Using Incident Command To Manage Firefighter Safety

March 1, 2009

Eight years ago, I was a member of a panel of four response chiefs teaching a two-day battalion chiefs training program at a fire service conference. We had just finished an overview of a structure fire where a firefighter died of smoke inhalation after getting lost and running out of air. One student raised his hand and asked the best question that's ever been asked at any conference. He said, "Two months ago, I was promoted to the rank of battalion chief. There are over 40 buildings in my first-due area that look exactly like the building you just showed us. I haven't ever received any formal training in how a battalion chief is supposed to run a fire. How do I manage fires in a way where my guys don't end up getting killed?"

I patiently waited my turn as each of my counterparts took a shot at answering his question. When the West Coast guy made the statement, "I order all of my chief officers to wear full protective gear when they command fires because it sends a positive safety message to the troops," I couldn't help myself any longer.

I ignored the really good question and went after what my associate had just said. I blurted out, "Where does your department normally position their incident commander?" He replied, "In the front seat of their response vehicle."

Sensing the lunacy of where this was headed, I asked, "Do they wear their SCBA?" He looked at me like I had lost my mind and said, "No. How in the world would a person who's sitting in the front seat of an SUV wear an SCBA?"

For the next couple of minutes, the two of us argued, only to be interrupted by the third instructor throwing in his two cents. This finally ended when the lead instructor shouted over the three of us that it was time to take a break. The young chief never got his question answered and should have received a full refund of his registration fee.

I would like to thank Firehouse® Magazine for giving me the opportunity to answer the man's question eight years later.

The whole thing boils down to where we perform our job. The work we do at the scene of structure fires is unique, to say the least. Firefighters operate inside burning buildings. No other workforce operates in an environment loaded with combustible and toxic fire gases, has oxygen levels that won't sustain life, is full of blinding and combustible smoke, can go from tenable to almost 2,000 degrees in the blink of an eye, and in a building that is about 15 minutes from falling down. This is our world.

Our task-level workers (i.e., firefighters) wear protective envelopes that encase their entire bodies. In many instances, the only thing keeping them alive is the finite air supply they wear on their backs. It wasn't until the last decade or so since our service has started to pay more attention and incorporate the limits of our personal protective gear into the way we manage ourselves at the scene of structure fires.

In the good old days, Incident Action Plans (IAPs) for structure fires were designed around fire flow. Once you estimated the size of the fire, you could attach a required gallons-per-minute amount to it and start ordering lines to be laid and nozzles to flow water. Today's IAP also have to include firefighter safety. Any IAP that includes the safety of the hazard-zone workers must be designed around a roundtrip ticket for firefighters. This "ticket" is based on the 18-20-minute working time of self-contained breathing apparatus (SCBA).

Managing our air supply is one of the foundations of firefighter safety. It's something firefighters must train on and our hazard-zone standard operating procedures (SOPs) and management systems have got to be tailored around firefighters not running out of air. When we base our structural fire attacks around air, it will affect the actions we take. Stretching an attack line over 200 feet inside a building hosting an out-of-control fire takes on a very dismal safety outcome when you factor in the true working time SCBA provide. The consequences of running out of air in a burning building are dire.

Because the hazards we face can quickly change from OK to lethal, the system we use to manage the hazard zone must outpace the incident hazards. This requires our incident command system to serve double duty. Not only must it let us quickly organize so we can deal with the incident problem, it must also serve as the system we use to manage firefighter safety. Hazard-zone safety isn't something that can wait for the safety officer to show up. That is a fundamentally flawed concept. It isn't possible to have a crew abandon an interior position 30 seconds after the roof falls on top of them.

Most structure fires go out with one or two well-placed attack lines. These events do not require much in the way of commanding. The officer of the first-arriving company identifies the correct strategy, formulates a plan, gives an initial radio report, takes command of the event and goes to work. This initial command process typically takes less than a minute, but it effectively lines out the initial attack wave. The officer goes with his or her crew and manages the incident in the fast-attack mode by portable radio. This fast-attacking incident commander (IC) will assign the next couple of units. In most instances, when the initial-arriving response chief gets to the scene, there isn't a need to transfer command because the first few companies solved the incident problem.

The beauty of the system is when this initial attack doesn't eliminate the incident problem, the system is quickly upgraded. The chief transfers command and builds on the organized front-end operation that IC Number 1 put in place. This is precisely the time the command system must be escalated to the next level. The command system matches the actual work that is taking place, not the other way around. It also must match, and keep pace, with the hazards the firefighters are facing.

Another key element to our hazard-zone management system is our ability to quickly escalate the attack positions around the incident scene. These tactical positions are initiated by a single company. As the resource requirements for these positions increase, the IC upgrades the sector-officer positions by assigning them to later-arriving command responders. A rule of thumb is to upgrade the sector-officer assignment for a tactical position if you're going to assign three or more companies in that position. Many departments pair response chiefs with aides. Assigning this pair sector-officer responsibility places strong leadership and increased management and safety capability in the sector - where the work is taking place.

Upgrading the assignment to a sector officer who can manage from the warm zone (as opposed from being tethered to an attack line on the inside of the building) provides a true tactical boss - one who is in a better position to monitor conditions, prioritize the work, manage multiple companies and look out for the safety of all their assigned personnel. This organizational upgrade also places the IC in a stronger strategic position. Organizing six or seven companies into two or three sectors reduces the IC's span of control and frees up tactical radio airtime because the IC no longer has to deal directly with each individual company.

We must guard against our front-end effectiveness making us stupid. It's still common to hear statements like, "We always put the fire out early on in the event, so why are we screwing around with all this command nonsense? It just slows down the attack." The vast majority of the structure fires that I respond to don't require a whole lot of command. Several times a year, I'll show up to the scene of a structure fire where the initial wave didn't put the fire out. Because the front end of the event was well managed, IC Number 2 can transfer command and instantly go to work.

This command capability lies at the heart of the question that opened this column: "How do I manage fires in a way where my guys don't get injured or killed?" When the initial attack wave is in position and operating and the fire doesn't go out, the IC must revise the plan. This revision ranges from a minor adjustment all the way to a complete change of strategy. It's tough for a fast-attacking IC to make major adjustments to the attack plan. Operating on the interior of a burning building comes with distinct disadvantages. This is why we transfer command as quickly as possible to an IC who will operate in a strategic position. Placing the IC in a vehicle with a good view of the building that is on fire improves firefighter safety tenfold. This transfer of command gets us an IC who can manage strategic level safety for the entire incident site. This is a really big deal.

To answer the eight-year-old question, let's take a look at the tactical killers lurking at the scene of all structure fires. Tactical firefighting fatalities are the product of three different things:

  1. Becoming lost, trapped or missing and running out of air and dying of carbon monoxide poisoning.
  2. Thermal insult - the fire flashes over and burns you up.
  3. Structural collapse - the building falls on you.

We use a combination of sound air-management practices along with a deployment system that can keep pace with the resource requirements to prevent air emergencies on the fireground. This begins on the company level with the task-level survival skills taught in the training academy. This includes not leaving the attack line when operating inside a burning building, keeping good line spacing when advancing attack lines and not outworking your air supply.

The system each department uses to deploy companies must place relief crews in positions prior to needing them. The deployment process begins with level-one staging. When the initial-arriving officer gives his or her on-scene report and assumes command, it places all later-arriving units into a level-one staging mode. Engine companies don't pass their last water supply and ladder companies don't pass their last access point to the structure. Units announce their staging location ("Engine 1 staged west") and wait for the IC to give them an assignment. When the incident escalates beyond the initial alarm, resources respond to a level-two staging location.

Managing deployment in this fashion gets the initial resources in place and operating within the IC's IAP very quickly. Having staged units provides a tactical reserve the IC uses to cover any holes in the plan and to relieve working crews. This system is taken to another level when we use the on-deck approach to reinforce the attack positions operating around the incident scene. On deck is a simple, yet powerful addition to the deployment model. Companies are brought forward into the warm zone of the attack position (i.e., sector/division/group) prior to actually needing them. On-deck crews can be used to reinforce an existing position, cover an uncovered area/task within the sector, relieve working crews or as a rapid intervention crew. This creates a three-deep deployment model. Companies are working on the interior of the building, on-deck crews are standing by in the warm zone and companies are available in staging. This concept facilitates a tighter and safer work cycle. Working companies no longer have to overwork their air supply waiting for relief crews.

Thermal insult and structural collapse both fall under the IC's strategic-level responsibilities. As an example, let's say the IC is commanding a fire in a medium-size commercial building with a large truss attic. Three crews are operating on the interior. All three attack lines are flowing directly on the fire. A ladder crew is performing vertical ventilation on the roof. From the command post, the IC can see that the fire isn't going out. Smoke production is increasing along with the intensity behind it. The IC receives radio reports from interior crews that it's getting hotter and they need more lines on the inside. The next report is from the ladder venting the roof. They have just opened a hole and have heavy fire in the attic and are requesting a line to the roof.

At this point in the operation, we are potentially seconds away from the fire overtaking the crews on the interior. Structural collapse may be minutes behind that. Sticking with an offensive strategy and rapidly deteriorating conditions will eventually lead to thermal insult and structural collapse on the workforce. The IC has got to answer the basic risk-management question, "Are the risks worth the gain?"

You have crews in place that have requested more help. The problem is they are no longer in tenable positions. Something really nasty is getting ready to happen. If you're worried about fully protected firefighters surviving the conditions they're operating in, what do you think the survival profile is for an unprotected occupant? What do you think is going to happen to the building if the attack miraculously puts out the fire in the next 30 seconds? Anyone in the fire area is dead and the building will be hauled off to the dump. The risk isn't worth the gain because there is nothing to gain. This is the answer I've been waiting eight years to share. The IC is responsible for the safety and welfare of everyone at the incident scene - this includes all the firefighters. Call emergency traffic, get everyone out of the building and collapse zones, account for them and go defensive.

This can be tough thing to do for young officers because they place a high premium on reaching an offensive conclusion for structure fires. This can cause them to be overly sensitive to negative comments from firefighters. You know the noise - stuff like, "If the chief would have only given us a few more minutes, we could have put the fire out." I have found the best way to handle these concerns is with an after-fire critique. Assemble the involved crews during the finishing stages of the incident operation. All the key players get to tell their story. Describe the conditions and why you changed strategies and pulled everyone out of the building. If someone has a problem that you didn't give them "a few more minutes," simply explain the consequences of a flashover or a collapsed building. In the rare instances where this explanation isn't adequate, tell them, "The fire didn't go out because the conditions wouldn't allow it. When I pulled you guys out, you were flowing 500 gallons of water a minute onto the fire. Ten minutes later, we were putting over 4,000 gallons a minute on it and it burned for another 45 minutes. In the morning, you can say hello to all of your loved ones for me. Any more questions?"

The IC's main job is to manage the safety of the workers. Strategic-level safety mistakes are the most devastating because the strategic level affects every single firefighter operating within the hazard zone. Sometimes, the only reason everybody goes home is because there was a "real-deal" IC present who determined no amount of inside work was going to put the fire out and changed the strategy.

NICK BRUNACINI joined the fire service in 1980 and currently holds the rank of shift commander. He helped develop the Fire Command curriculum package and is currently working with Alan and John Brunacini on a hazard-zone management training and certification program. He recently wrote and published the book B-Shifter: A Firefighter's Memoir.

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