Much earlier in my career, when a chief officer arrived on the scene of a fire or other emergency, we referred to the role as chiefing, as in "he's chiefing the fire," or "she's in charge of the operations." With the emergence of incident command or management, we adopted the terminology command and commander.
Although some believed this to be only a change in terminology and in some cases derided the term as pretentious and arrogant, I looked at it through my military experience as absolutely appropriate for the role. Instead of merely being in charge, overseeing or managing, the term command more accurately describes the role of the person or people making the tough and difficult decisions, which determine the success of the operation.
In terms of emergency response, command and decisiveness go hand in hand.
Command at the strategic level has its obvious challenges, depending on the nature, size and complexity of the incident. Command at the tactical level is no less difficult. In this area, the dynamic conditions of an emergency scene often require tough decisions be made in seconds without the benefit of complete and accurate information.
A combination of training, education, experience, adequate resources and information can help us through the decision-making process, but the difficulty remains as lives, property and impact to the environment almost always hinge on the decisions we make.
Tougher still, those of us who accept and operate in the command role realize we must live with and accept responsibility for our decisions. Within this context, command is absolutely humbling.
Regardless of decisions being made at the strategic, tactical and even task levels, sometimes the toughest decisions are when we must say STOP or NO or even—dare I say—RETREAT. We often make decisions based on the willingness of our personnel to take risks and because, to be honest, we used to operate that way too.
But perhaps we should view these decisions as the easiest. These are the commands that go against our nature and culture, but giving them often leads to preventing unnecessary and unacceptable risks.
Another component of command is authority. Rather than thinking about our authority in terms of directing and assigning units or personnel, I offer another perspective. Think of our authority in terms of not allowing and preventing unacceptable risk taking, such as improper or inadequate use of PPE for the hazard, assignment of tasks exceeding the level of training or the physical condition and limitations of our firefighters.
Command is much more than a checklist or plan.
G. Keith Bryant
President and Chairman of the Board