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Effective Management of Fireground Emergencies

Effective Management of Fireground Emergencies

Battalion Chief Robert Rhea serves as incident commander at a recent fire in Fairfax County, Virginia. (Photo: BC Robert Rhea)

Battalion Chief Robert Rhea

Over the next few issues we will discuss what is required to effectively manage fireground emergencies. We will discuss command failures in this issue. Additional segments will look at command competencies, cue factors, resource management, communications management, command post staffing, and command adjunct materials.

Command Failures

One of the lessons that I have learned over the years is that most of the time fire department crews are doing effective work at the task and tactical level. Then why you might ask do some emergency incidents just go really bad sometimes? Well, to be honest a lot of times it is because someone who is supposed to be in charge of the emergency can’t effectively do their job, won’t do their job, or they are simply weak emergency scene managers. In other words, it is a failure of command.

So, why do we experience these command failures in the fire service? Typically these failures fall into one of four categories; failure to establish a strong command, failure to control the incident, failure to coordinate the resources and of course the big one-failure to manage communications.

Establishing a strong command presence requires that the position of command is clearly communicated over the radio, that the command post is positioned in a prominent area that is visible to most operational units (lets make sure we don’t block out the fire trucks that do the real work), and most importantly; ask questions of operational units, confirm location and assignments of units on the scene, and give direct orders so the units know who is in charge!

Control the firefighting crews. It can’t be said much clearer then that. I realize that most fire departments operate under some type of written standard operating procedures or operational manuals, but in most cases written procedures only apply to initial assignments, and these procedures assume normal things are happening on the fire ground. For example, a written procedure for a fire in an apartment building may have the first engine stretching a line to the fire location, the second engine establishing water supply and stretching a back-up line or placing a line above the fire, and the first truck taking care of ventilation and search. These standard procedures all assume a typical fire in the building that acts appropriately, or as I like to say, a cookie cutter fire. As long as all fires in apartment buildings act the same way the standard procedure will work well.

However, what do the units do if they arrive to find three burn patients in the front yard, a fire that has started on the exterior and spread by way of the vinyl siding into the stairwell and attic, and the building is of lightweight wood frame construction? Then the cookie cutter initial assignment approach does not work and the firefighting crews will need to adapt to the new situation and change how they will operate. This is where the incident commander has to take firm control of the incident and the operating resources, evaluate incident conditions, make strategic and tactical decisions and give orders. This moves us right into the next command requirement of coordination of resources.

Anyone that has been a chief officer for very long will come to realize that there are some really good firefighting crews under your command. And of course I am sure that you have a few weak crews also (hopefully you are fixing this problem through training). In fact one thing that I have learned is that firefighters in many cases are more then willing to put themselves in harm’s way to fight fire. This is why coordination of resources on the fireground is so important.

Remember, when you give a tactical assignment to an engine company or a truck company and they enter the building, those units immediately lose situational awareness of what is happening on the outside of the structure. They can’t see what the smoke conditions (color, pressure, and density) are on the outside, they can’t see if the fire has spread into the attic, they can’t see if some knucklehead is getting ready to operate a master stream into the window of the room they are stretching a hand line into. This is where that incident command responsibility of coordination is so important. Remember, those firefighters will put themselves in harm’s way, especially if they can’t see what’s going around them. Your job as incident commander is to protect them from themselves and from the uncoordinated efforts of other operational crews.

Communications failures on emergency scenes is classic. Almost every incident critique or post incident analysis will contain a comment that someone did not hear a radio transmission, or that someone did not know there was a problem because no one told them about the impending collapse (or whatever the problem was that existed). The bottom line is communications management is a command function! These communications failures are not always about the mechanics of a portable radio not working, even though this is a problem.

In many situations the incident commander is distracted due to the high stress environment of the emergency and does not hear or comprehend radio traffic. Many times the amount of radio traffic due to multiple units trying to talk on the radio at the same time causes communications failures. Sometimes the incident commander is trying to listen to the radio, talk to someone face to face, and evaluate building conditions at the same time. If you think this can all be accomplished effectively you are wrong. This is where effective communications breaks down on the incident scene, and this is always an underlying cause of incidents going bad quickly and someone getting hurt or killed. Communications management is a command function. Good incident commanders will know that communications problems will occur and that efforts must be taken to plan for these events and to put actions in place to overcome these problems. We will discuss more on how to manage communications latter.

In order to be an effective fireground incident commander you must have a clear understanding of where we sometimes fail. These failures will occur in the areas of command, control, coordination, and communications. Being knowledgeable of where failures occur will allow incident commanders to hone their skills to recognize and overcome these potential failures.