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Executive Fire Officers: White Helmets & Battlefields—A Military Approach to Incident Command

Incident command is based on a structure that allows for modular escalation and a manageable span of control suited for the type and size of the incident. Critical decision-dependent characteristics of this system are the flexibility of the plan consistent with the degree of constant awareness, followed immediately by an appropriate adaptive response.

Whether activating, consolidating, adding or deleting assignments based on the needs of the incident, the primary fundamental objective of incident command is to maintain the maximum degree of safety to firefighting personnel at all times. This can be accomplished by:

  • Having a personnel-accountability plan
  • Ensuring all personnel understand and are trained in the working fundamentals of this plan as it relates to ICS
  • Routinely using the plan so knowledge retention and performance reinforcement allows for careful, calculated decisions and offers the best possible opportunity for a successful outcome.

Mission Command the Military Way

Command is both an art and a science. To successfully plan and execute a mission, a commander must carry out four functions:

  • Visualize – When presented with a mission, a commander must develop a solid understanding and visualization. Paramount to visualization is accountability; because visualization deals with resources and because resources include personnel, there's an inherent, irrevocable relationship between visualization and personnel-resource accountability.
  • Describe – The commander must describe what was visualized clearly and concisely via effective communication channels. Absolute understanding of the commander's key objectives and tasks is critical so everyone in the organization clearly understands the vision while executing the mission. Action priorities are designed to allow for rapid adjustment.
  • Direct – The commander must then direct the concept and execution of the mission by assigning tasks and functions to maneuver-and-support units while identifying the main and supporting efforts.
  • Lead – The commander must lead subordinate units by direct and indirect supervision as well as track and assess progress thoroughly throughout the planning, preparation and mission.
    [List adapted from FM 3-0 Operations (Department of the Army), Chapter 5. This doctrine is the U.S. Army's capstone operations manual and reflects current thinking on full-spectrum operations.]

These functions are independently crucial and mutually supportive; if one function isn't properly considered, the mission will be unsuccessful or poorly executed at best.

During this entire process, the commander must also consider the tenets of operations:

  • Agility
  • Initiative
  • Depth
  • Synchronization
  • Versatility
    [List from FM 3-0 Operations (Department of the Army), Chapter 5.]

These tenets foster an operational environment that increases the probability of successfully completing the objectives. Combined with a structured organization that properly addresses span of control, these tenets will optimize the efforts of the commander and unit and create an imbalance on the battlefield in the unit's favor. There can be only one victor!

How This Relates to Firefighting

Incident command and personnel accountability are intricately linked. One can't meet the objectives of incident command without exhibiting the highest degree of personnel accountability. Accountability for fireground personnel is the primary responsibility of the incident commander. Any misunderstanding of this can result in a failed mission, which in our business is reflected by firefighter injury and death and the destruction of property.

The command sequence for dynamic, potentially volatile situations requires sound, organized thinking. The sequence is a standardized, sequential thought process that enables the incident commander to analyze situations, identify problems and implement solutions based on basic skills and knowledge. Priorities include:

  • Life safety – Actions that reduce the threat to life or injury and involve civilians and emergency personnel. Life safety is always the first priority.
  • Incident stabilization – Activities designed to stop the forward progress of the incident.
  • Property conservation – Efforts to reduce the long-term economic and social impact of the incident.
  • Evidence preservation – Efforts to preserve and document possible evidence.

Getting the job done and the best opportunity for a successful outcome depend on these criteria:

  • We'll risk ourselves a lot, within a structured plan, to save a savable life – Activities that present a significant risk to the safety of members will be limited to situations where there is potential to save endangered lives.
  • We'll risk ourselves a little, within a structured plan, to save a savable property – Activities routinely employed to protect property will be recognized as inherent risks to members' safety and actions will be taken to reduce or avoid these risks.
  • We won't risk ourselves at all to save lives or property already lost – No risk to members' safety is acceptable when there's no possibility to save lives or property.

Incident command needs to be used correctly to positively impact the wellbeing of firefighters. Good orders come from good decision-making; good decisions comes from accurate information, good communication and a means of efficiently tracking and recording key activities throughout the incident.

All of this provides synergy that creates a high degree of situational awareness, providing the best opportunity for a successful outcome. New technology provides intuitive tools for the incident commander to track and record all activities on the fireground.

We owe it those we lead to always be on our game and capable of optimal decision-making. With sound leadership that includes reliable communication and new technology, we can very likely avoid near misses and injuries, reduce line-of-duty deaths and avoid the unknowns.

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