ICs want – and need – more command-focused training
Professional development for the incident commander starts at the firefighter rank and continues up the training ladder
This article first appeared in the What Firefighters Want in 2022 digital edition. Download the full copy here.
No matter their rank, the incident commander (IC) is running the show, directing operations and ultimately responsible for the critical decision-making that will determine whether the incident is successfully mitigated or whether chaos will reign, possibly with tragic consequences. With such significant responsibilities, you would think incident command training is the crux of firefighter training, with new members training up and veteran members constantly honing their skills.
The “What Firefighters Want” survey revealed some positive – and some concerning – data points related to incident command training. It also produced actionable and telling data points that can be used to evaluate the training, continuing education and mentorship programs at any department. These interrelated programs are all part of professional development – important components that can drive current and future success of your department.
By the numbers: IC respondents
Of the nearly 2,500 survey respondents, more than 1,900 indicated that they have served in an incident command capacity – a solid and diverse sample size. A little bit more about the IC respondents:
- 38% have more than 30 years on the job, with 35% having 20-30 years and 22% having 10-20 years on the job. Only about 5% of respondents had less than 10 years on the job, so this was an experienced group of respondents.
- 48% hail from career departments, with combination and volunteer members representing 27% and 25% of respondents, respectively.
- 50% work in primarily suburban areas, with 26% working in urban areas and 24% working in rural areas.
- 33% are company officers, 27% are chief officers, 18% are fire chiefs, and the remaining are serve in other ranks (firefighter, engineer, fire marshal/investigator, etc.).
- 50% serve in fire departments with 25-99 members.
Command training in focus
When it comes to incident command training, 82% of respondents said they received the training needed to perform the duties of an IC, while 17% did not feel as positively about their command training.
While these numbers seem to indicate a strong positive response, more specific questions reveal the reality of initial and ongoing training.
For example, 36% of respondents reported that they received 73 hours (equivalent to 2 weeks) or more of incident command training before serving as an IC. Unfortunately, 64% reported receiving less than 72 hours of IC training before serving in that capacity. Further, 7% reported receiving zero hours.
This is woefully inadequate.
In many departments, the IC is considered a chief officer position, and training is therefore exclusive to this rank. However, we all know that command often begins with a first-arriving company officer, with command transferred upon arrival of the chief officer or IC. In many departments, this transfer happens very quickly, but many others see a longer delay, predicated on travel distance to the incident location. This means that IC training must be part of training and education earlier in the career of firefighters or fire officers alike, not reserved for chief officers alone.
Incident command experience takes time, continuing education, training and mentorship, rooted in a career-long mindset focused on learning and continuous skill development. One way to achieve a career-long learning experience is to implement programs that focus on the components of professional development for all members of the organization, not just officers or those who promote. This bolsters the organization by strengthening its members and leads to better trained, mentored and educated leadership when they do move up the promotional ladder.
Of course, departments must also consider courses specifically designed to prepare members for higher ranks within the organization. This training also serves as mentorship as we prepare the next generation of leaders.
Ideally, every promotion includes a several-week-long course to best prepare officers for their new rank. In the FDNY, for example, every promotion comes with an in-person course ranging from one-week to several-months long to best prepare members for their new rank. These classes should include elements of leadership and incident command in addition to rank-specific requisite knowledge, skills and abilities (KSAs). This also ensures members of the organization understand the command and leadership philosophy of the department. In doing this, incident command training is ongoing and preloaded into promotional courses specific to each rank.
When it comes to continuing education for the IC, the survey data highlights a gap in training. Approximately 69% report receiving less than 24 hours of continuing education IC training in 2021. Perhaps this was partly due to the pandemic when in-person training was limited. Or, perhaps it is a warning flag of the lack of emphasis on incident commander and leadership training.
The data also indicates another important finding – ICs want more training. As one respondent stated, “I take every class I can find,” and another that stated they “would take any training offered.” (Read more from the IC respondents in the sidebar below.)
Other ICs commonly cited that they want more training focused on simulations, live-fire incident command, mayday management, ride-alongs, leadership and scenario-driven drills. These are all examples of training activities that sharpen leadership and incident command skills. For the less experienced IC, they also impart needed experience and repetitions.
When it comes to continuing education, it is important for all ranks, including the IC, to stay current. Section 1.3.4 and 1.3.5 of NFPA 1021: Standard for Fire Officer Professional Qualifications (2020 edition) smartly points out the importance of all levels of fire officers remaining current. This is continuing education, at all levels.
Additionally, the National Fallen Firefighters Foundation’s 16 Firefighter Life Safety Initiatives highlight the importance of training and certification. Specifically, Life Safety Initiative #5 states:
Develop and implement national standards for training, qualifications and certifications (including regular recertification) that are equally applicable to all firefighters based on the duties they are expected to perform.”
So how do we close the gap on continuing education? The explanatory material in the annex of NFPA 1021 is a good place to start. It states, “Remaining current can be demonstrated by attending workshops, classes, seminars, post-secondary education, certification or accessing professional publications, journals and websites.” Job shadowing is another good option and is defined in NFPA 1021 as witnessing firsthand the work environment, employability and occupational skills in practice, the value of professional training, and potential career options. What does this look like in practice? In the FDNY, for example, new captains ride along with chief officers to best learn the job of the IC.
Plan for the future
Succession planning and training members to be ready to step into future IC needs requires forward thinking and planning. A robust professional development plan provides a vehicle to the future to ensure long-term success while simultaneously addressing existing gaps in training.
Departments should provide members sufficient incident command-specific training prior to these members serving in this capacity. Additionally, yearly refresher training should be part of the department’s overall training mindset and philosophy. Maintaining the skills of the IC leads to improvements on and off the fireground. Professional development at all levels of an organization is vital to the future success of the organization. Mentoring and developing our next generation is a hallmark of any great organization. Is this a hallmark of your organization?