Command, Assess, Support, and Attack
By S. Patrick Culshaw
I was a volunteer firefighter for many years. During this time, I noted a consistent problem. Many volunteer firefighters failed to take charge of the scene if they were the first unit in. Instead, they waited for a command officer to arrive on scene. At one house fire, for example, the first engine company on scene took no action. No one assumed command. No one did a scene assessment. No one laid hoselines.
Instead, they waited for the fire chief to arrive–me. To make matters worse, my engine was delayed because the nearby streets were clogged with parked vehicles. These vehicles belonged to the “Ooo-ah” squad gathered to watch the fire.
Several days later, our department critiqued the incident. Two questions were raised during the critique. Why did the members of the first engine company fail to follow our standard operating guidelines? And, how could we prevent the problem in the future?
The answer to the first question was simple. The crew of the first engine company admitted they were afraid to assume command of the incident. Why? They weren’t sure how to manage the fire scene. In training, command officers set everything up.
I thought about their answer throughout the following week. I then hit on an idea. In classes I taught, I used a two-prong approach to teach employees new tasks. I started by breaking the jobs into task categories. I then developed a catch phrase to help employees remember the categories. Following this concept through, I was able to break down the task associated with initial fire scene management. These general task categories are command, assess, support, and attack.
I then had to develop an easy-to-remember catch phrase. I found an answer. I developed a simple training guide called MI CASA! In Spanish the phrase means “my house.”
The crew of the first engine at the house fire focused on only one aspect of the emergency response: getting to the scene. Once there, they failed to realize they were responsible for the overall scene or that it was their house to manage. This was the critical concept missing at the house fire. I hoped to correct the problem by introducing MI CASA into our training sessions.
I started by explaining what the letters in CASA stood for. The letters represent critical scene management tasks and the order in which they are to be performed during an emergency: Command-Assess-Support-Attack.
I put command functions first for obvious reasons. Someone must assume command of the incident if protocols are to be followed. This is where the breakdown in scene management occurred at the house fire. It is also important to remember command and protocol functions are tied together. One of our protocols, for instance, called for clearing the scene of nonessential people such as the Ooo-ah squad. But, without an incident command structure, the protocol was not followed. This left the Ooo-ah squad in charge of the scene.
Once someone has taken command of the scene, he must assign someone to do a scene assessment. The process involves both visual clues and interviews with bystanders.
Primary considerations during assessment are locations of potential victims for rescue, scene hazards, utility shutoffs, best access, and any other factor that might affect mitigation of the incident. This information is a critical part of an emergency response. You cannot successfully mitigate an incident without knowing what problems exist at the scene.
A proper scene assessment at the house fire, for instance, would have revealed the presence of gunpowder in the home and propane tanks in the garage. This information was not discovered until later when several of the tanks blew up. Yet, it was information critical to the overall response to the fire.
The incident commander (IC) then needs to decide what type of supportwill be needed at the scene—for example, ambulance, fire, or police. Utility personnel should also be requested to repair damaged utilities. The IC will decide the type of support needed based on the scene assessment. This information, along with an update on the incident, must be radioed to dispatch center.
Police were needed at the house fire but were not requested by the first engine company. Why? They failed to assume command, assess the scene, or decide on the type of support needed.
If firefighters fail to initiate an aggressive attack, the situation could easily grow beyond their control. That’s what happened at the house fire. The first unit in failed to take any action. This allowed the fire time to envelop an adjoining structure.
The type of attack will also be based on existing response protocols, scene assessment, and support available. They’re all tied together. Forget one and your attack becomes haphazard and ineffective.
So, how can you incorporate MI CASA into your training? Start with a simple classroom lecture and chart of MI CASA. You can also pass out small laminated cards with the MI CASA diagram on them. You might also want to mount one of the cards on the dashboard of your apparatus.
Follow up with some simple tabletop scenarios. Have each volunteer explain MI CASA as it pertains to the exercise.
Follow the tabletop exercise up with field exercises. Have different team members, not command officers, assume command of the mock incident using MI CASA as their guide for scene management. After a few exercises, they should be able to remember the various task associated with the initial scene management. They should also start thinking of each incident as their “house” to keep in order. After all, this was the main goal of MI CASA.
S. Patrick Culshaw spent 30 years in emergency services. He was a part-time safety instructor during this time. He also helped set up one of the first CERT-type programs in rural Arizona. He also set up a mine emergency response program, helped set up and ran with a regional ambulance service, participated in numerous search and rescue missions, and served on four fire departments.