It’s probably safe to say you have heard of the fire triangle-oxygen, fuel, and heat. It’s also probably safe to say you have heard of the fire tetrahedron-oxygen, fuel, heat, and a chemical chain reaction. But have you ever heard of the fire pentagon? Take the white or red hat (the chief officer or the captain) out of the equation and the fire goes out! Both before and after being promoted to chief officer, I heard that joke many times and still chuckle when I hear it. (I’m sorry if that offends anyone, but as chief officers we must have thick skin and be able to laugh at ourselves.)
I actually remember hearing the CHAOS acronym from a friend of mine who worked for a fire department in Southern California. He said that the “C” stood for the first initial of the last name of one of his battalion chiefs. My friend had actually made up the nickname because of the perception that the battalion chief was not qualified or competent to serve as a battalion chief given the numerous incidents that did not seem to go according to plan. Thankfully, the chief had never caused injury or death, but he didn’t instill much in the way of confidence, credibility, or respect with his troops. The main focus of this article is to make sure the same doesn’t happen to you.
Take a look at the overwhelming majority of line-of-duty death (LODD) after-action and investigation reports, and it is easy to see that incident command and control is one of the top contributing factors to firefighter LODDs, significant injuries, and close calls.
The first-arriving chief officer (or captain) has one of the most challenging positions on the emergency scene. He will either set the incident up for success or for failure; it’s as simple as that. He needs to be able to not only manage what he initially sees but also to plan five steps ahead. Ultimately he needs to manage the incident from A to Z, which is easier said than done.
It is extremely difficult for the first-due officer to quickly and effectively make decisions on arrival on scene. The first-due apparatus arrives on scene, other apparatus are hot on your heels, frantic people are pointing to the obvious flames, everyone is asking for assignments, and the pressure is on to do something and do it now. The first-due officer does not have a lot of time to make quality decisions based on the pressure and the limited amount of information he has to deal with.
Over the years I have reviewed countless LODD reports, injury reports, and after-action reports from incidents where firefighters were not injured and killed as well as read countless textbooks and magazine articles looking for best practices. With my research, I came up with 10 basic responsibilities for the first-due officer to ensure that the CHAOS doesn’t stand for Captain/Chief Has Arrived On Scene.
1 Provide for the safety and accountability of all responders and bystanders.
While safety and accountability are the responsibilities of everyone on the emergency scene, they are ultimately the responsibilities of the first-arriving officer, who will implement the incident command system (ICS). Some of the most challenging issues the first-arriving officer will have to address include the following:
Survivability profiling: Is there a chance that someone can survive the atmosphere inside the fire area? Perform that risk/benefit analysis to determine whether someone can survive.
Appropriate additional resources: We all know how long it can take to not just request additional resources but for them to arrive, especially if we are requesting mutual aid from other agencies.
Dedicated safety officer: Remember, per ICS, the first-arriving officer is filling every box or position within the ICS organizational chart until he delegates that position. I can’t effectively serve as the incident commander (IC) and also as the safety officer on a working incident. (Note: From this point on, when I say the term IC, I am referring to the first-arriving captain or chief officer because he is the IC until he delegates it to someone else.)
Situational awareness: It is incredibly easy to get sidetracked or distracted. What’s the big deal? If you think distracted driving is bad, how about distracted incident commanding? Ever hear the phrase sensory overload? Multitasking is a myth. Many ICs have missed Maydays that were called on the radio because they were giving direction or listening to someone in a face-to-face conversation.
Risk/hazard analysis: This evaluates whether to take the risk or risk the lives of your personnel to go into the hazard zone. Just because someone is in the hazard zone and potentially savable doesn’t mean we have the ability or we should go in and save them if the risks outweigh the gains.
Rehab: Incident rehabilitation needs to occur at every incident. If our personnel don’t want to go to rehab, then it’s up to us to make them go.
Two in/two out: For those states that fall under OSHA, ensuring two in/two out is followed on the fireground is not a suggestion, it is the law!
Rapid intervention: While it is critical to provide for rapid intervention, it should not take priority over rescuing or removing any victims that may be in harm’s way, locating the fire, getting water on the fire, or getting a backup hoseline in place. Many times, rapid intervention does not save the day. Instead, why don’t we do a better job of training, especially to not put ourselves in positions that may require rapid intervention?
Proper personal protective equipment (PPE) usage: Most fire departments do a good job of providing the appropriate PPE and advising when to wear and how to care for that PPE. By law, employers are required to provide appropriate PPE, train employees on use and care of PPE, and discipline their employees for failure to properly use their PPE.
Establishing trigger points: As part of planning ahead, it is critical to establish trigger points of when to say when. Find a comfortable threshold, continuously reevaluate that threshold, and trust your gut instinct.
Accountability: It is not just the supervisor’s responsibility to know where the crew is at all times. It is the responsibility of each person to know where supervisors and their crew members are at all times.
Thermal imaging camera (TIC): TICs have become more common, but they are only as good as you have been trained to properly use them.
Responder and bystander safety: The IC is responsible for the safety not just of firefighters but also of all other responders and bystanders, including law enforcement and EMS personnel.
2 Provide effective command and control of the entire incident.
The National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health has determined that command and control are one of the top five contributing factors to firefighter LODDs. It would also be safe to venture that it also leads to firefighter injuries and near misses. Some other key points to assist with effective command and control include the following:
Fixed command post known: Once there are least two chief fire officers on scene, it is critical to have the IC be stationary at a fixed command post that is known by all. Opponents of that idea will say the IC needs to be mobile, but if the IC has delegated responsibility to other officers on scene, there shouldn’t be the need to move away from the command post.
Command presence: Good ICs don’t get rattled, or if they do they don’t show it. They remain cool, calm, and collected.
Effective and appropriate communications: Try to keep radio traffic to a minimum and, when talking, make sure that the message is clear, concise, and understood by the receiver.
Determine the incident priorities: The incident priorities should never change: (1) life safety, (2) incident stabilization/hazard mitigation, (3) property conservation, and (4) environmental conservation.
Tactical objectives and priorities: Part of effective command and control is assigning your personnel and resources based on the four incident priorities mentioned above. Once you have determined the incident priorities, it is time to further offer tactical objectives and priorities. I have seen many acronyms of prioritizing items to complete on the fireground, with the three most common being RECEOVS, REVAS, and SLICERS.
- RECEOVS: Rescue, Exposures, Confinement, Extinguishment, Overhaul, Ventilation, Salvage
- REVAS: Rescue, Evacuation, Ventilation, Attack, Salvage
- SLICERS: Size-up, Locate the fire, Identify and control the fire patch, Cool the space from the safest location, Extinguish the fire, Rescue, Salvage
For many traditionalists, SLICERS will be a radical change, especially if they have not seen the latest fire behavior studies from NIST and UL, where they have done extensive research to show that the fires of today are not the fires of yesterday.
3 Perform a continuous size-up and provide/obtain radio reports as needed.
What’s the difference between size-up and radio reports? Some get the two terms mixed up when in fact they are two distinct things.
Size-up: Size-up is continuous, having started just before you got on the job, because size-up starts at the time you file an application to work for your current agency. Think about it; you had to submit an application, research the department and the community to prepare for an interview, drive to different locations to take a written test, etc. That is all part of size-up, and it continues through the incident. Size-up is critical as it lets you know what you have, which will then allow you to base your incident priorities and eventually your strategic/tactical objectives or priorities on it.
Two of the most common acronyms for size-up are FPODP and Wallace Was Hot.
- FPODP: Facts, Probabilities, Own situation, Decision, Plan
- Wallace Was Hot: Water supply, Area, Life safety, Location, Apparatus responding, Construction/collapse potential, Exposures, Weather, Auxiliary appliances, Special matters, Height, Occupancy, Time of Day
There are many others out there, and it doesn’t matter which one you use. The key is that you have some form of system that you can consistently use to provide an accurate and consistent size-up on every incident to which you respond.
Radio reports: There are two types of radio reports. The initial radio report is provided on arrival, lasting no more than 30 seconds and basically painting the picture and setting the stage for all responders. The follow-up radio report assigns incoming resources and provides an updated address (if applicable) and updated incident information.
The initial radio report should include the following: Unit identifier.
- Brief description of the location.
- Obvious conditions.
- Brief description of actions taken.
- Command mode and command post location.
- Strategic mode.
- Obvious safety concerns.
- Additional resources and staging area location.
- Corrected address (if applicable).
The follow-up radio report should include the following:
- Any concerns not initially mentioned.
- Assignments for arriving personnel.
- Additional resource requests.
- Personnel filling key positions.
- Some key points for initial and follow-up radio reports.
Don’t forget to announce whether two in/two out will be established, who will lay supply lines, the strategic mode, the command post location, and the staging area location.
Note: If your department has a standardized way to verbalize an initial and follow-up radio report then by all means use that mechanism. Communicate efficiently, but don’t neglect to include all important and relevant information necessary for the success of the effort.
4 Determine the appropriate command mode and strategic mode.
There are three primary command modes at an incident: nothing showing, fast attack, and fixed command. Each has its place in the fire service. Often when we arrive there is nothing showing, so it is up to the first-due officer to get out of the apparatus and take command mobile as he investigates the source that was first called in. Sometimes the first-due officer may feel that he has to take command mobile because of the need to make a quick attack or a rescue; other times he may feel the incident may have a better outcome if he takes a fixed command mode by staying outside and managing all of the incoming resources.
There are three primary strategic modes at an incident: offensive, defensive, and combination. Just as with command modes, they all have their place in the fire service.
Regardless of which command mode or strategic mode you choose, the key is to announce it on the radio to ensure all incoming resources are fully aware of what they will encounter on arrival.
5 Create and implement the Incident Action Plan (IAP).
Incidents that have a successful outcome usually aren’t because of luck. A successful outcome usually occurs for a variety of reasons, including the creation of a solid IAP that the first-arriving officer implements and updates as needed.
A good IAP includes the following:
- Incident priorities.
- Command mode.
- Strategic mode.
- Incident/strategic objectives.
- Tactical objectives.
- Safety issues.
- Incident benchmarks.
- Key notifications.
An IAP is not that difficult when you think about it. Whether you believe it or not, you’re probably already creating one internally at every incident.
6 Ensure appropriate apparatus placement and equipment selection.
This sounds easy to some, but it really can be problematic if you have not thought this out well in advance of the incident. Great ICs have practiced managing incidents before they happen either through simulation practice or by practicing on their own.
Before I became a captain, I was already running through numerous types of incidents I may respond to and practicing how I would assign my arriving units including:
- Engines: first due? second due? third due?
- Trucks: first due? second due?
- Rescues: first due? second due?
- Chiefs: first due? second due?
- Specialty apparatus: Haz-mat unit? Mobile air compressor? Command post vehicle? Fireboats? Air tankers? Helicopters? Water tenders? Brush patrols?
This may sound simple, but it isn’t unless you think about it in advance. While every incident is different, one thing that can be common is how to assign incoming resources to maximize their effectiveness and your ability to properly manage the incident.
7 Ensure appropriate hoseline placement and selection.
Hoseline placement and selection can be taken for granted and may not be successful unless you have thought out in advance how you will manage certain types of incidents. Of all the things an IC will do, this is one of the most critical decisions to make on the fireground.
Key points about hoseline placement and selection include the following:
- Keep the fire contained to the box. If there is a room-and-contents fire, the first box is the room itself. The next box is the floor or the actual structure. The next box is the immediate area, and so on. Start the box small, and adjust outward as needed.
- Hoseline considerations: Typically the first hoseline goes to the seat of the fire; the second hoseline goes to back up the first line, to the floor above, or to protect an exposure; and the third hoseline covers either the exposure or whatever wasn’t covered by the second hoseline.
- Big fire = Big water: Easier said than done, right? Too many times, I see the 1¾-inch hoseline as the hoseline of choice because it works probably 95 percent of the time and because we get lucky. But we get burned when we pull it and we truly needed a 2½-inch hoseline or a bigger master stream. Sometimes it takes someone objective to look at the operation to realize what everyone else couldn’t realize.
- Backup lines: It’s usually not a problem getting the first line on the fire and a hoseline on an exposure that is very obviously a problem. A proper backup hoseline is that of equal or greater diameter and of equal or greater length. It can be staffed by the two out crew and is there to assist the primary hose crew in case of emergency.
- Second water supply: Sometimes it’s necessary to catch a second hydrant to ensure a second continuous water supply.
- Capabilities of hoselines and nozzles: When is the last time you went out on the drill ground and actually flowed your hoselines at different pressures and with the various nozzles? I bet if you did you would be shocked at what you’re getting (or not getting) with regard to gallons per minute.
8 Ensure sufficient and appropriate resources and personnel are responding or notified.
When you have a working incident that is keeping you focused and very busy, one thing that can be forgotten is ensuring there are sufficient and appropriate resources responding or on scene. If you think you need them, it’s better to call them early.
Additional resource considerations include the following: Limit to three at a time: Keep your requests to a dispatcher to three at a time maximum to not overload the dispatcher’s capabilities. Keep it simple; prioritize your requests; and, more importantly, make them manageable for the dispatcher to process.
- Trust your gut instinct: If your gut instinct says to call that second alarm-call it!
- Keep at least one unit in staging for room-and-contents fires: A great rule of thumb I have learned is that if I have a structure fire that is your typical room-and-contents fire, I should have at least one unit left in staging to allow for flexibility and assignment as needed.
- Full alarm in staging for more than a room and contents: If the incident is greater than a room-and-contents fire, I suggest a full alarm in staging.
- How long does mutual aid take? If you haven’t figured it out or asked the question, take the time to actually find out how long it takes to have your mutual-aid requests processed and those actual companies arrive on scene. You might think it shouldn’t take long, but it may take longer than you think.
9 Accomplish and document incident benchmarks and notifications.
Incident benchmarks are those items that need to be accomplished during the course of an incident and more importantly documented after to confirm they occurred in case there is ever a legal challenge or the incident is ever under investigation. Smart ICs also take the time to announce on the radio when they complete each benchmark to ensure the dispatcher logs that it occurred as well as the time that it occurred.
The most common incident benchmarks include the following:
- On scene/report on conditions.
- Command established/command post location.
- Staging location.
- Strategic mode.
- Water supply established and by whom.
- Two in/two out established (or not).
- All clear (primary search) completed.
- Secondary search completed.
- Fire contained.
- Fire knocked down.
- Fire under control.
- Personnel accountability reports.
- Key ICS positions being filled and by whom.
Incident notifications need to be made to the people who may have a vested interest in the incident. Incident notifications may include the following:
- Department administrative staff.
- Law enforcement agency.
- Ambulance company.
- Utility company.
- American Red Cross.
- Board-up company.
- City manager.
- City council/mayor.
- Health Department.
- Fire investigator.
- Public information officer.
Efficient and progressive fire departments include those notifications on either first- or second-alarm responses. It is smart to have those notifications tied into a first or second alarm so the IC doesn’t forget to request or notify those key individuals.
10 Transfer command and terminate the incident.
The incident is winding down, but there are still some things that need to be completed before everyone gets to go back to the firehouse. There may be a need for a transfer of command briefing. Other key steps to take include the following:
- Get the officers together with the fire investigator for an overhaul plan.
- Prepare your demobilization plan.
- Perform a tailboard review session prior to crew departure.
- Ensure responders are okay and taken care of.
- Ensure civilians are okay and taken care of.
- Document the incident.
- Prepare for the post incident analysis.
- Perform a fire watch as needed.
- Provide an incident summary to all department personnel and others as appropriate.
Many departments encourage or require the first-due captain or chief to send out an e-mail summary to all personnel and elected officials advising them on the basics of the incident.
On Scene Template
I hope the 10 responsibilities of the first-due officer help provide you with a template to use the next time you arrive on scene of a significant incident. If you’re already performing the above items on a consistent basis, then keep honing your skills. If you’re not, then maybe the use of a tactical worksheet could assist you in prioritizing items to ensure they occur. If you disagree with the above items, I can agree to disagree. But before you discard the ideas as nonsense, I encourage you to do your own research if for no other reason than to ensure your personnel have the best possible company officer or chief officer they can have.
If you truly care about your personnel and want to ensure they go home safely at the end of the shift, you will do your best to stay on top of your game. Most importantly, CHAOS should not stand for Captain/Chief Has Arrived On Scene!