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Using Aide Officers to Enhance Command

Issue 2 and Volume 6.

EDITOR’S NOTE  The safe and effective management of any large-scale emergency is based on strong command presence, effective decision-making and personnel accountability. With a diminishing number of fires and complex incidents, fire departments throughout the country are seeking new ways to ensure these critical skills are passed on to the next generation of fireground commanders. The use of a Command Aide or Field Incident Technician program will not only lead to more effective incident management, it also provides for a unique professional development opportunity for junior officers preparing for a future command and control positions. In this article, chiefs Mark Ciarrocca and Todd Harms discuss the use and implementation of Command Aide and Field Incident Technician programs, and the role they play in fireground command and the professional development of future incident commanders.

Command Aides: Luxury or Necessity?
By Mark Ciarrocca
Incident commanders (ICs) operating in the 21st-century fire service are subjected to ever-increasing mental and cognitive challenges. The days of the command officer standing on the street in front of a burning building, barking orders, are long gone.

In many emergency response systems today, the job description for the IC requires almost superhuman abilities—observe real-time scenarios, process simultaneous visual and aural stimuli, develop action plans, evaluate current actions, and monitor the locations of operating resources. On top of all that, the IC must clearly communicate with everyone, from citizens possessing critical information to the dispatcher sounding a greater alarm.

One potential solution to the IC’s cognitive challenges: the use of command aides. In my department, we use command aides in a variety of roles, and they’ve proven to be an essential part of the command structure, because they serve a position that significantly increases firefighter safety during high-risk operations.

Command Aide Assignments
Command aides can be found in many different roles and in many different places. The most ideal situation is when the command aide is assigned to the command officer on a full-time basis. This allows the pair to develop a comfortable routine and a working relationship where each member of the team can anticipate what the other is thinking and take actions accordingly. The aide can assume the responsibilities of driving and operating the command vehicle, leaving the command officer in a position to closely monitor radio traffic, review preplan information, evaluate the adequacy of responding units, and mentally digest the on-scene report and initial action plan.

An alternative solution is to assign another responding staff officer to the aide position upon their arrival on scene. Units that typically receive this assignment are EMS supervisors, training officers or additional command-level officers. Ideally, the role is filled by a unit or person who will be automatically dispatched to the incident. Using an officer from a responding tactical unit should be the last resort, as it obviously takes away from company staffing.

If the command aide position will be filled by assignment on scene, the key to success is providing training ahead of time to the officers who may fill this role. Regional command-level training brings together command officers and potential aides from neighboring departments at scheduled training opportunities, where they become acquainted with each other and the expectations of the aide position.

Two Minds Are Better Than One
The IC and the command aide must function as a team. It’s imperative that the IC focus on the units operating in the immediately dangerous to life or health (IDLH) environment. A cardinal rule for command officers is to never miss a radio call from a unit in the IDLH. Often, the quality of these transmissions is poor, due to limitations of radio systems and environmental impedance, requiring even more focus to decipher messages. The aide can assist the IC in maintaining this focus by becoming the gatekeeper to the command post.

As the gatekeeper, the aide is the interface for all the individuals who migrate to the command post. This includes incoming unassigned unit officers, police officers, citizens, elected officials and technical specialists. Additionally, the aide should handle all communications coming from the command post other than direct communications between the IC and units assigned or operating on the incident scene.
Aides should also consider establishing a second radio channel to communicate with the dispatch center, units in staging and units being rehabilitated. The second channel ensures that scene management communications don’t hamper critical operational communications by competing for air time.

Using the philosophy that two minds are better than one, the aide can observe the progress of the incident and provide input to the IC about needs that haven’t been addressed. One of the primary tasks for the aide is the tracking of resources. It’s incumbent on the IC to track all resources, preferably on a command board. The aide can verify the accuracy of the initial tracking of units and track units redundantly from that point forward, as well as document the incident benchmarks. Tracking units and benchmarks facilitates the development of the planning section as the event and command structure grow. These two activities can be handed off to the planning section’s situation status (SITSTAT) and resource status (RESTAT) representatives.

In systems where the IC physically changes locations to a fixed facility or a larger command vehicle, the aide is able to facilitate that movement. Some ICs may prefer to operate command from the front seat of their response vehicle. As the incident progresses, it may be desirable to relocate to the rear of the command vehicle where the use of expanded command boards is easier. Prior to the IC physically moving to the rear of the vehicle, the aide can deploy the command module and set up the boards, including the tracking of units, so that the transition is seamless.

When a higher ranking command officer is ready to assume command and move the command operation to a mobile command unit, the aide can provide the initial briefing to the new IC, which minimizes the distraction time for the initial command officer. By the time the two command officers transition command, the discussion can focus on future needs, not past actions. During the command officers’ face-to-face transition briefing, the command aide monitors the operations radio channel to ensure no radio traffic from the IDLH is missed.

An Essential Position
Regardless of the type of department, potential command aides are available, whether it’s someone assigned to the chief’s car every day or a volunteer chief from a neighboring community. By limiting the distractions that the IC is exposed to, the presence of a command aide increases the probability that an unexpected situation, such as a mayday scenario, is handled efficiently and effectively.

Using the command aide on every working incident, even the small ones, will raise the comfort level for both parties, which will ultimately raise competency levels. The command aide position should be viewed as an essential position, not a luxury to fill based on convenience.

Field Incident Technicians: Part of the Command Team
By Todd Harms
In the Phoenix Fire Department (PFD), officers who assist the IC are known as field incident technicians (FITs), and they have a broad range of responsibilities spanning from emergency scene operations to general day-to-day battalion-level administrative duties.

The FIT position is a 56-hour captain’s field position assigned with an on-duty battalion chief or shift commander. Members who are currently on a battalion chief (BC) promotional list or are interested in becoming a BC are given first priority for the position. To fill a FIT position, the captain must have a strong working knowledge of the PFD’s policies and command procedures because they will be called upon to assume the duties of the BC if the BC is away.

The FIT position not only improves operations on scene, but has proved to be a key part of officer development for the PFD. BCs provide an ongoing mentoring relationship with the captain/FIT assigned to them. The FIT can move up under the BC’s close watch, gaining familiarity and experience with that next step on the career ladder.

Incident Scene Response
For incident scene operations, the BC and FIT function as a command team. The presence of the FIT allows the BC to begin filling out the tactical worksheet en route, closely monitor the tactical radio channel for initial fireground communications, check for preplans programmed into the CAD system and communicate with the alarm room. Also, having two members focused on the Code 3 emergency response increases safety while driving to the incident

During the incident, the FIT initially fills the role of a support officer for the BC/IC, performing the following functions:

  • Assist with and recommend changes to the incident action plan (IAP).
  • Provide a quick recon of the incident scene when the IC’s visibility is  limited. This includes assessing critical building construction features, access problems, fire spread and conditions, as well as retrieving hazmat data sheets.  
  • Evaluate the fireground organization and span of control.
  • Provide assistance with fireground communications, setting tactical priorities, specific critical fireground factors and overall firefighter safety.
  • Evaluate the need for additional resources.
  • Assist with the initial level one and level two staging of apparatus.
  • Assist with the tactical worksheet for tracking initial positions and accountability.
  • Protect the IC from outside distractions and communications so the IC can focus on the incident. Put simply: Everyone talks to the FIT, not the IC.

On all greater-alarm incidents, the PFD establishes a second tactical fireground radio channel for communications. The FIT enables command to set up a second tactical safety channel that can communicate individual unit locations, accountability reports, resource needs and sector safety concerns to the command team without using valuable radio time from the tactical channel. This second channel is also available during a mayday operation. One challenge for the IC: Communications on the assigned tactical channel can quickly become overwhelming. Giving the IC a second level of communication reduces confusion.

Sector/Safety Officer Responsibilities
When assigned to a sector or a tactical position, the BC and the FIT function together (always at least two members together in the warm or hot zone) to accomplish the overall fireground objectives. This requires them to be equipped with the appropriate protective clothing, SCBAs, accountability and equipment for their assigned area of responsibility. The primary duty for the FIT in this scenario is to function as a safety/accountability officer for the personnel assigned to the sector.

The implementation of this partnership approach vs. a lone safety officer has improved our ability to integrate safety into all areas of the fireground during everyday operations. The FIT’s duties in this role include:

  • Evaluate the critical fireground factors and identify and correct any safety concerns.
  • Advise the IC or sector officer of hazards, fire extension, safety or health concerns and collapse potential.
  • Ensure accountability of all companies assigned to the sector.
  • Establish an on-deck team for deployment in their geographic area of the hazard zone.
  • Monitor the accessibility of entry and egress of structures and its effect on the safety of members conducting interior operations.
  • Account for the rapid intervention crew (RIC) bag.
  • Follow air management procedures for offensive operations—time of entry/time on air/exit and rotation with on-deck companies.
  • Evaluate safety of the individual crews—task-level operations, proper equipment for the assignment, safe position (no creeping forward on defensive operations), etc.
  • Deploy fireline tape to control bystanders and the scene.
  • Deploy hazard tape to keep firefighters out.
  • Develop a firefighter rescue plan.
  • Manage work/rest cycles and the rehab of assigned crews.
  • Constantly monitor crews and the building for changing conditions.
  • Alter, suspend or terminate activities that are unsafe or involve an imminent hazard.
  • Develop an overhaul plan that includes respiratory protection.

Administrative Duties
The BC and the FIT also work together as a management team while completing their daily administrative duties. At the beginning of their shift, the FIT completes the daily check and maintenance of their command vehicle and related equipment. They check the department’s company activity calendar and Telestaff, which provides the roster for the battalion, a list of individual companies involved in department training, scheduled “out of service” times, special projects and community involvement events.

In the PFD, BCs and their FITs are responsible for a large amount of the training that their companies receive. Together they are the lead instructors for battalion training (company level) and individual company-level drills, and they facilitate sessions at the Command Training Center. Each individual battalion in the PFD is also assigned a specialty area of focus (special operations, safety, battalion training facilitators, brush firefighting, high-rise, etc.).

The FIT also performs various other staff support duties and assists with administrative issues as directed by the BC.

Valuable Now & in the Future
The FIT is a key component to the success of the PFD’s BCs and shift commanders. And the benefit goes beyond enhanced scene operations—it gives future command officers an opportunity to develop command-level skills in a safe, supportive environment. As such, the position has become invaluable to the PFD.