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Firefighter/EMT Safety, Health & Survival: Expanding Command Ahead of Demand

If a mayday operation requires rapid, concise decisions and actions to increase firefighter survivability, then when should command be expanded—before or after the mayday is called?

We know that our work on the fireground is complex, dangerous and chaotic. We know that building and maintaining effective command and control is essential for successful and safe operations. We also know that fireground operations demand that we have a heightened sense of awareness, the ability to adapt to rapidly changing conditions and the skill and will to make critical decisions, and do so fast.

But how do we accomplish that, especially during a mayday situation, with limited or no command staff?

Everyone would agree that adequate resources are needed for prompt incident stabilization. We measure and balance the number of firefighters on scene, when others will arrive, the number of apparatus and amount of equipment available and water supply, among other things. But many times those adequate resources don’t include a sufficient amount of command staff.

We may have the right number of resources within our span of control to initiate fire attack and search operations, but is there enough command staff to help manage a rapidly changing event, such as a mayday? How many chief officers are needed to fill the required positions to command a firefighter rescue while controlling the ongoing fire operation?

The level of command staff present when a mayday occurs will have great influence on the rapid-intervention capabilities and strategy selected. Simply deploying a rapid-intervention team, without effective command and control, places the success of the rescue operation at great risk. Too often, incident commanders don’t expand their command before the demand and fall short of controlling a rapidly expanding event.

Meeting Demands of Command Before Unexpected Events

First, incident commanders should follow the Incident Command Rules of Engagement by considering their resources and preventing the commitment of firefighters to high-risk tactical objectives that can’t be accomplished safely due to inadequate resources on scene.

That includes having the right number of command staff for the span of control of the operation and the unexpected event.

We know from history that it takes multiple teams of firefighters several minutes to locate and remove one downed firefighter. Teams of firefighters need a management team to help them complete the operation.

So, instead of thinking, “If this happens, I’ll call for this,” incident commanders should think, “When this happens, we’ll be ready for this.” Developing a command team early will provide for a more measured and deliberate response to an unexpected event, which will increase the chances of firefighter survival.

Considerations for Building Command Before the Demand

Preemptive actions to front-load a command team will ensure rapid, concise decisions and actions when a mayday occurs, or may even prevent one:

  • For the report of any fire, consider the additional response of one or more chief officers to become part of the command team to aid the incident commander and to be ready to take over a mayday operation when it occurs. This can be either an automatic assignment or just chief officers who hear the call while monitoring the radio.
  • For working fires, consider an aggressive response that includes a minimum of an additional two chief officers to help with fireground operations and to be ready to take over a mayday operation if it occurs (consider preassigning a RIT supervisor).
  • For additional alarms, consider adding chief officers to further build the command team to handle the expanding situation.

The On Deck concept practiced by Phoenix Fire Department, while debated by many, is another approach for building enhanced command and control early. It’s a forward staging position located just outside of the immediate hazard zone. Crews assigned there are supervised by either a sector officer or a company officer. They remain “on deck” until assigned to either reinforce a position within that sector, relieve a crew within that sector, respond as a rapid-intervention crew or receive any other tactical assignment.

The idea of layering on-deck crews around the fireground provides the IC with tactical reserves to manage the standard work cycle or sudden and unexpected incident events. As always, what works for one organization may not work for another.

The incident commander is ultimately responsible for firefighter safety. Operations on the fireground are difficult and confusing, putting every firefighter there at risk. Along with continuously evaluating the situation, maintaining communications, and assigning and managing an adequate and timely flow of appropriate resources, incident commanders should properly evaluate the number of command staff needed for a potentially escalating worst-case scenario. Expanding the command team early will help.

Billy Schmidt, MS, is a district chief for Palm Beach County (Fla.) Fire Rescue and a member of the Safety, Health and Survival Section.

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