The Ten Command-Ments - Command-Ment I

March 1, 2007
Mark Emery continues this series that began with an overview and introduces the first command-ment: Thou Shall Have One Competent Incident Commander.
The Ten Command-ments Of Intelligent & Safe Fireground Operations By MARK EMERY

Command-ment I: Thou Shall Have One Competent Incident Commander

Having a fireground incident commander is easy; somebody arrives at the incident, announces "I'm in command," dons a colorful vest and begins narrating the incident using a portable radio - nothing to it. However, being called "command" is a lot easier than commanding. There is a BIG difference between somebody in a colorful vest being called "command" and somebody competently managing the incident.

The first of the Ten Command-ments declares that you shall have one competent incident commander. Competent command is a concept worthy of exploration; exactly what is it that distinguishes a good incident commander from a great incident commander? What is it that differentiates a reactive tactician from a proactive strategist? What distinguishes a competently managed fireground from a poorly managed fireground?

This article will discuss the following components for establishing a foundation for competent command:

  1. Command responsibility
  2. Communication foundation
  3. Establishing the command post
  4. Incident equilibrium

Future articles will build upon this strategic framework; once the strategic framework of "The Ten Command-ments" is in place - and obeyed - it will be much easier for you to provide a competent command presence.

1. Command Responsibility

To obey Command-ment I requires an understanding of the fundamental responsibility of "command." The incident commander is responsible for the management of just three things:

  • Strategy
  • Resources
  • Risk

Many fire service professionals believe that the responsibility of command is "command and control." This may be true, briefly, in the early stages of an incident, but the purpose of the incident command system is to let the incident commander develop a strategy and manage resources so that objectives are accomplished that will provide strategic benefit. The incident commander must also manage risk so that the health and safety of firefighters and civilians is addressed.

An incident commander who retains tactical control - beyond the initial stage of a multi-company incident - will quickly lose strategic control of the incident. A competent incident commander will quickly delegate responsibility for tactical control to Supervisors (Divisions, Groups), during larger incidents to Directors (Branches) and at major, complex incidents to an Operations Section Chief.

Strategy. A competent incident commander proactively manages strategy. There must be evidence of a plan (Command-ments VII and IX) and that the plan has been executed within the margins of a declared operational mode (Command-ment VI). All fireground tactical activities are driven by problems identified during size-up (Command-ments III and IV). The framework for developing a fireground strategy is simple but crucial: Identify, classify, and prioritize problems (aka size-up) Perform a quick risk vs. strategic benefit assessment (value-time-size) Declare the operational mode (call 'the play') Formulate strategies to solve problems Determine appropriate tactical and support objectives Establish strategic and tactical resource requirements Assign and support resources This strategic framework for establishing a fireground command presence (and action plan) will be discussed in detail in Command-ment VII. Resources. A competent incident commander manages resources proactively. Proactive resource management means that the incident commander anticipates what resources will be needed and what resources might be needed. Quite simply, should an incident commander need something - and it's not there and available - it's too late. If you need a Division, and it's not there and available, it's too late. Generally, during escalating/deteriorating conditions, a deer-in-the-headlights incident commander struggles because of span-of-control issues (Command-ments V and VIII). A knee-jerk incident commander is constantly reacting and recovering; the command post managed by the incident rather than the other way around. If you need a rapid intervention team, and it's not there and available, it's too late. If firefighters need rehab, and it's not there and available, it's too late. You're re-acting rather than pre-acting. There is no pause button on the fireground. If you need more firefighters, and they are not there and available (in staging), it's too late, you're reacting. A competent incident commander anticipates what may be needed (strategy) and has organized sufficient resources (apparatus, personnel, and equipment) that enable the incident commander to proactively address fireground "surprises." Example: All is going well during a routine house fire. The incident commander has teams available in staging, has assigned a safety officer, a rapid intervention team and has five teams working for a Division Supervisor, including Truck 31. Suddenly, Truck 31 (performing primary search) reports: "Emergency traffic from Truck 31, two unconscious adults, floor 2, need assistance." (Hold onto your seat, we'll continue this fireground drama in a moment.) Risk. A competent incident commander proactively manages risk. The foundation of fireground risk management is to know what the problems are, especially the most significant problem. Failure to identify - and factor - the most significant problem has injured and killed many firefighters. Example: Most incident commanders are aware that there is a fire. Bad things can happen when the incident commander doesn't know (or factor) where the fire is located in relationship to where personnel are operating. Other elements of fireground risk management include an incident safety officer, rapid intervention, a backup team, clock management, structured status reports and monitoring what I call "The Three That Kill" (Command-ment III). So, as the "incident commander," you are responsible for just three things: strategy, resources and risk. You may ask, "What about safety?" Safety is an integral component of managing strategy, resources and risk. So is communications. Safety and communications are woven seamlessly into the process of managing strategy, resources, and risk. They should not be considered separate responsibilities of command. A competent incident commander identifies problems, has a plan, and functions as an informed strategist, an organized and proactive resource manager and alert balancer of risk. There are hordes of competent tacticians in the fire service. Firefighters love to read, debate - and do - tactical, task-level stuff. Take a look at fire service conference and seminar topics. Popular "hands-on" classes usually involve climbing, crawling, squirting, dragging, cutting, chopping, twisting, bending, belaying and so on. There is very little strategic-level, how-to-manage-an-incident information offered. Thus we are developing an abundance of skilled tacticians and a scarcity of informed strategists. The abundance of skilled tacticians is a good thing; the scarcity of informed strategists is troubling. 2. Communications Foundation Fireground communications is a problem. If there is one universal fireground problem, it is communications. It has been a consistent and persistent fireground problem for decades. (It is impossible to have a competently managed fireground if communications are a mess.) Is it possible to have clear, concise and disciplined fireground communications? This article will convey two communication fundamentals. Subsequent Command-ment articles will provide additional fireground communication solutions. Basic communication. The single most basic word for preventing communication problems is "from." The two most important words on the fireground are "from" and "on." These two humble words are the foundation for solving many communication problems; "from" and "on" are crucial components of a competent fireground size-up, for establishing the fireground operational mode and for assigning fireground tactical objectives. If you do not incorporate "from" and "on" into the communication of fireground size-up, the fireground operational mode and the assignment of tactical objectives, you will never solve your fireground communication problems. Before a discussion of how to use "from" and "on," you should first be using the word "from" during rudimentary radio communication. When one radio connects with another radio, do not use the word "to" - always use "from." (The "from" model is validated by the National Fire Academy, the Model Procedures for Structural Firefighting, aircraft pilots and the military.) Example: "Truck 31 will connect and communicate with the Division 7 Supervisor." Bad: "Truck 31 to Division 7." Discussion: Suppose that you are the Division 7 Supervisor. Throughout the course of a fireground operation, there is a lot of radio traffic. Most of this radio traffic is not directed at you. You are monitoring this background chatter, but not giving it your focused attention; you are listening for your radio designator, in this case your designator is "Division 7." Good: "Division 7 from Truck 31." Discussion: By always using "from" - instead of "to" - you will know who is trying to get your attention. First you will hear your designator: "Division 7..." This grabs your attention; you are now listening. Next you will hear: "...from Truck 31." Because Truck 31 grabbed your attention up front, you are much less likely to key your radio to ask: "Radio traffic for Division 7?" (Or worse, not knowing who you are talking to, you answer: "Go ahead.") Now that you are convinced that the use of "from" is a fundamental component of professional fireground communication, we will transition to the strategic use of the two most important words on the fireground: "from" and "on." Used in tandem, they have the power to improve the strategic competence of your fireground operations. "From" and "on" must be used routinely as part of a complete - and meaningful - fireground size-up. Consider your arrival at a two-story house fire. Through the windshield you see smoke and fire venting from an upstairs window. Consider the following two fire size-up reports. Which provides the most strategic information? "Fire showing." "Fire venting from side A on floor 2." Words mean something. "From" and "on" must be incorporated into your declaration of the fireground operational mode. For example, which of the following two mode declarations provide the most strategic significance? "Main Street Command is offensive." "Main Street Command is offensive from side A on floor 2." "From" and "on" must be incorporated into the assignment of tactical and support objectives. Consider the following two assignments. Which assignment provides the most strategic information? "Squad 51, primary search." "Squad 51, primary search from side A on floor 2." Did you notice that the words "from" and "on" strategically linked each of the three statements? A strategically congruent fireground emerges when the words "from" and "on" are embedded into your size-up, into the operational mode, and into the assignment of tactical objectives. "From side A" in tandem with "on floor 2" establish a strategic thread that connects your size-up to the operational mode and to the assignment of objectives. "From" and "on" will help ensure that fireground activities are strategically congruent. 3. Establishing the Command Post First of all, what are the words of "command"? Has your fire department assigned meaning to the words of command? How do you establish a command post? Does you fire department have a standard, systematic process for establishing a command post? The following command-related words are not synonymous: "initiate," "establish," "assume." Words should mean something; strategic significance is diluted when multiple words mean the same thing. It's time to square some rounded corners of terminology. I recommend you consider the I.E.A.T. command model: Initiate - Establish - Assume - Terminate. Adoption of this model provides three benefits: each word has specific meaning, each word is short and easy to remember, and each word clearly conveys the status of command. "Initiate" conveys that responsibility for command (strategy, resources and risk) has been initiated, but is not formal and stationary at a command post); initiated command is informal and mobile. Example: "Engine 42 initiating command, investigating four-sides, update to follow." (Engine 42 has acknowledged responsibility for command; command responsibility will be informal and mobile. Because Engine 42's officer has one foot in strategy and the other foot in tactics, he will retain the "Engine 42" radio designator. Later the officer may decide to establish - name and locate - a command post.) This is important: If you are not managing an incident at a stationary command post, you are not the incident commander and should not be called "command." You are not the incident commander if you are wandering around the fireground doing something other than managing strategy, resources and risk at a stationary command post. "Establish" is the most important command word of the I.E.A.T. model. "Establish" means that there is now a formal command presence at a stationary command post that is named and located. Example: "Engine 42 establishing Main Street command, command post at Engine 42." (This conveys that the officer from Engine 42 is now the formal incident commander and will be managing the incident at Engine 42, which has been established as the Main Street command post. Establishing also conveys that "Main Street command" is no longer a member of "Engine 42.") "Assume" is used when established command is transferred. This may or may not include relocating the Command Post. "Assume" allows command to be transferred up or down the fire officer food chain. Examples: Up - "Battalion 21 has assumed Main Street command, command post now at Battalion 21." Down - "Battalion 21 in service, Engine 21 has assumed Main Street command." (Battalion 21 has conveyed that the Engine 21's officer is now "Main Street Command" and that Engine 21 has a new team leader.) "Terminate" means that a formal command post is no longer necessary. Example: "Main Street command terminated, Engine 18 will be your contact." (This conveys that command has returned to "initiated" status and that command responsibility is informal and mobile, not anchored to a command post.) So that establishing your command post is a consistent and systematic process, I recommend you follow the following five-step model: Name your command post Locate your command post Assign apparatus Assign personnel Declare the operational mode Examples: Name and locate: "Battalion 31 establishing Main Street command, command post at Battalion 31 on side David." Assign apparatus: "Apparatus base at Third and Main." Assign personnel: "Personnel report to temporary staging at the command post." Declare the operational mode: "Main Street command is offensive from side A on floor 2." (Your dispatcher would repeat this information.) This is a powerful model. Notice what this concise yet meaningful process has accomplished: everybody knows what the command post is called and where it is located, and all responding apparatus have an assigned a place to go. During a high-rise operation, virtually every fire department in North America bases apparatus in the street and has personnel report to staging two floors below the fire. Because apparatus won't fit in the elevators, this resource management can't be changed. However, base and staging will work at any building fire, ensuring that resource management will be consistent at all building fires. "Personnel report to temporary staging at the command post" means that all responding personnel have an assigned place to go. Because everybody has an assignment, radio traffic is dramatically reduced. All you will hear as apparatus arrives is: "Engine 1 at base, reporting to temporary staging," etc. What you will not hear is: "Engine 1 approaching the scene, do you have an assignment?" Personnel grab tools, equipment and spare air cylinders and report to the command post. Another benefit: This model addresses the fact that you always need more people than apparatus; it will proactively assure that you do not have a cluster of apparatus and personnel that you struggle to unravel and control. You will know, up front, where everybody is. And because everybody has an assignment, you will have time to take a deep breath, perhaps consult a pre-incident plan and fine-tune the Incident Action Plan. The basic model can be flexed however you require. As a rule-of-thumb, the first two engines, the first-due ladder truck and responding chief officers would not base, but will continue to the scene. This model will put you in control of all apparatus and all personnel. This is especially critical during the first 10 or 20 minutes of on-scene chaos. The only apparatus near the building will be the apparatus you want near the building. You can proactively place subsequent alarms in your back pocket: "All apparatus base at Third and Main, first-alarm personnel report to temporary stating at the command post; second-alarm personnel remain at base." (Again, your dispatcher would repeat this overhead message.) Two alarms, two clear and concise sentences, you know where everybody is and you know what everybody is doing. Simple, consistent, flexible and powerful. (Did I mention that gate-keeping by the command post gate virtually eliminates freelancing?) 4. Incident Equilibrium The goal of a competent incident commander is to achieve and maintain an appropriate balance of "strategic stuff" and "tactical stuff." I call this strategic/tactical balance incident equilibrium. Incident equilibrium is achieved when strategy, resources and risk are managed so that problems are solved intelligently and safely. Webster's defines equilibrium as: "The state of balance between opposing forces or actions that is either static or dynamic." How does this definition apply to the fireground? (or any incident.)? It is quite simple: Strategy and tactics can become "opposing forces" unless carefully and deliberately balanced. Therefore, it is the incident commander's responsibility to strategy, resources and risk so that equilibrium is achieved and maintained. As mentioned, so that problems are solved intelligently and safely, this requires that the incident commander be more than a spectator wearing a colorful vest. Consider that a fireground represents a scale that is out of balance tactically. If you were observing this fireground, what would it look like and what would it sound like? You would likely witness uncoordinated tactical freelancing and would likely hear a cacophony of task-level conversational radio traffic. A command post can be quickly overwhelmed tactically when multiple teams are operating on the fireground, yet the incident commander has no idea what each team is doing or where each team is located. Typically, there are nearly as many action plans as there are teams. To bring this fireground into equilibrium would require that "strategic stuff" be added to the opposite side of the scale. Assemble freelancing firefighters into teams, assign the teams to a division and/or group supervisor(s), distribute passports, communicate the mode and action plan to the supervisors, front-load a designated staging area with resources, and make assignments that will solve problems intelligently and safely. Just the opposite, an incident commander can quickly be overwhelmed by strategic activities and assignments, yet problems are not being solved tactically. This scale represents a fireground that is out of balance strategically. If you were observing this fireground, what would it look like and what would it sound like? You would likely witness attractive command charts and people in colorful vests, and you would hear a cacophony of strategic-level conversational radio traffic. Great implementation of an ICS chart does not guarantee that problems are being solved - intelligently and safely, or at all. (People call 911 to have a problem solved, not to be entertained by a pageant of fire officers modeling colorful vests.) To bring this fireground into equilibrium will require that "tactical stuff" be portioned onto the opposite side of the scale. Remove most of the vests, assemble people into teams, assign the teams to somebody still wearing a vest (likely a division/group supervisor), obtain each team's passport, assign each team a tactical or support objective, and start solving problems intelligently and safely. Once the incident is in equilibrium the goal is to maintain equilibrium until the incident has been stabilized (or a defensive retreat is ordered). Let's return to Truck 31's rescue on floor 2. Given the rescue situation described, the incident commander has two choices: Pull teams from staging and deploy them to assist with the rescue. This is a bad idea. As each team is assigned, the incident commander's span of control increases. The division supervisor will have the same problem if the teams are added (dumped on) to the division. This is in addition to everything else the incident commander (and division supervisor) was responsible for before Truck 31's request for assistance. Create a rescue group and assign teams from staging to the rescue group supervisor. This is a good idea. Since the rescue on floor 2 is a short-term functional problem, the incident commander would pluck the rescue problem (along with Truck 31) from the division supervisor's plate and assign both to a rescue group supervisor. Additional teams and EMS personnel would also be assigned to the group - tactical problem, strategic solution. The incident commander's span of control increased by one and the division supervisor's span of control decreased by one (because Truck 31 was reassigned from the division to the rescue group). Prior to this rescue situation, the incident commander had proactively achieved and was maintaining incident equilibrium. With the announcement of the rescue and request for assistance, the equilibrium scale was plunged out of balance tactically. (Rescue is a tactical problem; here the tactical problem was addressed with a strategic solution - a group.) Most times, if your incident is out of balance tactically, you need to do something strategic to return the incident to equilibrium. Conversely, if your incident is out of balance strategically, often you need to do something tactical to achieve equilibrium. An exception is when the problem is span of control; a strategic span-of-control problem can often be solved by reducing span of control with a strategic solution. Final Thoughts A competent incident commander understands and manages the three responsibilities of command: strategy, resources and risk. A competent incident commander establishes a strategically congruent fireground by using a communication foundation of two words: "from" and "on." A competent incident commander manages an incident from a stationary command post. From the command post, strategy, resources and risk are managed so that incident equilibrium is achieved, and problems are solved intelligently and safely. NIMS and the incident command system provide the words of incident management - they identify and define components of the system. Unfortunately, components of these systems do not provide the music of incident management; they do not explain how we are supposed to implement and use the parts of the system. Given the words - and the music - you can quickly become a competent incident commander. THE TEN COMMAND-MENTS Thou shall have ONE competent incident commander. Thou shall maintain teams of at least TWO personnel. Thou shall recognize THREE situations that kill firefighters. Thou shall ensure that FOUR sides are seen and compared. Thou shall not exceed a span-of-control of FIVE. Thou shall operate within one of SIX operational modes. Thou shall perform the SEVEN-step action plan process. Thou shall make EIGHT assignments early. Thou shall address three strategic priorities with NINE tactical objectives. Thou shall evaluate the situation, mode and plan every TEN minutes. Command COMMAND RESPONSIBILITY: STRATEGY, RESOURCES & RISK Strategy. Problem identification, incident information, operational mode, action plan, communications, pre-incident plan consultation, 10-minute clock, situation status, resource status, decisions, tactical accountability, risk vs. strategic benefit, cost, etc. Resources. Companies, teams, strike teams, task forces, divisions, groups, branches, sections, staging, base, EMS, exchange teams, move-ups, mutual aid, water supply, subsequent alarms, apparatus, tools, equipment, and other logistical needs, dispatcher, etc. Risk. Safety, passage of time, structural integrity, utility stabilization, fire growth, hazardous materials, medical monitoring, rehabilitation, medical evaluation, weather, traffic, decontamination, hazards, etc. RELIABLE INDICATORS OF INCOMPETENT COMMAND Conversational, task-level communications Migratory incident commander Companies self-deploy Tactical control retained by the incident commander "INVESTIGATING" The word "investigating" means that you are exiting the apparatus to complete a size-up. The purpose of size-up is to: Determine the status of life safety Identify stabilization problems Identify the most significant problem It's impossible to know the right things to do until size-up has been completed. Once you know what all the problems are, you know what needs to be done. 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 (EFO) 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. He may be contacted at [email protected] or access his website

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