Command presence makes or breaks incident control. The officer of the first-arriving unit serves as the initial incident commander (IC) and sets the stage for the incident. These are fundamental incident command tenets; however, all too frequently, they end up being tenuously applied in the midst of the chaos of some incident scenes.
On the scene of a mutual-aid fire, a respected IC I know made a comment that resonated with me. When asked how things were going, he replied, “Chief, I’m just trying to put the marbles back in the bag”—this from someone who was the model of command presence. He operated in a calm, determined voice; he exhibited an orderly thought process on the radio; and he maintained an authoritative insistence on crews adhering to standard operating procedures (SOPs). There is no doubt that he was working in ways he hadn’t given himself credit for. The opposite of this conduct is reflected in our first report excerpt, but a better command presence is indicated in the second report.
Near-Miss Report #08-111
“An attempt to knock down fire was made with little success. We eventually made our way to the door that went into the garage, which was left open by the occupants upon discovering the fire. PPV was in place and conditions improved. The captain and I went into the garage and began attacking the fire. At the same time, someone sprayed from an outside line and conditions deteriorated rapidly. As a result, we had to pull back into the house and regroup.”
From the Lessons Learned: “It is vital to have a good and competent IC with a strong command presence. Several firefighters were freelancing here. Command must keep in constant communication with all firefighters who are inside a burning structure and, in return, they must keep command updated on their status.”
Near-Miss Report #10-471
“Crews found a working fire in the basement. The floor gave way, and two members fell from the first floor into the basement. A mayday was issued, and the rapid- intervention team was activated. A ladder was placed in the hole, and the two firefighters were rescued.”
From the Lessons Learned: “Once the mayday occurred, there was a good command presence. We have had some good command training in the department. Having more than one person at the command post resulted in more eyes and ears.”
The failure to develop and exhibit genuine, strong command presence can have a devastating impact. ICs who cannot “get the marbles back in the bag” are generally reactive to situations and remain in a “catch-up mode.” The proactive battalion-level commander should arrive on the scene, receive and process information, and then push the incident in a direction that ensures the safety of personnel and control of the situation.
To develop a strong command presence, consider the following: Attend conferences and presentations on command functions; study videos, case studies, articles, textbooks and near-miss reports; seek a respected IC in your department to mentor you; use your command tools (e.g., tactical worksheets, accountability systems, command aides, radios, SOPs) to familiarize yourself with how they’ll work best for you; obtain audio copies of radio traffic from incidents you run to hear what you sound like; take a deep breath before making a transmission to formulate your message; and don’t be afraid to build a command team. Extra sets of eyes and ears at the command post help divide the work.
The IC’s role in orchestrating a good performance is defined as much by command presence as any other factor. That command presence is achieved through a combination of factors, including education, experience and performance. The reward for this hard-earned process is being “cool under fire” so you can run the incident in the safest and most effective manner—instead of the incident running you.