Steps for Creating an Appropriate Action Plan for Any Incident

Steps for Creating an Appropriate Action Plan for Any Incident

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Firefighters who are studying and competing to become company officers are learning the profession at a new level–a level that requires the development of an action plan. And one question that most firefighters going through the promotional process most often ask mentors and chief officers is, “How do I go from the size-up to the action plan?”

Frequently, firefighters and newly promoted company officers provide good size-ups but lack the ability to create an appropriate action plan. When they fail to develop a plan based on the needs of the specific incident, company officers and firefighters resort to what they did at a similar incident, or what they’ve seen and heard most frequently. Oftentimes, the string of words, clichés or phrases that are relayed from the initial-arriving company officer to those responding have nothing to do with the overall operational priorities, strategy and tactics. For example, the first-arriving officer might say, “Engine 4 on scene with heavy smoke showing; we’ll have a line off; Engine 4 is command.” This type of announcement fails to inform incoming units of the operational priority, what strategy is being employed and how the tactics are supporting the strategy. And if the early decisions that follow the size-up don’t develop into an action plan that matches the needs of the incident, then order will never overcome the chaos of the incident; in fact, the lack of an action plan can easily add to the chaos of the incident.

It’s even more critical that company officers learn this skill because on the majority of calls, they’re going to be the initial incident commander (IC). Generally, the company officer isn’t expected to be the standing IC on long-duration incidents, but rather, provide command and control until the arrival of a more experienced officer. In short, the company officer must set the pace for the call and develop a plan of action.

So, what needs to follow the size-up that will result in the development of an action plan? Fortunately, the National Incident Management System Consortium (NIMSC) has the answers, but as with any technical textbook, there’s sometimes a lot of information to wade through. In this article, I’ll break down the steps for creating a suitable action plan and offer a useful acronym to help you remember each component.

Key Components of an Action Plan
There are four key components that the company officer is responsible for–components that are consistent in most, if not all, incident command textbooks available today: 1) command options, 2) operational priorities, 3) strategy and 4) supporting tactics. Firefighters do well with acronyms, so we’ll use the acronym COST to remember the components of an action plan.

The company officer must select a command option that’s appropriate for their level of involvement. The three command options are investigation, the fast-attack and the command-post (National Incident Management System Consortium [NIMSC], 2007, pp. 8-9).

The company officer must decide what operational priorities are to be achieved in the best interest of those at risk. The three recognized operational priorities are life safety, incident stabilization and property conservation (NIMSC, 2007, p. 3 & p. 72).

The company officer must select a strategy that will effectively manage the incident based on a risk/benefit profile. There are generally two accepted strategies: offensive and defensive. Some organizations and books endorse a third strategy, identified as transitional. Note: The concept of a transitional strategy has to do with the application of water from a larger exterior fire stream in order to decrease the threat of fire spread or a catastrophic fire event (flashover, collapse, etc.). The rapid deployment of a large amount of water then allows for a safer interior fire attack. People will sometimes refer to a transitional strategy as a change from offensive to defensive.

And the company officer must assign tactics to arriving crews in support of their earlier decisions. Tactics are tasks assigned to crews in order to support the strategy. Search, rescue, fire attack and ventilation are tactics. Important to this process: The tactics must be in support of the earlier decisions.

The Action Plan Starts with #2
Which of these four components is the most important or needs to be considered first? Although the command option is what’s most often discussed first in textbooks and oftentimes announced first over the radio, the greatest consideration must be given to the operational priority. Of the three operational priorities (life safety, incident stabilization and property conservation), life safety trumps them all. Life safety refers to the citizens who are in danger. The citizens take priority in any risk/benefit profile. The operational priority of life safety announces the need to account for the citizens. The company officer must decide to remove the citizens from harm or remove the threat from the citizens. This decision ends the obligation to the operational priority for now.

It’s tempting to move right into the strategy and tactics of the incident–don’t! First evaluate your command options phase (investigation, the fast-attack and command-post). Resist the urge to default to the fast attack option that’s routinely used.

Before we go further, let’s ensure we understand what each of these options mean. The investigation option indicates that the company officer does not have enough information at that moment to develop an opinion about what constitutes the greatest operational priority or how to proceed. This option is typically used when “nothing is showing” upon arrival. However, this option might mean that there’s some smoke showing from a big-box store or that people are indicating that “something is going on” inside–but it still requires further investigation. Regardless, it means that the company officer retains the function of command and uses their portable radio, their crew and their senses to develop a better understanding of the incident (NIMSC, 2007, p.8).

The fast-attack option, which I refer to as the fast-action option, indicates that the company officer’s direct involvement in some action will quickly lead to a desirable outcome for the occupants. For example, the fast action of a fire attack will remove the threat while the fire is still manageable; or the fast action of a ladder rescue will remove the citizen from the threat. Nonetheless, the fast-action option is used when there’s an immediate need (threat) that the company officer’s direct involvement will likely resolve within a short period of time. The company officer retains the command function during the fast-attack option (NIMSC, 2007, pp. 8-9).

The last command option is the command-post option, which is based on the size, speed and complexity of the incident as well as your organization’s staffing model (NIMSC, 2007, p. 9). There are easy guidelines to apply that will lead to success. If the operational priority is incident stabilization or property conservation, then exercise the command-post option. The point to remember is that life safety is no longer a factor and the company officer can slow the incident down. Company officers are in a better position to slow the incident down if they retain command and control.

If the speed of the incident is rapidly expanding, or the incident is complex in nature (multiple rescues, radical fire behavior, mid-rise standpipe operations, technical rescue, hazardous materials, etc.), then slow down and gain command and control. Exercise the command-post option. The company officer must resist the urge to exercise the fast-attack option, because in each of these cases, their direct involvement will not result in the rapid de-escalation of the incident. The company officer’s direct involvement will likely create more chaos, because now nobody is developing a plan, accountability is lost and resources will be arriving with no assignment. This chaos can lead to unwanted actions (aka, freelancing). Finally, if your organization has the luxury of a five-person staffing model or multiple-company houses, then the use of the command-post option should be automatic. Why? Because you’ll have one IC and four operationally assigned personnel.

Let’s review the two components addressed so far. The company officer has used their size-up and information-gathering skills to decide if the lives of the citizens are in danger. If they are, then the operational priority of life safety is the only choice. Otherwise, slow down, stabilize the incident and move to property conservation (salvage and overhaul). If the company officer needs more information, then exercise the investigation option. If the company officer’s assistance is needed to quickly resolve an issue, then exercise the fast-action option. If the scene is rapidly expanding, complex in nature or your organization’s staffing model allows for it, then exercise the command-post option and gain control of the chaotic scene by slowing it down.

Announce these two decisions after the size-up. It should sound something like this: “The operational priority is incident stabilization, room-and-contents fire on the bravo side, second story bedroom, Engine 5 will be in the fast-attack option, stand by for further information.” The five best words a company officer can remember and use: “Stand by for further information.”

Strategy & Tactics
The third component of an action plan is strategy. The company officer doesn’t have all day, but they should not make a decision in haste. If the company officer rushes the strategy, they risk a mismatch between the command option, the operational priority and the supporting tactics. For instance, if the operational priority is incident stabilization because everybody is out of the house, then before deciding if the strategy is offensive or defensive, the company officer has to conduct a rapid risk/benefit profile. If the benefit outweighs the risk, then an offensive strategy can be supported based on a certain set of known factors such as fire location, construction, fire spread potential, fire flow needs, incoming resources, the crew’s ability, etc. This is called making an informed decision. If the risk outweighs the benefit, then a defensive strategy is a better option. If the transitional strategy is endorsed by your organization, then consider this strategy also. Announce this decision.

Finally, choose tactics that will support the strategy. I know this sounds simple, but it’s often misstated. The tactics that the company officer selects must be sound and in concert with the previous decisions. Furthermore, the tactics have to occur in steps so they achieve the operational priority and strategy. The company officer should not just announce “a pre-connect through the front door.” The company officer should announce the supporting tactics in every sense of the phrase, such as: “1 ¾ inch pre-connect alpha side, confine the fire to the room of origin.”

Let’s review and build on the previous example with Engine 5. By the nature of the fast-attack option, Engine 5 has essentially announced an offensive strategy. Even for a room-and-contents fire, the supporting tactics should include a water supply, forcible entry considerations, secondary means of egress, coordinated ventilation ahead of the fire attack, a complete search of the structure to ensure an all-clear, utilities, fire extension, etc. Not all of these tactics can be or need to be announced at the same time, but address those that build on the command option (fast attack) and the strategy (offensive). In this case, Engine 5 would then announce the following: “Engine 5, offensive strategy, 1 ¾ inch pre-connect alpha side, confine the fire to the room of origin. Truck 7 forcible entry, secondary means of egress on the bravo side and prepare for horizontal ventilation on the bravo side.”

Final Thoughts
The company officer has successfully gone from a size-up to an incident action plan by addressing four key components of the incident command system: command options, operational priorities, a strategy and supporting tactics. Provided a higher ranking or more experienced officer is now on scene, command can be transferred. The officer receiving command will be thrilled with what has been accomplished through this simple and usable process.

If the company officer follows the COST process, they will likely be more effective in developing an incident action plan–“the part that comes after the size-up”–and the area that most company officers struggle with in times of stress and unfamiliarity. COST can be applied to every incident type and expanded or contracted as needed. Now, company officers: Get busy and practice COST; the chaos it prevents will be invaluable.

Reference
National Incident Management System Consortium. (2007). Incident Command System (ICS) Model Procedures Guide for Incidents Involving Structural Fire Fighting, High-Rise, Multi-Casualty, Highway, and Managing Large-Scale Incidents Using NIMS-ICS, Book-1 (1st ed.). Fire Protection Publications, Oklahoma State University.