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Rules of Engagement for Incident Commanders: Maintain Two-Way Communication, Obtain Progress Reports and Revise the Action Plan

Maintain Frequent Two-Way Communication and Keep Interior Crews Informed of Changing Conditions
Objective: To ensure that the incident commander obtains frequent progress reports and all interior crews are kept informed of changing fire conditions—observed from the exterior by the incident commander or other command officers—that may affect crew safety.

The general practice, when using the incident-command system, is that the incident commander typically obtains progress reports from crews or supervisors operating on the interior of the building or from exterior locations. It may not be common practice for the incident commander to routinely provide a progress report to interior crews about fire conditions observed from the exterior or to share critical information obtained from elsewhere on the fireground that may affect their safety. But the incident commander must.

The sharing of critical information is particularly important to interior crews who are at greatest risk. This rule also addresses the principles of crew resource management regarding the sharing of information and situational awareness. For interior crews to maintain full situational awareness, the incident commander must keep these crews informed of changing conditions and exterior observations. What is observed on the exterior or what is occurring elsewhere on the fireground may quickly increase the risk and reduce the safety of firefighters.

Interior crews have often reported moderate conditions at their location on the interior (such as below an attic fire) while the incident commander or others on the exterior observe deteriorating fire conditions coming from the attic space. Crews on the interior need to know what's being observed from outside. Communicate!

It's also absolutely essential that the incident commander and command organization officers constantly monitor—listen to—all radio communications from crews within the hazard zone for critical radio progress reports or potential mayday declarations. It's also essential that all crew members closely monitor ongoing radio reports on their assigned tactical channel for critical reports or communication to them from the incident commander.

Bottom line: If you can't keep interior crews regularly informed of changing conditions, don't commit to high-risk interior operations.

Obtain Frequent Progress Reports and Revise the Action Plan
Objective: To cause the incident commander, as well as all command organization officers, to obtain frequent progress reports, to continually assess fire conditions and any risk to firefighters and to regularly adjust and revise the action plan to maintain safe operations.

The National Fire Fighter Near-Miss Reporting System lists the top two causes of near-fatal events as lack of situational awareness and decision-making.

Situational awareness is defined as the level of understanding and attentiveness one (the incident commander) has regarding the reality of a set of conditions (fire conditions and fireground operations). When situational awareness is high, there's rarely a surprise. When situational awareness is low or absent, unexpected events occur—events that can injure or kill firefighters.

Simply put, situational awareness is the relationship between what one perceives is happening and what is really happening.

Simply put, the incident commander must be aware of all conditions and operations and in control of firefighter actions and risk all the time!

The incident commander can't maintain full situational awareness without obtaining frequent and ongoing progress reports. The incident commander can't make good decisions without good information. He or she must also listen to what's being said and understand it.

If there's any uncertainty about a progress report, the incident commander must conduct a request for clarification. Any inability to contact a crew or any uncertainty about the progress report should require a follow-up contact to obtain certainty on the situation.

Conditions on the fireground will be constantly changing, often deteriorating. The incident commander must also conduct continuous assessment of tactical operations, changing fire conditions and risk to firefighters from all points on the fireground and quickly revise the action plan. The incident commander must get ahead and stay ahead of the fire, but this can't be done without obtaining frequent, ongoing progress reports.

Bottom line: If the incident commander can't obtain progress reports and keep the action plan current, don't commit to interior operations.

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