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Company Officer Leadership: Are You Ready to Step Up?

As company officers, we’re responsible for managing small emergency incidents and the first few minutes of large incidents when we’re first to arrive on scene.

Small incident management is well within our comfort zone as these are the calls we respond to daily. We develop proficiency with these types of incidents through experience and many of us have an incident command routine or checklist that we follow on each incident. Our ultimate goal is to keep the incident small and mitigate the hazard quickly.

At larger incidents, our focus is on assigning first-due companies and implementing initial actions for the first several minutes until the first-due chief arrives and assumes command. We’re reassured, and maybe a little complacent, in knowing that the chief will be there in a few minutes to take over.

But what happens at a large-scale incident when the chief doesn’t arrive to assume command? Are you prepared to manage a significant incident beyond the first few minutes? Could you step into the role and continue to manage the incident? Do you understand the responsibilities associated with the position one or two levels above you in the chain of command?

2011 will be remembered as a year that Mother Nature threw some of her worst at us, creating significant challenges for emergency responders. We’ve already seen record flooding, devastating tornados and huge wildland fires. And the year is only half over.

These types of disasters often disable communications systems and block or destroy roads, leaving operation companies within the impact area stranded and cut-off from additional resources, including supervising chiefs.

Additionally, post-incident analysis and first-hand information from IAFC members responding as part of a Go Team or mutual-aid support indicate that chief officers can be pulled into the overall incident-management team and away from field operations, requiring company officers to manage the operations aspect of the response.

In these and many preceding events, there are multiple examples of company officers being required to manage an operation for several hours or into the next day because the supervising chief or other members of the command staff can’t get to the location or aren’t available. Like it or not, company officers need to be ready to manage a significant incident beyond the first few minutes and to assume a role above their own in the chain of command.

Like anything else that we do in the fire service, preparation and practice are essential, and it will likely be up to the company officer to take the initiative to be better prepared for that temporary field promotion during a disaster.

So what specifically can you do to be ready to step up at a large-scale incident?

Learn the role and responsibilities of the positions above you – Don’t wait until you’re ready to promote to learn more about your supervising chief’s job. Ask him or her to identify for you and be familiar with the NIMS/ICS roles you might be asked to fill. What tools and priorities does he or she use to manage an incident?

Expand the scope of your operational thought process at incidents – When at an incident, begin to take a broader view of the operation. If you’re the initial incident commander, begin to expand your thoughts beyond initial actions and assigning the first-due units. What are the next actions you should take? What will you do if your initial tactics fail? When the chief arrives, you can use these actions as recommendations when you hand off command. Are resources adequate so you can shadow the chief for the remainder of the incident?

Have post incident discussions with incident commanders – Take advantage of opportunities to have informal post-incident discussions with incident commanders about their priorities for managing the incident, what difficulties they encountered and what they might do differently next time. Since our personal experience responding to large–scale disasters is limited, the lessons learned from the experience of others is invaluable.

Use scenarios to practice managing extended incidents – Work with your training division to create extended incident scenarios and use them to develop your skill at managing longer incidents.

Train members of your crew to step up into your role – Who will fill your position if you're required to assume the responsibilities of the position above you in the chain of command? It’s important to prepare the members of your crew to step up as well.

Company officers are expected to effectively manage a variety of incidents with limited resources and personnel. When a natural or manmade disaster occurs, we’ll be required to assume roles above those we hold during normal operations. As a company officer, being ready to step up will help ensure effective incident management and successful operations when a disaster strikes your community.

Craig Aman is a lieutenant and a paramedic for the Seattle Fire Department. He's a member of the EMS Section and he currently serves as a member on the Company Officer Task Force.

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