image to make decisions, he said.
However, there are many times the mind’s slide carousel is blank with no prior knowledge to apply.
“We try to teach a process to use where if you don’t know exactly what to do, you can work through the process to have a positive outcome,” Rueda said.
For Castro, who has 33 years fire service experience, said command is a matter of “adding value through organization and by making the mission workers more efficient.”
When he first started in the fire service, part of command was risk management and knowing the department policy. Years ago, virtually every department’s risk management policy, whether it was written or general knowledge relied on the simple adage – risk a lot to save a lot; risk a little to save a little; risk nothing to save nothing.
LAFD refined that policy a little more by acknowledging that firefighting is inherently dangerous and action to mitigate any risk is expected, Castro said, noting that it gives fire commanders a bit more flexibility to decide the best course of action.
For instance, Castro said if he has all the information and has clear understanding of where the fire is, knows the fire load and sees multiple means of egress, he might be a little more willing to send firefighters in to a fire to just save property and save an unoccupied commercial building just to keep someone in business.
However, that same situation with no egress, no knowledge of where the fire is and no knowledge of even what kind of business is operating in the structure, the risk is too high and the pay off too small.
“You can push into a building and keep pushing until you see orange, or it flashes and burns everyone to death,” Castro said. “It’s just not worth it.”
There’s always the time/temperature curve that firefighters have to consider when making a decision on how far to advance into a burning building, Castro said, and the absence of any “pre-fire intell” like inspections or pre-planned responses or building schematics.
Castro said he has come to learn that the best way to be a commander is to simply state the objectives as clearly as possible, but avoid telling firefighters how to accomplish it.
“Don’t be a micro manager,” Castro said, adding that by doing so, officers tie the hands of the mission workers – the firefighters assigned the tasks. Micro management is inefficient and can often lead to hostile relationships.
“I don’t want to hear, ‘I am not going to do anything until Joe [Castro] tells me what to do and how he wants me to do it,’” he said.
As an incident commander, Castro said it’s his job to think more globally and be situationally aware at higher levels than firefighters focusing on tasks.
“I can’t expect the group inside in zero visibility with the facemasks on to figure it out,” Castro said. “I’ve got to figure it out and tell them what’s going on.”
Rueda said as incidents escalate, so does the level of incident command. As the simple becomes complicated, the complicated becomes complex and the complex becomes chaotic, it requires additional levels of higher incident command.
“When I get called out, someone else can’t put it all together,” said the deputy chief. “Something has become harder, or something is wrong.”
Yet, as each level of command is summoned, they have the benefit of all the knowledge and intelligence gathering each level has gathered about a particular scene or event, thereby allowing the higher level commander to look at different factors, Castro said. A fresh set of eyes on an issue can often help advance resolution, he said.
More experience helps fill out the slide show mental image, Rueda said, but, there are firsts for everyone. For instance the San Bruno, Calif., natural gas explosion that wiped out dozens of homes and killed four people is something very few people had ever experienced.
“Do you think the first guy on the scene in San Bruno had any idea of what to hell he was looking at,” Rueda asked. “I don’t think so.”
Yet, that commander had to do something Rueda said, adding that initial reports suggested the fire and explosion may have been caused by a plane crash.
The commander decided to do what could be done and that was put out the edges of the fire and push it back, Rueda said, adding that as more was pushed back to the core of the fire, it was easier to see what was going on and the image of a gas line burning in a home was the slide image that fit the incident, just on a much larger scale.
“You can’t just stand by and do nothing,” Rueda said. “That’s not an option because that’s not what leaders do. You have to do something.
That something can be completely defensive, meaning evacuating the area and pulling firefighters back, but at some point, leaders are going to have to be proactive. …Just don’t kill yourself or the people working for you.”
As a commander, Rueda said his goal is always to keep the complicated from getting complex and escalating further.
“I may not fully understand the problem and I may have to call in experts to help me figure out what’s happening, but I need to bring clarity and purpose to the mission. … People will follow if you tell them what you are doing and they buy into it.”