As the duration and complexity of an incident increase, the ability to strategically track companies operating on the fireground becomes harder and harder for the incident commander (IC). To overcome this situation, ICs in the Phoenix Fire Department (PFD) use a standard tactical worksheet to help them track companies, assignments and firefighter accountability on most incidents.
The Value of a Worksheet
It’s vital for any IC to be able to quickly size up an incident, develop a strategy (either offensive or defensive) and develop an incident action plan (IAP). These key early decisions will determine the outcome of the incident, as well as firefighter safety, communications and fireground organization overall.
The tactical worksheet is a critical piece of equipment because it helps the IC organize these and other tasks by providing reminders, prompts and a convenient workspace for tracking companies and apparatus. It allows them to slow down during what could be a large, multi-alarm incident (although the worksheet can be used for fires big and small, as well as EMS incidents, to help develop proficiency) and record vital information that may help them make future operational decisions. By documenting the assignments, sector/division/group officers, and sector/division/group resources, the IC creates a visual reference of the overall fireground organization and deployment.
The worksheet is also an excellent tool for passing command. On the fireground, the PFD’s senior advisor can quickly check the worksheet and obtain a strong understanding of the initial deployment of resources, the need for additional apparatus and equipment, and the status of staged units.
For the new IC, the tactical worksheet can be of great assistance in maintaining focus and comfort in their role as commander. Their ability to maintain a focal point as the incident grows is critical for a successful outcome.
It Takes Practice
To properly use a tactical worksheet, the IC must develop a basic set of skills for use during high-pressure situations; however, proficiency only develops after years of use and practice. Remember: The worksheet is only as good as the information recorded on it. Inaccurate information can lead to confusion, frustration and loss of control on the fireground. With proper training and use during both simulations and actual incidents, ICs develop a comfort and proficiency not only for using the worksheets, but also for organizing and overseeing fireground operations.
Note: The PFD has no specific standard operating procedure (SOP) on how to use or complete a tactical worksheet. Each command officer and their field incident technician (FIT)/driver develop individual skills for filling out the sheets to fit their personal preferences.
Help from the CAD
For all members in the Phoenix regional automatic-aid system, the computer-aided dispatch (CAD) system provides a number of electronic technical tools for the IC. This electronic assistance is used in conjunction with the tactical worksheet, and has greatly improved the IC’s ability to track resources operating on the fireground.
Two functions in particular that assist the IC via the CAD: the Resource List and the Snap Shot.
The Resource List
The Resource List gives the IC a running order of companies assigned to their incident. The resource list is accessed simply by pressing a mobile data terminal (MDT) request button. The IC can easily maintain awareness of an individual unit’s status, arrival order, whether they’re assigned and/or staged, and their location on the fireground (e.g., Division 1/north sector, etc.).
The Snap Shot
The Snap Shot function provides an aerial overview of the incident, with the location of apparatus overlaid on the MDT screen. The IC can zoom into the incident with the mapping application and view overhead photos and access locations. The individual units can then be identified on scene in their geographical location. This function is especially useful during larger incidents where the IC has a limited view from the command post.
Although numerous electronic worksheets and accountability systems are available, the PFD still uses the traditional paper worksheet, as it’s low-tech, simple to maintain and never needs to be rebooted. (And despite advancements in technology, my preference for managing incidents and firefighter accountability remains the trusty No. 2 pencil, a stack of worksheets and the CAD.)
The PFD uses a number of different tactical worksheets depending on the individual needs of an incident: fire, EMS and sector officers. The PFD’s fireground worksheet is divided into four main sections:
- Section 1, top: The top section provides basic information about the incident and a number of prompts, reminders and check boxes for the IC. Critical portions include the elapsed-time notification check boxes and the personnel accountability report (PAR) notification benchmarks. The dispatcher’s 5-minute elapsed-time notifications greatly improve the IC’s ability to manage time. Time management in relation to fireground strategy (offensive or defensive) and task-level functions, such as air management, is a key function of the IC.
- Section 2, middle: This is the workhorse of the tactical worksheet. It’s designed to track resources, accountability and area responsibility once companies are deployed. The top box is for the sector, division or group name, followed by an area for listing the individual companies assigned to the incident. Tip: One quick way to maintain awareness of the group or sector officer/supervisor is to circle the company name or battalion chief. The PFD tracks on-deck companies in this area. (Note: On-deck companies are those that are forward placed from Level 1 or Level II staging to tactical positions or sectors). Rapid intervention crews (RIC) can also be tracked here.
- Section 3, left side: This column tracks the initial dispatch of companies and unused or staged resources. For the PFD, all units (except the first-in engine, ladder and battalion chief) on the initial 3-1 response (three engines, one ladder) or a first-alarm response (five engines, two ladders) will stage before receiving an assignment. The initial IC is responsible for managing and deploying these companies according to the IAP. All units dispatched on following alarms (second, third, etc.) will do “Level II staging,” and will be managed on a separate radio channel as the command team expands. The initial IC is responsible for tracking all units from the initial response until the final PAR is received, writing in the unit identifier along the left side and checking them off when they’re deployed.
- Section 4, bottom: This section is for an incident drawing. I rarely use this section, because in my opinion, it doesn’t improve my ability to manage the incident. But other ICs may think differently; they may use this area for creating a basic overview of apparatus deployment and placement on the fireground. This is especially important as incidents expand from residential to commercial occupancies.
Remember: No matter the type of incident, tactical worksheets must support and complement the SOPs of your department, such as the management of elapsed-time notifications, the deployment and tracking of resources, and determining the tactical objectives for the incident (all clear, fire control, loss stopped and customer stabilization).
As a battalion chief, I was very fortunate to always have a FIT/driver, because it allowed me to begin my tactical worksheet en route to the incident. (I always felt behind the incident “power curve” when circumstances required me to drive myself.) En route, I’d start tracking individual units in the left column from dispatch and await the initial on-scene report. The ability to concentrate on the initial-arriving radio communications and track units early usually led to a smooth command transition upon my arrival.
As incidents expand into greater alarms, the presence of a support officer is vital. Key functions of the support officer: maintaining and upgrading the tactical worksheet. We keep a large 24″ x 18″ worksheet in the PFD command van, so support officers can track accountability and planning for the duration of the operation.
The EMS Worksheet
For EMS incidents in the Phoenix area, three basic sectors are usually deployed: treatment, extrication and transportation. The main challenge for the IC during an EMS incident is tracking patients. For our system, we must track age, gender, level of severity, responding ambulance(s) and hospital information. The middle of the EMS tactical worksheet is the area designated to assist the IC in managing this information.
Using tactical worksheets on a regular basis during smaller, everyday incidents allows us to fine-tune our skill sets so we’re completely prepared to handle the scene when we pull up to the “big one.” In short, practice like you play.
Ask yourself: Are you proficient with using a tactical worksheet? If not, practicing whenever possible and becoming familiar with them ahead of time will increase your proficiency, which may mean the difference between a successful outcome and chaos on the scene.
The Advantages of Using a Tactical Worksheet
- Includes a location to quickly note individual assignments;
- Provides prompts for the IC, such as time, air management and strategy prompts;
- Provides tactical benchmarks, such as “All Clear,” “Fire Control” and “Loss Stopped”;
- Facilitates consistent, organized information;
- Documents assignments and responsibility;
- Expedites passing of command or support for the IC; and
- Provides resource status