Operations Overkill: Incident Management Solutions

March 1, 2006
Mark Emery discusses the assignment of operations at a small incident - one, two and perhaps even three alarms - as possible overkill.

Have you ever heard an incident commander assign "operations" during a single-alarm building fire? Assigning "operations" - what is technically an "operations section chief" - at a bread-and-butter house fire is like assigning a Coast Guard crew to "lifeguard" at the local municipal swimming pool. It's overkill. No one would argue that pool frolickers would be well protected, but that doesn't mean it's an appropriate decision to assign the Coast Guard.

The assignment of operations at a small incident - one, two and perhaps even three alarms - is a reliable indicator that a fire officer knows the words of incident management, but could use some help with the music. I bet you've never heard somebody assign the other three sections - planning, logistics and administration - during a small house fire. Nobody would argue that doing so would be incident management overkill. The same logic applies to operations.

Please don't be offended, and don't just take my word for it; if you truly want to understand why the assignment of operations is often incident management excess, you need to do some math. Consider the following challenge: You are the incident commander at a many-alarm building fire. Without exceeding a one-to-five span of control and without assigning "operations" and without including personnel in staging, what is the maximum number of teams that an incident commander can have tactically deployed on the fireground? (Because staging doesn't have a span of control, don't count teams at staging.)

A. 25B. 75C. 125D. 625E. Unlimited

Answer: C - 125 teams!

If your calculations produced the correct answer, congratulations, you understand the music that makes the words of incident management work. For those who are not certain how we arrived at 125 teams, here's the arithmetic:

  • One incident commander managing five branch directors: 1 x 5 = 5 branch directors
  • Five branch directors each directing five division and/or group supervisors: 5 x 5 = 25 divisions/groups/sector supervisors
  • Twenty-five divisions/groups/sector supervisors each supervising five teams: 25 x 5 = 125 teams

Reality check: At an incident requiring 125 teams, all sections would likely be established - planning, logistics, administration and, yes, operations. If you include strike teams and task forces, the arithmetic is even more impressive.

Is the ability to manage span of control important? (Here's a big hint: It's impossible for you to be a competent incident manager without managing span of control.)

Top-Down Command

Now, back to assigning operations at a single-alarm building fire. Incident commanders who routinely assign operations at small incidents are what I call top-down incident managers; they begin using the system from the top down. That is, they drop down to the level directly below the incident commander (the section-level of the incident management system) rather than build their "system" - as needed - from the bottom up. (Invariably this is done most often by calling somebody "operations.") This may not seem like a big deal until you consider what it means when you assign operations. With the assignment of operations, the incident commander gives away (literally) the entire operations side of the incident. Specifically, with the assignment of operations, the incident commander has given away (delegated):

  • Management of staging
  • Management of branches
  • Direction of divisions
  • Direction of groups
  • Coordination of strike teams
  • Coordination of task forces
  • Supervision of individual teams (companies or crews)

In fact, with the assignment of operations, the incident commander should no longer communicate with staging, branches, divisions, groups, sectors, strike teams, task forces or teams. Once operations is assigned, all operations-related communication will go no higher than the operations section chief. In other words, with the assignment of operations at a single-alarm building fire, the incident commander's operational span of control is reduced to just one-to-one: The incident commander manages and communicates with the operations section chief.

With the assignment of operations, all operations-related stuff is shifted from the incident commander's plate onto the operations section chief's plate. Shifted is too polite; what really happens at a small incident, to put it bluntly, is that the incident commander dumps all operational responsibility - solving strategic and tactical problems - onto the operations section chief. The incident commander becomes a tactical spectator.

By assigning operations, many incident commanders don't realize the significance of what they've done. Consequently, you will routinely find the system being mismanaged and customized on-the-fly. For example, after assigning operations, you may find incident commanders continuing to dabble in operations, such as talking to teams, assigning tactical objectives, talking to the staging area manager or asking a division supervisor for a status report.

You can get away with assigning operations during small incidents for decades; in fact, it can foster an illusion of strategic competence: "I assigned Operations; gee, don't I sound competent?" This illusion of strategic competence will perpetuate until the fire department experiences a major (read: really big, very complex) incident that does require top-down implementation of the system - including the prompt assignment of an operations section chief. Should this happen, it is very likely that the incident commander and operations section chief will function exactly as they did during all of those years at each of those small incidents.

A major, complex incident is neither the time nor place for an incident commander and operations section chief to figure out their roles and responsibilities and how the system is supposed to work. If you use the system correctly all of the time it should be no surprise that the system will do what it was designed to do during a major incident.

Bottom-Up Command

At a small incident, the incident management system is a bottom-up system. After establishing command, the incident commander will normally start at the very bottom of the system: individual team assignments. This means that the incident commander will talk directly to team leaders. In fact, at a small incident (say a house, multi-family or strip mall fire), the first officer to arrive has command responsibility and will talk to members of his own team (company). Proactive management of span of control is the most powerful tool in an incident commander's "toolbox." Thus, one of my favorite Command Caveats: Manage your span of control or the incident will manage you. (Important note: Command staff - safety officer, information officer, liaison, staff assistants - should not be considered part of the incident commander's span of control.)

To maintain a comfortable span of control, the system will develop vertically - bottom up rather than top down. For example, as the incident commander's span of control approaches one-to-five (five teams), he or she will consider establishing a division or group. Later, should the incident commander's span of control again approach two or three divisions/groups (say two divisions and one group), he or she will consider establishing a branch. Finally, should the incident commander's span of control include a couple of branches and perhaps a couple of divisions/groups, he or she will consider assigning operations.

Competent incident managers routinely manage from the bottom up; incompetent incident managers routinely manage from the top down. (Note: When I say "routinely," I'm talking about square-foot incidents, not incidents encompassing square miles.)

Should the management structure need to grow, the level directly above teams/companies/strike teams/task forces is divisions and groups. The level directly above divisions/groups is branches. Finally, directly above branches and just below the incident commander, you will find sections, including the operations section chief, commonly referred to as operations.

Should the scale and complexity of an incident warrant that operations be assigned, the operations section chief should not talk to tactical resources (read: individual teams, companies, strike teams, or task forces). Operations should be talking to the incident commander, to other section chiefs, to branch directors and perhaps to division/group supervisors - and to an operations aide!

Operating "Operations"

First of all, an incident commander assigns operations because he or she needs an operations section, not because there's an empty "Operations" box on an incident command system chart. If the incident command will assign and supervise the assignment of tactical objectives, the incident should probably be managed from the bottom up. If the incident commander will communicate with teams, divisions and groups, then the incident should probably be managed from the bottom up.

An incident commander is responsible for the management of just three things: strategy, resources and risk. That's it, nothing else. If the tactical portion (read: operations) of a complicated incident will quickly consume the incident commander's time and focus, the assignment of an operations section chief will free command to focus on:

  • Strategy - Operational mode, action planning, communications, span of control, cost, evacuation, emergency operations center (EOC) activation, situation status, consult pre-incident plan, etc.
Resources - Personnel, accountability, apparatus, equipment, food, shelter, logistics, etc. Risk - Passage of time, structural stability, fire load, timely rehab, safety, weather, environment, decontamination, medical monitoring, utility control, fire growth, traffic, etc.

Should you be assigned operations, you should not ignore the most versatile - and yet for some strange reason the most overlooked - level of the incident management system: the Branch.

As Operations section chief, continuing to manage divisions, groups, sectors, and individual teams will quickly overwhelm even the most competent strategist. The prudent operations section chief will quickly obtain an operations aide and establish a branch or two in order to help manage span of control and frontload for incident escalation and expansion of the system with the proactive addition of divisions, groups, sectors, etc. (One of the most important of my Command Caveats: If you need something and it's not there and available, it's too late.)

The Bottom Line

If you are still not convinced that the assignment of operations is frequently abused incident management overkill, return to the beginning of this article and review the span-of-control math. After doing the math, there should be no dispute that by assigning operations, many levels of the system have been overlooked. But don't discard the notion of operations completely; there will be times when the prompt assignment of an operations section is not only appropriate - it is crucial.

The key is to assign operations when it's appropriate. The bottom line is this: When you call somebody operations, you want that person to function like an operations section chief, not like a division or group supervisor. If the person will function like a division or group supervisor, then make him or her a division/group supervisor.

The incident management system is flexible, reliable, powerful and, best of all, simple - if you know the music. Most fire officers are familiar with, and capable of invoking, the words of the incident command system; however, words alone do not a competent incident manager make. It is the music that makes the incident management system work, not the words. Therefore, to become a competent incident manger, it is essential to learn, understand and use both the words and the music of the incident management system.

Mark Emery, CFO, 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.

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