Five keys to establishing and operating a successful incident command

Chief Marc Bashoor

It’s interesting to travel our industry examining the phenomenon of first due. The exertion of ownership is altruistic, if only that were the primary principle in motion. How many times have we heard, “fires burn differently in my first due?” or, “you don’t understand how we do things here?” Or any number of my first-due-isms?

One of the 20th century great equalizers in emergency service command and control operations has been implementation of the incident command system (ICS). Modern origins of ICS are generally credited to forest service firefighting operations, however, the concepts of command and control have been rooted deeply in the fire service and our country’s military operations. From the days of calling commands through the use of speaking bugles, to our most intricate trunked radio systems today, chiefs and incident commanders have provided orders through a set of coordinated principles.

Managing an incident command post is one of the arts of leadership – being able to mold the chaotic frenzy of screaming occupants and out of control situations into manageable nuggets of success and humanity. I recognize it isn’t all roses and ICPs aren’t always surrounded by success stories, but managing the chaos is our mission, regardless of the mayhem before us.

I’ve had the fortune (or misfortune) to manage hundreds of ICPs for incidents with as few as four or five people, up to multiple alarm fires with hundreds of firefighters operating. In this article, I offer five keys to command success, especially on those bread and butter fires that are every day for most of us.

Five tools for managing the chaos in the incident command post

1. C2C: Bringing calm to chaos

If you distil it all down to one simple thought, every one of our mission statements could be summed up with the simple acronym: C2C, which is the principle of bringing calm to chaos. It is important to remember that CHAOS should never stand for Chief Has Arrived On Scene (not original). Yet, far too many times, chaos seems to beget chaos on our scenes. Take a deep breath and remember these two things:

  1. This isn’t your emergency.
  2. Your people and your community need you to remain calm and will depend on your skills to bring C2C.

2. The OODA loop

Observe, orient, decide, act (the OODA loop) – this is the everyday stem of the planning P. The OODA loop roots are traced to United States Air Force Colonel John Boyd. Knowingly or unknowingly, we practice the OODA loop every day, every incident – or we should be if we’re not. Favoring agility over rigidity, the OODA loop keeps us on our toes, constantly observing, orienting and to adjusting actions to conditions on the ground. Like military operations, the fire service deals with constantly changing environments daily – the OODA loop will help you achieve the C2C principle at the street level. Put in familiar terms: size-up, communicate, react, size-up, communicate, react.

3. 10×10 box

Distilling my observations of thousands of ICPs, there’s generally two kinds of incident commanders: parkers and rovers. The roving incident commander can be a recipe for disaster, much like someone trying to effectively manage an incident from inside a building while still responding, or from their bedside.

Teach yourself to stay in your 10×10 box – a proverbial 10’ by 10’ area. Many chiefs use the inside of a vehicle or the rear tailgate of an SUV as that area. In an appropriately equipped vehicle, I favor the lifted tailgate, with multiple SUVs brought in close proximity for those larger incidents.

I recognize there are times you may need to step outside of the box, however, your firefighters and subsequent arriving personnel should know where the command post is, and rest reasonably assured they’re going to find you at the box when they’re looking for you. The box isn’t always a vehicle. It might be at the fence line out front, in the front yard or in the lobby, or wherever is safely appropriate for the incident commander to be able to observe, orient, decide and act.

4. ETAT

We’ve heard it all: “I’ve got command,” “I’m taking command,” “I’ll have command until … ” For consistency, there are only four words you should exercise with the act of command, ETAT:

  • Establishing.
  • Transferring.
  • Assuming.
  • Terminating.

Establishing is fairly straightforward – at Prince George's County Fire/EMS Department, in the absence of a chief on scene, the first arriving unit establishes tactical command (the officer operating with their crew), until the first arriving chief assumes command. That assumption should always include a CAN report (conditions, actions, needs), however, conditions will dictate the extent. Transfer of command is usually a peaceful transition, where one IC provides a face-to-face overview and there’s an amicable decision to transfer command from one person to the next. Terminating command, also fairly straightforward, should never occur while IDLH conditions or operations continue to exist.

5. Command charts

Plain and simple folks: use a command chart. Still speaking of our everyday incidents, please don’t get wrapped up in worrying that I suggest you use the ICS 201s, etc. These are necessary forms when we talk about multi-operational period incidents, EOC operations or disaster responses, so you still need to practice using the ICS forms.

Develop whatever works best for your first due – I’ll give you that. Make sure to incorporate a Mayday process in that chart. After seven firefighters were burned in a fire, the unified ICP chart, with Mayday checklist on the back was mandated for use in PGFD.

We’re beginning to use an adaptation of that chart now in Highlands County, Fla. Similar to PGFD’s, a “Mini” chart will be used any time a command is established, with the full chart used for those operations expanding beyond the functionality of the Mini. You’ll notice that the Mini is exactly the same as the left side of the full front, which, when designed with a glue-strip, fits perfectly over the command section, so you can keep rolling as things expand.

C2C, the OODA Loop, the 10×10 box, ETAT and command charts are merely instruments for your ICP toolbox. Like any artisan, you need to practice using the tools of the trade or your skills will suffer and your artwork will show it. Take some time to practice and refine your skills, paint some strokes on that canvass – its time to make sure you are indeed bringing calm to chaos.

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