Fireground Staffing...Yes! But What About Command Staffing? -- Part 2

March 1, 2009

This two-part column, which began in February, covers one of the most critical aspects of avoiding close calls: appropriate staffing on the first alarm. We opened by reviewing the basics of first-alarm staffing by responding fire companies and apparatus. This month, we focus on how to support those companies initially.

For these two columns, I am joined by my own Chief of Department, Otto Huber, of the Loveland-Symmes Fire Department. Together, we describe an automatic mutual aid program that includes additional command-level officers responding on the first alarm and the clear roles they are expected to perform in supporting our firefighters.

Within the past year or so, our department and others in our area (northeast Cincinnati, OH, including Hamilton, Clermont and Warren counties) have focused on increasing our staffing. Some departments have been able to hire more firefighters - and that's great. But others have not. In order to meet minimum task-oriented staffing needs on first-alarm assignments, an aggressive automatic mutual aid "box alarm" dispatch system has been put into place. Prior to this system, in our department, for example, we would get 10 to 15 firefighters on a first alarm - as long as all companies were in quarters. Was it enough? In many cases it was - but we didn't want to operate with that gamble. To solve the problem, we worked mutually with neighboring departments and now we average 20 to 25 firefighters on the same run, depending on the pre-planned risk and type of structure. But we still had a problem.

The problem we were faced with was our responsibility as chief officers to our firefighters - to support the job they are expected to do when they arrive. It was very clear both from our experience as well as case studies that, in most working incidents, and especially when something goes wrong, command officers can be overwhelmed with tasks that range from firefighter rescue to dealing with the initial fire emergency.

At the Loveland-Symmes Fire Department, like most in our area, there is a shift commander (district chief) on duty who responds in a command vehicle to function as the incident commander (IC) on arrival, much like a battalion chief in most cities. Our concern wasn't that role, but the various other roles that should be performed to provide support to the IC as well as support and supervision to the firefighters. For example, at a fire involving a single-family dwelling, other roles to be considered include:

  • Division supervisors - Who is overseeing the safety, operations and conditions of a specific side/division of the exterior of the structure to determine where the fire was, is and may go? What is the smoke telling us? What are the conditions of the structure itself? What progress are the companies making - as seen on all four sides?
  • Accountability - Who is making sure we maximize our potential in tracking our personnel?
  • Safety - Functioning as another set of eyes and ears for the IC and interior members.
  • Chief's aide - Assisting in fireground channel monitoring and logistical support at the command car.

In many cases, our IC did all of these functions - and many of you can relate as you have too. But we knew that wasn't the way to handle it. We also could count on staff chiefs responding from home or the office, but there was no guarantee that they would always be available on the first alarm. We decided to take the "automatic mutual aid box alarm" concept and expand it into assignments to include additional chief officers from other departments on the initial dispatch of the first-alarm assignment.

It is important to note that, in some cases, just a chief officer may be dispatched from a particular department without the entire station. Keep in mind that we have the fire companies responding to provide a significant increase in staffing, but we now wanted to support the firefighters.

The concept, known locally as "Mini-IMAT Teams," consists of "mutual aid" chief officers from neighboring communities who have been programmed into the dispatch system (IMAT stands for Incident Management Assistance Team). In our "alarm" assignments, on the receipt of a verbal report of visual smoke or a fire of any kind within a structure, the dispatcher follows the computer-aided dispatch (CAD) assignment that now includes four additional automatic mutual aid chiefs from outside the "first-due" department's jurisdiction. While available chiefs from the first-due jurisdiction may still respond, and often do, we have greatly increased the probability that we will have at least five command officers on the first alarm. While some departments in any part of the country may choose to wait until they arrive and determine what the conditions are, we knew differently based on history, both local and national.

Some who haven't seen the system work question the risk and the need for multiple chiefs on the first-alarm structural fire assignment. Keep in mind that the reason they are responding is to help the firefighters who are potentially being placed at great risk on the fireground. We are providing a risk-management response to support our members.

As far as the risk: Drive carefully, put on your seatbelt, stop at red lights and stop signs, and drive at a safe speed. The same logic for not sending this kind of response would then also beg the questions, "Why send four engines and two trucks? Why not just send one to check it out and call for more help if needed?" If you have read this column for more than a month, you know how we feel regarding the importance of sending what may be predictably needed on that first alarm.

As far as the need, we looked at the roles we would like performed - and the need to have them performed with the arrival of the first-alarm assignment, as opposed to waiting. While, in some cases, more or less may be needed depending on the structure, the typical single-family dwelling, multi-family dwelling or strip mall (which significantly represents our community) has four sides. Our desire is to provide a command officer on all four sides, and upon arrival, that officer's role is to operate as "Division _" and handle safety, firefighter tracking and operational supervision in that area. In some cases, it may not be needed, so we can assign that officer to one of the other above-mentioned roles, but we felt that at a minimum, on a first alarm, this would greatly increase our opportunity to truly understand what is going on "360" along with reports from our company officers (and, in some cases, chief officers, such as in a multi-family with multiple companies operating) on the interior.

We have had the Mini-IMAT response program in service for just over a year and it has been successful to the point that other departments are interested in participating by implementing the concept in their areas. Factors we looked at prior to implementation (and continue to evaluate) include common training standards, common fireground standard operating procedures (SOPs) and common radio interoperability - not any different than is required when fire departments respond together.

We have had several dozen responses to working structural fires within this time frame and, by all accounts, the team response greatly enhances the operation, resulting in safer operating conditions related to command, control, communications and accountability for all of our firefighters. In our department, we have two different teams, one for the west side of our fire district and one for the east side. Again, like any fire company automatic mutual aid, we determine which chief officers would be located closest to the run to provide the most effective and timely response.

Some have asked why we don't use company officers such as captains or lieutenants in these roles. We don't do that because we want to maintain company integrity and company supervision and our company officers are the most qualified to handle their companies. For this response program, we are looking for trained and experienced chief officers for command specific roles. While we could and have detailed a company and its officer at times to assist with some command support duties on larger-scale jobs, the goal of this program is to take advantage of the experience that comes with years of service as a commander.

There is no perfect solution to making sure "everything that might be needed is sent on the first alarm." We believe, though, that just like pre-planning a building, by pre-planning first-alarm assignments based on what we already know (location, structure information, available resources and reported conditions) we can rapidly provide generally adequate staffing. This program now allows us to also provide command support staffing to our various communities within the first few minutes of a fire to do our best to take care of our members.

WILLIAM GOLDFEDER, EFO, a Firehouse® contributing editor, is a 33-year veteran of the fire service. He is a deputy chief with the Loveland-Symmes Fire Department in Ohio, an ISO Class 2 and CAAS-accredited department. Goldfeder has served on numerous IAFC and NFPA committees and is a past commissioner with the Commission on Fire Accreditation International. He is a graduate of the Executive Fire Officer Program at the National Fire Academy. Goldfeder and Gordon Graham host the free and noncommercial firefighter safety and survival website Goldfeder may be contacted at [email protected]. OTTO HUBER, a 30-year veteran of the fire service, has been the chief of department at Loveland-Symmes since 2003. Previously, he was chief of operations for 18 years. Huber is a member of Ohio Fire Executive Program Class 7 and the board of directors of the Clermont County Fire Chiefs.

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