Incident Command

It starts on the drill ground and during multicompany evolutions. The company officers and the chiefs who command scenes must be active in drilling because it not only keeps skills sharp and systems familiar—it creates trust. (Photo by Pixabay.)
It starts on the drill ground and during multicompany evolutions. The company officers and the chiefs who command scenes must be active in drilling because it not only keeps skills sharp and systems familiar—it creates trust. (Photo by Pixabay.)

There are a lot of different styles of incident commanders (ICs), but with as many styles there are out there, the basic information needed for the IC from the first-due officer is arguably simple and consistent. Each jurisdiction has a format or operational guideline that addresses how information should be conveyed and what that information should include, but the basics are normally found in most of those guidelines, as they should be.

Some ICs ask a lot of questions of their first-due officer, at times being a bit pesky. Too many questions too fast can overload that first-due officer’s ability to get the work done and to process what needs to get done. It also can tend to make members on the scene rush. The remedy to this issue is to have a solid, actionable standard operating guideline that has been trained on by the company officers and the ICs collectively.


It starts on the drill ground and during multicompany evolutions. The company officers and the chiefs who command scenes must be active in drilling because it not only keeps skills sharp and systems familiar—it creates trust.

Even though it’s on the drill ground, the IC can watch and listen to how the company officer will direct crews and react to simulated situations. This provides the IC with the ability to gauge progress and skill level and a fair idea of what to expect on the fire scene. If a company officer is out of sorts and yelling ineligible orders over the radio during drills, it is probable that the same thing will occur on the fire scene.

Conversely, the company officer has the opportunity learn how the chief will command incidents within the system and operational guidelines. Every command officer has a different tone or pace with verbal communication. If the IC is micromanaging on the drill ground, it is likely this will be a problem on the fireground as well.

In both cases, having the company officer and command officer actively involved in drilling and simulations allows for these problems and concerns to be addressed and fixed before they become issues on the fireground. This requires open dialogue and respectful conversations about those issues.

Not drilling and being an active part of training and evolutions is irresponsible and can be severely detrimental to the companies when we all get to the fireground. Be a participant with purpose and engagement and expect the same from your crews; it will pay big dividends when the bell rings you out.

The Size-Up

This is nothing new and certainly not earth shattering; however, a solid size-up by company officers and chief officers is not always what we get at a fire. Some size-ups are hurried and incomplete, leaving incoming units with questions about what is really going on besides a fire. The size-up should begin as soon as the address is made available. The types of buildings in that area, hydrant locations, traffic issues, and response times for additional units are some things to consider.

Strategies for finding success on and off the fireground

After arriving, an accurate description of what is going on is the simplest way to describe what the first-due company officer or units need to do. It’s easy to look for the obvious things, and they’re important, like smoke location and characteristics, building design, and fire. This information needs to be consistent and accurate.

Many like to downplay the importance of a thorough size-up, but the information is critical for the incoming IC and for additional units. This is especially important when considering the preassigned actions for incoming units. There is a big difference, for example, in a two- or three-story house as opposed to a true half story. There must be trust in what is being communicated to prepare incoming units for what they will be dealing with.

Additionally, the size-up needs to include the 360. There should be a follow-up report if the officer finds anything that needs to be reported. This information should not have to be asked for by the IC. This must be in the operational guideline. Does the company officer report that there is nothing to report or does he just report information that is important?

We only require our officers to report pertinent information—for example, two stories in the front and three in the back. There is a bulkhead or walk-up stairs on the rear if we are dealing with a basement fire. Or, simply the lack of exterior access on a basement fire. Maybe an egress door is open, and you’re going to hook a foot and check the immediate area. That information needs to be relayed to the IC.

Ensuring this information is trained on and passed along accurately helps to continue the building of trust between the IC and the company officer. This is important for the IC to be able to compare what the officer is telling him vs. what the IC is seeing. Another important part of this is the fact that there are occasions when the IC may be remote or not directly in front of the fire building and is depending on information to make decisions. A lack of trust creates hesitation and indecision on the part of the IC and may force him to stop or change a tactic when it may not be necessary but was based on poor information by the company officer.

By using actionable and realistic operational guidelines with training and a calm demeanor, this observation provides the strong start that is needed for success at any incident. The trust in knowing that the company officer is well armed and decisive with an understanding of operational expectations makes the job of the IC easier and more effective in putting resources where they need to go—or not go.

Making the Attack

When crews make an attack and begin their operations, there are some important bits of information that need to be communicated to the IC. This list is not exclusive, and you may have a system that has this information built into it. However, you must train on relaying information while operating, and the IC must learn to be patient.

As a company officer, there was nothing that would frustrate me more than an IC who was impatient, constantly calling me with questions while I was helping with the task and directing members. I learned that the more we drilled on what he wanted and what I needed to provide, the better we got on the incidents.

For me as an IC, I want to see the what the company officer is telling me. I want the conditions to match the information he is providing. If that’s not the case, I need to start thinking about changing our strategy or providing additional resources. Again, this comes with trust, frequent communication, and drilling together often.

The following is information that needs to be relayed from the company officer to the IC. For this list that is built on the trust between the company officer and the IC, patience on the part of the IC and recognition on the part of the company officer are key. I have found that providing this information does not remove the company officer from performing his regular tasks. If given time, the company officer can easily give the IC the information he needs to control the incident and adapt as needed.

  • Victims found or reported as missing in the fire building should be reported to the IC immediately. This needs to include if any changes in operations are taking place based on this information.

  • How many lines are coming off with the initial company? This lets the IC and incoming units know that water supply needs to happen fast.

  • Where are the lines going and for what? This is critical for the IC and incoming units to know. Yes, it should be obvious for crews to see a line going in the front door, but the IC may not have the ability to see that. Fire attack? Protecting the search crew? Holding an exposure? That information needs to be transmitted.

  • Regarding making entry, provide information on from where, the size of the crew, and company number. Include your task and whether you have protection or not. Searching may be necessary without the initial protection of a handline—this needs to be conveyed to the IC and incoming companies to ensure that a protective line gets put in place as soon as possible. If a crew does enter without a line, report conditions and location of the fire if possible.

  • Are things not going as well as expected? Report that and state why, if you know. Do you have hoarder conditions? Is the building cut up, making it hard to progress? Is there difficulty in finding the basement stairs? Was there a drastic change in heat and fire or visibility? These are critical components to communicate to the IC.

  • Have you found the fire? This is a must if you are asking for ventilation. The IC should not blindly ventilate without eyes on the fire.

  • Water flowing. This seems obvious and small and excessive to some, but I want to know when you’re flowing water. Are conditions providing the IC with signs of the same or is there a different picture on the exterior? If the attack officer says they’re flowing and conditions are getting worse—we need to reevaluate.

  • Fire out! Same as above, conditions should match what the interior team is reporting. It’s also a good benchmark to start relieving companies and getting some new crews inside.
The keys to success are training, trust, and communications. Keep training, and stay engaged. (Photo by Jon Androwski.)
The keys to success are training, trust, and communications. Keep training, and stay engaged. (Photo by Jon Androwski.)

Keys to Success

You may have some other bits of information that you want as an IC, and that’s great. I would only caution to not micromanage; let your officers work, and be patient with the pace of the call. I use these basic bits of information and, in many cases, they come in chunks, not a bunch of separate radio calls. The important thing is to be consistent and to get eyes on the scene whenever possible to verify the information you’re receiving.

The keys are training, trust, and communications. Something we’ve heard before, right? Keep training and stay engaged.

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