Managing the Multiple-Alarm: Delegating Command Tasks

Insight from Mike Noyes, Jeff Holloway and Richard Tice, who have 110 years of combined experience, can help ICs excel at multiple-alarm fires.

When more companies arrive on scene, the most important task is to accurately capture the organization for the next phase of the incident.
When more companies arrive on scene, the most important task is to accurately capture the organization for the next phase of the incident.

“Engine 1 from command, force entry on Alpha, fire attack first floor, ventilate, search first and second floors, and overhaul.” Does this sound like a realistic assignment? 

Tracking resources early and delegating command tasks allow the incident commander to establish and maintain situational awareness.

Of course not, because it’s unrealistic to expect one engine company crew, regardless of staffing, to complete that many tasks at one time, even on a small house fire. Yet, we routinely ask an incident commander (IC) to perform multiple tasks. Why is this important to acknowledge? Commercial and multifamily structure fires are inherently dangerous. According to Project Mayday, more than 56 percent of all maydays that were called between 2015–2018 came at these structure fires. This is despite the fact that these buildings account for only 23 percent of all structure fires during the same time period, reports the U.S. Fire Administration (USFA).

Incident command and communications improvements were among the top recommendations in the National Institute for Occupational Safety & Health (NIOSH) firefighter line-of-duty-death reports over the past 10 years.

Multiple-alarm incidents fit in the dangerous “high-risk/low-frequency” event category.

All ICs understand the need to delegate operations tasks to fire companies to accomplish the strategic objectives. However, they often struggle with delegating their own “command tasks” to stay at the strategic level. At a multiple-alarm incident, command tasks include:

  • Gaining an understanding of what the problem is and what has been done to solve it so far;
  • Assuming command and developing a strategy and tactical objectives;
  • Developing an organization to effectively meet the tactical objectives;
  • Communicating this organization to the company officers, face-to-face and by radio;
  • Accurately tracking the resources within the organization;
  • Constantly re-evaluating the tactical objectives and the organization (and changing them if needed);
  • Dealing with all of the other issues that arise at a major incident (traffic control, media, property reps/occupants, technical specialists, other agencies); and
  • Maintaining adequate situational awareness throughout the incident and minimizing low-priority distractions.

At a multiple-alarm incident, how does an IC address all of the command tasks, maintain situational awareness and stay ahead of the incident? The IC does this by quickly building a command team to divide the command tasks to a manageable level and by considering the order in which command tasks must be addressed and which tasks can be delegated quickly and efficiently to someone else.

The following structure offers a logical progression of your command team organization:

  • Track resources (ReStat or “Scribe”);
  • Gain situational awareness (SitStat and radio operator);
  • Manage the additional resources (staging area manager);
  • Ensure that safety is addressed (incident safety officer);
  • Delegate tactical management (group and division managers);
  • Consider appointing an operations section chief; and
  • Delegate critical support tasks as needed (liaison, PIO, planning, logistics).


Track resources first

The very first command task that quickly can consume the IC is developing an effective resource organization and charting those resources. Battalion chiefs (BC) who have an assigned aide (technician, driver or chauffeur) have a big advantage. The BC can track the resource assignments that are being made in route, and the aide can chart the organization and track resources upon arrival.

Unfortunately, many of us don’t have that advantage. Catching up upon arrival is probably the most difficult task that the first BC faces. Often, it can result in the BC never really developing good situational awareness until late in the incident.

How do we best deal with this issue? Delegate the task of tracking resources to someone else as soon as possible. That person should be identified ahead of time, formally—in standard operating procedures (SOPs)—or informally. The person can be an officer, a crew member off of an apparatus or ambulance, a staff member or the second- or third-arriving BC. The person must be fluent and practiced in resource tracking via the use of an incident command system (ICS) chart on paper, a command board or a tablet computer. Only after the IC hands off the ICS chart can the IC come closer to developing good situational awareness and making good decisions.


Chart from the start

Keeping up with company assignments in our head or on a simple list-style command sheet is fairly easy on a single-alarm incident. When the incident is more complex, a simple list won’t suffice.

The standard ICS chart was designed for the purpose of organizing and tracking resources at an incident of any size. If you aren’t familiar with an ICS chart, you won’t be proficient at its use when it’s truly needed. For that reason, it’s imperative that BCs familiarize themselves as soon as possible. This includes even during single-alarm incidents, so you will be comfortable with its use when you need it most.


Chart from the bottom up

When you look at an ICS chart, your eye naturally is drawn to the top of the chart, the IC position. Most of us were taught that when only one unit is on scene, that unit is the IC. As more companies arrive on scene, they are assigned functions or areas and still are under the command of the original IC until command has been transferred to another unit on scene. When that happens, the most important task is to accurately capture the operational organization that’s been established and to create an effective tactical organization for the next phase of the incident. The easiest way to create the ICS chart is from the bottom up, at the individual company or group/division level. Don’t worry about the command-post positions (sections, command staff, etc.) initially. Once you decide on the group/division organization, you can worry about the command-post positions.

As the incident unfolds, the IC will develop an organization to address the incident needs, which can be tracked on the chart even before the needed companies arrive. Simply chart the organization that you want without the unit numbers, then fill in the unit numbers as they arrive from staging. This includes adding future divisions/groups that you don’t currently have the resources to staff.

(Numerous apps are available, including some that are free, that allow you to chart your incident on a tablet. With a little practice, you might find using an app to be faster than diagramming on paper or whiteboard. Plus, it keeps an electronic record of the incident. Several also incorporate satellite views.)


Gain situational awareness

To gain situational awareness, diagram the incident on a board. Because this will take a lot of time and attention, the IC should delegate this responsibility as soon as possible. The same person also often can operate the radio, too. (Operating the radio prevents the IC from keeping full situational awareness: Real-world situations and hundreds of command simulations prove that taking the radio away from the IC allows him/her to think more strategically.)


Manage additional resources

Responding to and staging companies also can add to information overload at multiple-alarm incidents. Most departments will set up a formal staging area, often called Level II staging, when a second alarm is struck. A formal staging area works best when it’s preassigned by SOP to a person who becomes the staging area manager (STAM) (for example, the first Engine officer on the second alarm).

ICs should take full advantage of this helper. For example, don’t worry about which companies are currently in Level II staging. Tell the STAM which assignments that you need filled and to track companies once they leave staging.

Likewise, don’t worry about which companies are on the greater alarm assignments. You only need to track companies after they are assigned to your fireground.


Ensure safety is addressed

Designating an incident safety officer (ISO) isn’t only required by NFPA 1500, NFPA 1521 and NFPA 1561, it’s a good idea. If your department doesn’t have an SOP in place that automatically establishes this position at a working incident, the IC should appoint an ISO as soon as possible. This position shouldn’t be the fireground PPE police but an actual partner to the IC, who helps to guide strategic decision-making.


Delegate tactical management

The IC’s next consideration is whether to delegate supervision to a person who is working in the hot zone or to someone who comes from staging. The IC must evaluate numerous factors to ensure effective delegation. For example, what are the types of incident problems (ventilation, search, hazmat, EMS)? Do the incident problems need functional or geographic management? What is the level of situational awareness of the person who is currently operating in the hot zone?

You must decide whether it is advantageous to delegate the division/group to the company officer that has firsthand knowledge of the hot zone. Or, is it advantageous to delegate the division/group to a company officer or BC from staging who can lend a new, fresh and/or more objective view of the problems?

The next challenge: effectively delegate the tactical supervision. How many times have we urgently communicated, “Engine 1, you are Charlie Division,” but failed to provide adequate information? Adapting the “Five W’s” of journalism can help you to be more effective in your delegation:

  • Who? Radio designation;
  • What? Overall incident action plan and tactical objectives for the group or division;
  • Where? Define the geographic area of responsibility;
  • When? Set times of regular reports and remind of the need to immediately report significant changes; and
  • Why? Continuous risk-management evaluation.

The group/division supervisor’s close watch over the incident problems in his/her area not only relieves the IC of trying to keep up with too many details but also provides an overall benefit of reducing radio traffic by the supervisor’s face-to-face communication with units. The supervisor provides one of the most important elements of incident management through his/her real-time, up-close-and-personal accountability. Tracking the time spent in the hot zone, location and functional effectiveness of each unit are key components to the safe and effective resolution to the incident problems. Group and division supervisors provide a valuable service through their connection of the task level to the strategic levels of command.


Consider an operations chief

So, when is an operations section chief needed? The decision to implement an operations section chief is no different than the positions that are discussed above. Simply put, if the incident is too large or complex that the IC can’t manage the operations portion of the incident and all of the other issues, an operations section chief should be considered. What defines too large or too complex? Examples include: incidents that involve multiple agencies or multiple problems (fire, hazmat, EMS); large-scale incidents (wildland, high-rise, large geographic area); incidents that are of interest to the media and/or local politicians. Typically, the BC who took command from the first IC (company officer) is in the best position to seamlessly transition to this role.

Whether the IC chooses to appoint an operations chief before or after delegating to groups and divisions depends on the needs of the incident, the type of supervision that’s required, the department’s leadership philosophy and the IC’s personal preferences.


Delegate critical support

As additional command staff become available, the IC should consider which critical tasks warrant the attention of a staff member or section chief position. Again, the idea is to delegate tasks and to eliminate IC distractions. The liaison can be instrumental in incidents that involve multiple agencies. The public information officer can be helpful at incidents that draw large media interest. A logistics section chief can be useful at incidents that require a lot of equipment, supplies, fuel, etc. A planning section chief can be helpful at long-term incidents or incidents that require significant documentation and/or planning. (Remember, ReStat and SitStat typically are the first planning section members who are put into place.)


Practice, practice, practice

Tracking resources early and delegating command tasks to an effective command team, in the right order, are essential elements that allow the IC to establish and maintain situational awareness throughout the incident. The key is realistic scenario-based training—loading our hard drive, if you will, in an attempt to make up for our lack of experience on these high-risk/low-frequency incidents. 

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