Assuming Command from the First-On Companies

March 23, 2007
On my side of town, we have experimented with a different way of commanding a fire.

Here is the scenario: You are second on at a working fire. The first on company arrived on scene with heavy fire showing from two windows on the A side. They announced that they were using a 1 3/4-inch line to attack the fire. No further orders were given. Do you proceed into the fire to do what you think needs to be done, do you stage knowing that the first on officer is in command but is occupied with attacking the fire, or do you stage until the chief arrives on scene and begins giving assignments?

This type of situation has been discussed in the forums on, and the opinions vary greatly. It has been suggested that everyone should know what their job is, and go in and go to work. Others state that this is the definition of freelancing. Still others think that the first on officer should be out front, giving assignments to incoming companies. I think there is a better option. This may be somewhat controversial, but I will throw it out there as a source of conversation.

On my side of town, we have experimented with a different way of commanding a fire. We have the second due engine come straight into the fire and assume command. Now this is not a hard and fast rule, because there are times when this does not occur. When a truck company is second on, they take command. When the battalion chief arrives either first or second on, or within seconds of the second due engine, he naturally assumes command.

The typical sequence of arrival in my territory is: (1) engine, (2) engine, (3) engine, (4) truck, (5) engine, and (6) battalion chief. One of two things happens with this arrival sequence: first: the first on officer is overwhelmed while initiating both an attack on the fire or a search and then assigning incoming companies, or second: a glut of companies comes in at once, doing what they think needs to be done. Neither sounds like a very good option.

Now, in very large urban cities like New York, Los Angeles, or Chicago, a battalion chief can be found around almost every corner, so having a strong command presence in a timely fashion is not an issue. But everywhere else, specifically smaller departments, there may be quite a gap in time before a battalion chief arrives on scene. This experimental command method also works well whether a city runs two, three, four, or five firefighters on any given piece of apparatus. Let me give you an example of how it works.

Engine 3 arrives first on scene of a one-story, wood-frame, residential structure with heavy fire showing from the roof, and they have called for a supply line in their size-up. Engine 24 arrives on scene next, and they lay a supply line. The officer from Engine 24 announces that he is assuming command. At this point, Engine 24's officer (command) can have the remainder of his crew (assuming the engine is running with two firefighters, one driver, and one officer) start a search, assist with fire attack, ventilate, or assume any of the hundred other assignments that can be given. If the company consists of only three firefighters, Command may opt to have his company simply establish a water supply. With one firefighter at the hydrant, the driver can assist the first on driver, because they can always use the help. Engine 4 arrives on scene and is assigned to a back up line or search, if it has not yet been assigned. Engine 14 arrives on scene and is assigned as RIT. Truck 14 arrives on scene and is assigned to utilities and ventilation.

This takes any guesswork out of what needs to be done. The officer on the initial arriving company knows that he can focus solely on the fire attack. The later arriving companies are not left in staging, thinking that they have been forgotten. Now, if they are left in staging, it is because there is not enough work at the scene for them, and they will more than likely be cut loose shortly.

The argument that companies should know what needs to be done, and should just go in and do it, is a dangerous one. Every one of us knows how firemen are, and we all have different opinions on just about everything. Every fire is different, which means every fire has different needs. If incoming officers decide on their own what their company should be doing, something will not get done in a timely fashion or, worse yet, something may not be done at all. You can only have one quarterback on a team. Multiple quarterbacks will lead to mass chaos, and, inevitably, someone's going to drop the ball.

For this experimental command method to work there must be a commitment on the part of every officer that could be second on to a fire, that they will not be actively involved at the task level. The second on officer assumes command of the fire. They must stand in the front yard or perform a 360 size-up, and then stand in the front yard and command the fire. They must monitor the radio, acknowledge crews as they arrive on scene, give firm commands, and be confident in their ability to run a fire. When the battalion chief arrives on scene, then command can be passed after a brief face-to-face to update the chief on the assignments given and the progress made to that point.

Another benefit of this system is that it forces every company officer to expand their knowledge base. Officers are no longer responsible for tactical knowledge, alone. Rather, strategic knowledge is required, which can improve both officers and departments.

An old saying in the fire service describes fires as "organized chaos". Having the second due officer assume command helps to eliminate some of this "chaos". We should strive to better manage and organize fires. In my city, truck company officers generally assume command once they arrive on scene in the absence of a battalion chief, but a couple of truck officers that I respond with prefer that our second on engine officers keep command when the truck company arrives on scene. This allows the full complement of four firefighters to perform truck work.

Try this suggestion, or some variance of it, on a small scale in your city, and see if your fires run any smoother. Assignments should be made quicker, staging should be kept to a minimum, and the transition of command to the battalion chief should be much smoother. Eliminating gaps in command and controlling freelancing should improve overall fire command. Try it, see if it works for you, and discuss the pros and cons. If you believe this idea can have a positive impact on your operations, then give it a shot. It has worked out great on my side of town.

Please send any ideas for future training drills, or suggested improvements and variations on this drill, to my e-mail. You and your department will receive credit for any ideas used in future articles.

Webcast: View Now! Company Level Training LIVE! by Larry Manasco

Larry Manasco has been with the Fort Worth, TX, Fire Department for 13 years and has served as a lieutenant for the past three years. He holds the classification of Fire Officer I and Hazardous Materials Technician. He currently works in one of the busiest engine companies in Fort Worth. He has worked for Firehouse World in San Diego where he was an assistant instructor for FDNY Battalion Chief Salka's "Get Out Alive" H.O.T. class. Click here to view Larry's recent webcast: Company Level Training. You can contact Larry by e-mail at [email protected].

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