Task Saturation & Incident Command

Issue 10 and Volume 4.

About a year ago I read the book “Flawless Execution,” by James D. Murphy, who spent 8 years as an F-15 fighter pilot flying numerous missions in Iraq and other locations. Murphy identifies task saturation as a significant factor in fighter pilots’ performance during their missions. I was intrigued by the parallels it holds for fire service incident commanders (ICs). 

The book identifies specific principles fighter pilots use to overcome task saturation, some of which have been incorporated into private industry. I began to think, what if the fire service incorporated these same principles? Would this help reduce firefighter fatalities?

What Is It?
Task saturation occurs when you have way too much to do and nowhere near enough time to do it—and you snap.

Example: You’re the newly promoted company officer who arrives first-in on what’s going to be a greater-alarm building fire. You feel rushed performing your size-up; citizens are standing nearby yelling at you; fire companies are arriving and asking you for assignments; your firefighters are moving toward the fire; you’re wondering whether people are still inside the building; and since you’ve arrived, the fire has grown bigger.

Slowly, insidiously, it takes over. You start to panic—you’re task saturated.

Coping Mechanisms
So what do you do? If you’re like most of us, you cope by shutting down, channeling or compartmentalizing.

Shutting Down: Some ICs go blank, staring at the command board and seeing all the things that need to be done, overwhelmed by the numerous inputs and radio messages. Have you ever felt that despite superhuman effort, the incident isn’t getting better? “I’ve had it” is a common response to task saturation.  

Shutting down is the most harmless of the coping mechanisms, because when others see you ambling around the command post with a blank stare on your face, they can instantly tell that you’re not executing the incident priorities and strategic and tactical objectives. The potential for failure is obvious and therefore can be addressed quickly by someone else.

Channeling: Many officers experience “target fixation,” or channeling. Example: The company officer is operating inside the building and the IC is trying to reach the officer over the radio. However, the company officer is so consumed with putting out the fire that they forget to communicate what they’re seeing over the radio to the IC. Now the IC is concerned because he hasn’t received a report on conditions from the crews inside.

Channeling is dangerous because focusing on one element of the incident can leave you unprepared to deal with other elements. If you focus only on finding the location of the fire, you may very well find and extinguish the fire, but leave yourself too little air to exit.

Compartmentalizing: Company and chief officers who are compartmentalizers act busy but do little. Have you ever seen an IC put everything into a nice, neat, linear format at the command post? They start making lists and then shuffling things around as if these tasks are akin to doing the work. Then they go top to bottom, checking off one item on the list, then another, then another—all while critical inputs from the incident are backing up and not being addressed.

The compartmentalizer is the most dangerous. Example: As the company officer, you arrive at a large commercial building with light smoke showing from the back one-third. You make entry into the building with your crew. The fire conditions worsen and the smoke changes rapidly; your air bottle is running low and you’re disoriented. If the IC is a compartmentalizer, they may look busy and in control, leading everyone else to believe they have this situation under hand. But in fact they may not realize that you’re in trouble inside the building.

In such cases, the necessary link between the company officer and the IC is broken. The IC fails to pick up on the danger signals and to take the
necessary actions to protect you and your crew. But because the IC looks like they’re in control, no one knows a weak link has entered the chain—until the chain breaks, which usually leads to a firefighter injury or death.