By Matthew Tobia
Published Monday, June 18, 2012
| From the August 2012 Issue of FireRescue
In the 1980s, when Chief Alan Brunacini was traveling around the country teaching “Fireground Commander” (FGC), I was introduced to such positions as “support officer” and “senior advisor.” (At this moment, there are Incident Command System purists who are cursing loudly and throwing this issue across the room—my apologies to my friends in California.) Over the years, a debate among fire service leaders has placed the language of FGC against ICS, not unlike the Hatfields and the McCoys.
Since 9/11, the mandatory integration of the National Incident Management System (NIMS) via Presidential Directive #6 eclipsed this debate and a new one has emerged: Is NIMS effective for everyday incidents?
The Need for Standard Outcomes
Standard responses produce standard outcomes. When Mrs. Smith calls us to her home because it’s on fire, she expects certain fundamental things, including, but not limited to, a competent, coordinated effort to put the fire out. Doing this requires resources (firefighters), leaders (company officers) and bosses (command officers). In addition, it requires that their actions be choreographed in a way that produces the standard desired outcome.
Interestingly, most officers will tell you that at the conclusion of an incident, they want three genuinely basic and universal things: No injuries to their personnel, the problem solved and the ability to say that their people had some positive hand in making the first two come true. For this to occur, however, everyone involved must understand explicitly what that standard outcome is supposed to look like. The time to experiment with new and exciting ways to put out a fire is not when someone’s house is actually burning. Example: PPV has proven an effective tool in aiding fire extinguishment—when correctly applied. It has also had a substantial hand in burning people’s homes directly to the ground.
Most fireground commanders, including company officers, report that they have the ability to control the resources of a one-alarm house fire in their head—three or four engine companies, a couple of ladder trucks, a squad or heavy-rescue and an EMS unit. Most residential structure fires are successfully extinguished using such resources, controlled by the first attack line within the first 10 minutes of arrival. Rather than use the incident management tools at their disposal, including command boards and the language of NIMS, many fireground commanders (regardless of rank) allow themselves to get lulled into a dangerous sense of complacency in the misguided belief that their casual style of “command” is effective.
There’s a fundamental difference between calling yourself “command” and actually being an incident commander, just as there’s a fundamental difference between riding a ladder truck and being a “truckie.” Too often across this country, “incident commanders” are standing in the middle of the street with a portable radio mistakenly believing that they’re actually in command—even more dangerous, the individuals whose lives are placed in these “commanders’” hands believe the same thing.
One of the key benefits of understanding and using NIMS is that it results in your ability to plug into any incident, at any level of complexity, and positively contribute to the outcome. It’s reasonably safe to say that the folks in Joplin, Miss., never expected to host an incident that crossed multiple operational periods, stretched across a large geographical area and involved hundreds of casualties. And yet that’s exactly what happened when an F5 tornado destroyed their community.
Such an incident can happen anywhere, at any time. Saving NIMS for “the big one” dooms you to failure at the single most critical moment when everyone is looking to you to bring order out of chaos. Such incidents will run you over like a freight train, because you have not practiced and exercised with the tools in your toolbox labeled “NIMS”. Lives and property will be lost and already complicated situations will be made worse because of a fundamental unwillingness to embrace an easy-to-use, functional incident management system.
Change the Words
Let’s get back to where we started. In Brunacini’s system, the Support Officer took care of nuts-and-bolts stuff—accountability, staging, rehab, communications, etc.—allowing the IC to focus on strategic decision-making. Simultaneously, the Senior Advisor played a critical role in ensuring that the strategies and tactics were accomplishing their desired goals, coupled with a mentoring role to the IC.
Now change the words: Support Officer becomes LOGISTICS and Senior Advisor becomes PLANNING. Sound familiar? In certain places, these terms are commonly heard at every working fire. Why? Because generations of officers have demanded that the principles taught in ICS, and now NIMS, get applied routinely so that when “the big one” hits, the organization is prepared to deliver the standard outcome discussed earlier. Remember: Standard outcomes result from the standard application of a practiced set of tools in managing incidents.
The bottom line: NIMS can and should be applied on type IV and V incidents. There is ample practical experience demonstrating its effectiveness while ensuring that critical components of the safety system are addressed by a supporting cast. This allows the incident commander to focus on their primary responsibility: the safety of responders and citizens. Our personnel, and the citizens they serve, deserve nothing less.
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