During major incidents, a large amount of information must be processed and decisions must be made on strategy and tactics very quickly, which can make these incidents very confusing if not done properly. Effectively communicating conditions and instructions related to strategy and tactics can be just as important as information processing and quick thinking.
The actions of the first-arriving unit/officer can determine the pace and ultimate outcome of an incident. One key action every first-arriving officer/unit should take: effectively communicating a complete initial report, as well as ongoing progress reports, of the situation.
First Things First
A brief but informative report from the first-arriving officer, who initially assumes command, serves as an integral part of the incident command system because it helps the officer size up the incident, make crucial logistical decisions and clarify the initial command structure for all responding units. If the officer must be directly involved in incident tactics, they may choose to “pass command” by saying so in the initial report.
Based on an effective initial report, appropriate mutual-aid companies can be dispatched rapidly, thereby expediting the application of appropriate resources, such as specialty and EMS units. Having these units on scene right away, rather than calling for them if/when the incident escalates, simplifies and expedites overall fireground operations.
The initial report also helps dispatchers decide when and where to relocate companies to ensure minimal coverage, at the very least, of all areas and when to notify other agencies, such as the Health Department, utility companies and/or the Red Cross, of the incident. Police response can be also initiated or augmented, providing resources for traffic and crowd control.
When secondary companies arrive, they too can obtain valuable information from an accurate first-in report that can help them make vital decisions about positioning apparatus and committing to accessing water supplies. For example, many departments include standing orders in their initial reports for second-due companies to reduce speed when the first-arriving company reports “nothing showing.”
What to Include
It’s important to understand what goes into an initial report, so here are a few suggestions of what to include:
- Who is reporting? State your unit/officer identification (“Engine 123” or “Chief 59”).
- Where are you? Confirm your location (“567 Maple Street”). This serves a number of purposes. Occasionally, multiple incidents occur simultaneously in the same complex or neighborhood, or multiple units are called in for the same incident. If the first-in unit does not specify an address, the next-in unit may begin operating in an adjacent building or go to the wrong address, presuming they’re working the same incident. This can become a very critical situation if one unit requires assistance from the other. To rectify the situation, additional assistance may need to be called in quickly.
- What incident are you reporting to? Describe the type of occupancy (“Wood-frame, single-family dwelling”); its size (“Two-story, 50 x 100 feet”); and the conditions found (“Heavy smoke from two windows on the second floor”).
- How are you going to operate on scene? Describe any actions taken (“Going into service with a 2-inch water line” or “Captain 12 assuming command”) and make recommendations (“Can handle with the responding assignment” or “Send additional units”).
Using the examples given above, the complete report would sound like this: “Engine 123 on location, 567 Maple Street, with a two-story, wood-frame dwelling, 50 x 100 feet. Heavy smoke from two windows on the second floor. Going into service with a 2-inch water line. Captain 12 assuming command. All units will be committed.” This communicates to those concerned that all units on the house fire assignment will be utilized; police will be needed for traffic control; EMS will be needed if not already dispatched; a rapid intervention team may be needed; and cover companies may need to relocate. It also alerts the commanding officer that additional units may need to be requested, and that fire and rescue strategies must be established. If the reporting officer relays all this information quickly and correctly, personnel on the other end of the radio will have a clear picture of the incident.
A thorough initial report is an excellent beginning to a properly managed major incident. But to maintain effective communication, ongoing incident management requires ongoing progress reports. Radio reports provide two critical functions during an emergency: 1) If done correctly, they clearly describe the incident to their recipient(s), and 2) they help the person making the report mentally organize current emergency activity. If an incoming chief officer receives inaccurate reports or no reports at all, they will have little information about what’s going on, which will make transfer of command more difficult once they arrive.
When providing progress reports, ICs must also understand to whom they are providing information, and what they want to tell them. To properly give the report, the IC must conduct a status check with each assigned division/group leader. This helps the IC monitor activities on the emergency scene in an orderly fashion.
Departments should also consider developing a form that the IC can fill in to provide effective ongoing incident reports. These reports should include:
- Updated/confirmed address;
- Type of occupancy;
- Status of the incident (primary search complete, secondary search complete, under control, percent contained, extending, progress, etc.);
- Units being utilized, as well as the potential need to acquire additional resources or release resources; and
- Supporting units’ needs, such as air cascade/rehab units, support agencies, utilities, fire investigators, etc.
After 15 or 20 minutes into the incident, if crews aren’t making good progress, the IC must think hard about structural integrity/deterioration and how to maintain an offensive attack. Providing a verbal report to the communications center forces the IC to evaluate the incident, determine if adequate resources have been deployed and realize the need for rehabilitation and/or rotation of crews operating in the hazard zone.
Most departments and command officers probably follow these procedures already when providing reports, but it’s important to remember how to properly communicate on the scene of a working incident. By verbalizing our thoughts and providing simple, clear reports, the lines of communication remain open on the fireground and allow officers to set a good example for future officers. Reports also force ICs to make decisions and ensure all their bases are covered. This ultimately creates a highly organized emergency scene, which is the best and safest way to manage a major emergency.
One tool that reminds ICs to provide regular progress reports is a prompt, or mark, from the communications center. To ensure the report occurs, dispatch centers can actually request it from the IC when the time prompt is given. NFPA 1500: Fire Department Occupational Safety and Health Program, 2007 edition, offers the following guidelines for operation of this prompt:
- The fire department communications center shall start an incident clock when the first-arriving unit reaches the scene of a working structure fire or hazardous materials incident, or when other conditions appear to be time-sensitive or dangerous.
- The dispatch center shall notify the IC at every 10-minute interval, providing them with the amount of time resources have been on scene until the fire is knocked down or the incident becomes static.
- The IC shall be permitted to cancel the incident clock notification through the fire department communications center based on the incident conditions.
Many fire departments adhere to NFPA 1500 recommendations when using the prompt, but some may send it to the IC at slightly different time intervals, such as at every 15 or 20 minutes. Regular time notifications remind the IC that time is passing and that they must evaluate their progress. The marks also help them realize the potential need for rehabilitation and/or rotation of crews that are operating in the hazard zone.