Fire Ground Command Presence Essay

Do you cringe at the thought of developing yourself and other fire officers within your organization? Well, don’t. Of course, that’s easier said than done sometimes, but with steadfast motivation and a bit of direction, the leadership corps can gain knowledge, experience and hope for the future of your organization.

The concept of developing fire officers isn’t a new one, but finding creative ways to make it possible and productive is definitely a new idea for many organizations. After all, it isn’t possible for every fire officer to attend college classes or go to week-long academies, but it is possible to lean on each other’s strengths and experiences to make improvements.

In this article, I’ll explain an in-house program that you can use for fire officer development at volunteer and combination fire departments, as well as how the program came to be and the program’s syllabus—and I’ll add a few thoughts on application. Hopefully, the topics will give you some ideas for discussion.

Program Inception
As the newest officer at my department with training officer responsibilities, I saw an opportunity to advance our leadership, both tactically and strategically. My completion of a bachelor’s degree in fire science led me to ask our fire chief about taking what I learned in one of my classes, applying it to our department and then facilitating an officer development class. We discussed the challenges of getting all the officers together once a month for a year, the overtime costs and the measurable results we expected to achieve. Some of the measurable results included improved fireground leadership, decision-making, communication (both verbally and written) and consistency among the officers.

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All officers are evaluated in one way or another, and this program is no different. Each participant gives their assignments the “ol’ college try.” The facilitator must ensure the program “flows” and help continue discussions at times of silence, and the fire chief closely follows and reviews the progress and development of the group. In some cases, the chief will provide details about the program to bosses above, which will hopefully show the proactive work of the fire department leadership.

The Syllabus
When developing the syllabus, we chose to follow Strategy and Tactics on the Fireground, 2nd Edition by James P. Smith. (The text you use is entirely your choice, but your facilitator must be willing to prepare the program assignments, lesson plans and general discussion direction based on the selected text.)

To make the class possible (due to the busy schedules of everyone in and out of the firehouse) and effective (so well-thought-out dialect could be prepared), the sessions are separated by a month.

Session topics correspond with the chapters from the text, but as you’ll see, multiple discussion topics could stem from each of these topics.
  1. Preparation
  2. Management tools
  3. Decision-making
  4. Company operations
  5. Building construction
  6. Building collapse & scene security
  7. Special situations & occupancies
  8. Healthcare & high-risk populations
  9. Commercial & industrial
  10. Technical operations
  11. After the incident

In preparation for each monthly two-hour classroom session, each officer must complete the following: assigned reading from the text, multiple-choice questions and an essay question (200 words long). They must also prepare for several session discussion topics. The combination of assignments and classroom sessions results in eight hours of fire officer development for each officer each month. In addition, to assist the fire chief with strategic planning, each officer submits a strategic goal at each session (i.e., evaluate and improve recruitment and retention for part-time firefighters; overhaul employee evaluation process; evaluate current SOPs). The fire chief’s goal is to use the insight from each officer when continuously developing the future direction of the organization.

Session 1: Preparation
This first session deals with the making of a fire officer and how to prepare a fire officer’s crew. In volunteer and combination departments, fire officers must be fluid in their ability to work with, manage and lead crews of varying make-up.

Early in this first session, you’ll begin to address one of the measurable goals: verbal and written communications. At the start of each session, students review the multiple-choice questions and read their essay, which was assigned one month prior to the first session. The officers will have the opportunity to speak in front of their peers from a somewhat-prepared statement. After a brief discussion, the essays will be turned in, beginning the compilation of a “master folder.” (Note: The “master folder” is mainly so the chief can view the group’s progress. The chief will also be able to use this folder as a reference when explaining the program results to their boss.) This first assignment will reveal the differences in writing skills, and everyone should be reminded to prepare future documents in a professional format. Offer writing assistance to those who may need it.  
 
Essay Question: What traits do you recognize in an effective fire officer? List three and explain why.
You all can probably think of traits that you appreciate in some officers—and other traits that you wish would be removed from some officers’ arsenals. As you listen to officers of varying years of service, certain traits may become repetitive (consistent, good decision-maker and fair), and others will be generational (experience and continuous learning and post-secondary education).

Session Discussion: How does your fire department assign tools and fireground responsibilities prior to arrival on the incident scene? Are these methods effective or could another method be more effective?
In volunteer or combination fire departments, we can be certain of one thing: Crew make-up out the door will be different on most days. Training and SOPs can help your department standardize who does what. However, many of us have found that trying to standardize who comes off the truck with what can sometimes hamper fireground effectiveness. One of our goals now is to train firefighters to adapt to the situation at hand and have good situational awareness. We stopped assigning specific tools to specific seats, and started empowering the firefighters to “bring your tools” based on the initial size-up. This has enabled firefighters to think and act with little direction from the officers.

Session Discussion: Give an example of someone you know who demonstrates a “command presence.” What qualities do they demonstrate that makes you look to them as a leader? How can you develop your command presence skills?
When asked about command presence, I’m sure you can think of someone who is calm and adaptive, has a vision for “what’s next,” gives simple/direct orders and considers life safety their top priority. When discussing this topic in class, we listed the qualities that we thought defined a leader with a “command presence.”  Then I pushed the discussion toward how to address individual improvement in order to enhance the team’s collective command presence. The consensus: Give constructive criticism after incidents and during simulation training.

Session Discussion: What expectations do you have for the knowledge, skills and performance of your personnel? How can you help improve these areas?
Improving knowledge, skills and performance starts on the training ground. Officers want their crews to maintain and promote a winning attitude, stay focused, participate and capitalize on adversity (i.e., find a successful solution to a challenge). Through this discussion, officers will become motivated to share their own knowledge with their crews.

Session 2: Management Tools
Essay Question: What is the relationship between command and firefighter safety?
This question should spark a great discussion. From dispatch to size-up, from doing a walk-around and making initial assignments to continuous accountability on the fireground, your role as an officer is forever supportive of the firefighters in the hazard zone.

Session Discussion: How do you and your department manage firefighter accountability on the fireground? How should we deal with a firefighter who “freelances”?
No matter what accountability system you use, stress the importance of staying on assignment, reporting to command and sometimes needing to wait.

Session Discussion: If you’re the incident commander (IC), how will you manage an “emergency traffic” or “mayday” radio transmission?
What is the most worried you have ever been on the fireground? Don’t let the real deal be the first time you practice the sequence of managing one of these situations. Train, train, train!

Session 3: Decision-Making
Project: Develop a one-page action plan flow-chart that can be utilized when you’re the IC of an MVC or structure fire.
This project may help develop or merely adjust a user-friendly command tool that works for your department.

Session Discussion: How critical is the initial size-up report from the first-arriving officer? How do other units responding to the same incident use the information from the initial size-up report to prepare themselves?
This report sets the stage for initial operations—operations that usually solve the problem.     

Session Discussion: What is the benefit of the 360-degree walk-around of the incident scene? Have you become accustomed to doing the walk-around? What resistance, if any, have you felt from others by performing this step during your size-up?
Familiarize yourself with the 2008 LODD reports of Colerain Township (Ohio) Fire Department Captain Broxterman and Firefighter Schira. Learn from this incident and immediately start using the 360 walk-around in your size-up if you’re not already.

Session 4: Company Operations
Essay Question: You’re the first-arriving officer at the scene of an occupied apartment building that the ladder truck cannot reach. What factors can help you determine the number of hoselines needed and where to place them?
Your responsibilities as the first-due officer are enormous, encompassing task, tactic and strategic operations. Think about the needs for rescue, fire size and location, exposures, water supply and access. What role does the weather play in these fires?

Session Discussion: What is your department’s capability level when it comes to handling large operations that involve numerous master streams in areas with and without hydrants?
You must have a solid understanding of your water distribution system—or your lack of a water distribution system. Practice water shuttling, drafting and relay pumping even if you are completely hydranted. If a water main break occurs, you still have to put the fire out.

Session Discussion: Which operations do your firefighters (or your department as a whole) need to improve on? Through what means can these improvements be made?
Make a list, and I bet you’ll see a bunch of basics. Improve efficiency on basic fireground skills through realistic hands-on scenarios. Firefighters like to burn stuff, break stuff and play hard. Make it happen in training.

Session 5: Building Construction
Essay Question: Though steel won’t burn, what problems will firefighters face at a fire in a fire-resistive building?
The short answer: people load, fire load, high heat, ventilation … you get the idea.

Session Discussion: How can you identify lightweight building components during your size-up? How can your department help itself with this identification?
The best way is to know your jurisdiction. Pay attention to what’s already up and what’s going up. Know the age of your neighborhoods, which will give you an idea of the construction.

Session Discussion: Which buildings in your jurisdiction would create safety problems for firefighters? Why? Are preplans complete? What can be done to minimize the hazard?
I ask officers to tell me the top three buildings they fear in their jurisdiction. Amazingly, the buildings are usually the same. Evaluate the preplans and anticipate hazards.

Session 6: Building Collapse & Scene Safety
Essay Question: List the different types of wall collapse and discus three indications of impending wall failure.
Collapse is the biggest killer of firefighters in numbers. We need to do a better job of risk management on the fireground and continuously evaluate what the fire is doing to the building.

Session Discussion: The establishment of rapid-intervention teams (RITs) is often delayed or nonexistent on many incident scenes. What can your department do to regularly have this resource assigned?
Volunteer and combination departments don’t usually have the luxury of a big city initial response. Bare minimum: Bring in a mutual-aid RIT at all working fires.

Session Discussion: If a roof collapses at a manufacturing facility, trapping workers in your jurisdiction, how would your department respond? What initial concerns and limitations would you need to resolve? What additional resources would you request?
Again, think about risk management. Local resources may be overwhelmed and/or untrained in this type of technical rescue. Be sure to know what regional and state resources are available to assist.

Session 7: Special Situations & Occupancies
Essay Question: What factors can cause a fire to burn out of control at a garden apartment fire?
See if your crew knows this answer: insufficient resources, lack of an adequate water supply, late discovery of the fire, incendiary fire, a fire involving flammable liquids, a poor plan of attack or poor construction.

Session Discussion: Think about a fire at 4 a.m. in one of your apartment buildings. Who does what, when and where? How can we better prepare for such an event?
This is another opportunity to review your preplans and table-top a particular incident. Use the incident command system (ICS) during the simulation.

Session Discussion: You’re dispatched for a person down. When you arrive on the scene, you notice no one outside the residence. Upon entering you see two LPG cylinders with a bluish discoloration on the valve. What do you suspect? What actions do you take? What about the patient?
Here’s a hint: meth lab. Meth labs are nasty and can go boom quickly. Turnout gear may not be sufficient protection. You may need to involve law enforcement in this discussion.

Session 8: Healthcare & High-Risk Populations
Essay Question: What challenges exist in evacuating a public assembly?
Most people will head for the door they entered from, which will undoubtedly cause a log jam.

Session Discussion: Review your MCI plan. Consider the resources needed and develop a plan for victim accountability for the following scenarios: school bus crash, ferry boat crash (if applicable) and a small plane crash into an assembly hall in your jurisdiction.
Much of this discussion should be geared toward the ICS and its expanding format.

Session Discussion: Whether to protect in place or evacuate will be a critical decision during a fire at one of your nursing homes. Are nursing homes required to practice evacuation drills? Have you participated in one of these drills? What should your department know about the evacuations process of each nursing home facility?
If you put the fire out, many of your problems will go away. But be sure to participate in nursing home drills, because it will take many rescuers and a lot of time to evacuate the structure.

Session 9: Commercial & Industrial
Essay Question: Where should the command post be located during a fire in the biggest building in your jurisdiction?
Consider the lobby or maybe back of a suburban. Discuss the pros and cons of both.

Session Discussion: Review your preplans for several strip malls in your jurisdiction. What unique problems exist? How do you plan to deal with them?
Think about construction, alarm and sprinkler systems, elevation changes on the roof, and access issues.

Session Discussion: Discuss your response and initial actions to an explosion.
Bomb threats vs. actual explosions are vastly different scenarios. Spend some time evaluating both responses to a local school. Table-top the scenarios with law enforcement and school officials.

Session 10: Technical Operations
Essay Question: Discuss the hazmat situations where it would be beneficial to protect in place rather than evacuate. How would you attempt to accomplish this at an incident scene? How would you notify those affected? Who would do the notifications? How would you monitor their well-being? How would you keep them informed?
Think about the difference between small spills vs. big spills. For example, if a 55-gallon drum is punctured by a forklift in a manufacturing plant storage area, it may be necessary to evacuate the immediate area, but reasonable to protect other departments and people in place.

Session Discussion: What are your strategic considerations if confronted with the possibility of a dirty bomb incident? What’s your department’s response and what resources need to be requested? What potential threats should we prepare for?
Short answer: PPE, mop and glow (aka hazmat) teams and terrorism response.

Session Discussion: You’re responding to a basketball game at the local high school with a report of multiple persons down. You’re first to arrive and notice numerous cars and two buses in the parking lot, but no sound from the gym. What are your initial thoughts? What are your initial actions? What precautions do you take? What level of PPE do you use? Upon entering the gym, you find more than 200 victims scattered around with a small group at an exit and only two survivors. What could be the possible cause of this incident?
This scenario would be a huge gut check. Time and distance are important discussion points. Sometimes, bull rushing the scene won’t work. Slow down and think.

Session 11: After the Incident
Essay Question: What incident scene occurrences could trigger critical incident stress?
Short answer: kid calls, firefighter injury or death, calls where there’s no good explanation of death.

Session Discussion: What method of incident critique improves performance for similar situations in the future? Formal critiques provide a means to document what we learned and how we improve. What type of incident should we take a formal approach to?
Incident critiques and debriefings are completely different. Ensure that the proper services are provided via employee assistance programs or other such programs that can assist with mental health issues.

Session Discussion: What procedures and resources should we have in place to address critical incident stress?
Short answer: employee assistance programs, counselors. Make the initial debriefing mandatory. Pay the overtime. Our mental health is worth it.

Conclusion
Your preparation as an aspiring officer, company officer or chief officer is important to you, your crew and your organization. I hope this article gives you a plan to develop your leadership team. At very least, the essays and session discussion topics can give you a format for hours of worthwhile training. Don’t hesitate and don’t delay, develop and improve today and tomorrow. Until next time, be safe.



Command presence makes or breaks incident control. The officer of the first-arriving unit serves as the initial incident commander (IC) and sets the stage for the incident. These are fundamental incident command tenets; however, all too frequently, they end up being tenuously applied in the midst of the chaos of some incident scenes.

On the scene of a mutual-aid fire, a respected IC I know made a comment that resonated with me. When asked how things were going, he replied, “Chief, I’m just trying to put the marbles back in the bag”—this from someone who was the model of command presence. He operated in a calm, determined voice; he exhibited an orderly thought process on the radio; and he maintained an authoritative insistence on crews adhering to standard operating procedures (SOPs). There is no doubt that he was working in ways he hadn’t given himself credit for. The opposite of this conduct is reflected in our first report excerpt, but a better command presence is indicated in the second report.

Near-Miss Report #08-111  
“An attempt to knock down fire was made with little success. We eventually made our way to the door that went into the garage, which was left open by the occupants upon discovering the fire. PPV was in place and conditions improved. The captain and I went into the garage and began attacking the fire. At the same time, someone sprayed from an outside line and conditions deteriorated rapidly. As a result, we had to pull back into the house and regroup.”

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From the Lessons Learned: “It is vital to have a good and competent IC with a strong command presence. Several firefighters were freelancing here. Command must keep in constant communication with all firefighters who are inside a burning structure and, in return, they must keep command updated on their status.”

Near-Miss Report #10-471
“Crews found a working fire in the basement. The floor gave way, and two members fell from the first floor into the basement. A mayday was issued, and the rapid- intervention team was activated. A ladder was placed in the hole, and the two firefighters were rescued.”

From the Lessons Learned: “Once the mayday occurred, there was a good command presence. We have had some good command training in the department. Having more than one person at the command post resulted in more eyes and ears.”

Comments
The failure to develop and exhibit genuine, strong command presence can have a devastating impact. ICs who cannot “get the marbles back in the bag” are generally reactive to situations and remain in a “catch-up mode.” The proactive battalion-level commander should arrive on the scene, receive and process information, and then push the incident in a direction that ensures the safety of personnel and control of the situation.

Preparation
To develop a strong command presence, consider the following: Attend conferences and presentations on command functions; study videos, case studies, articles, textbooks and near-miss reports; seek a respected IC in your department to mentor you; use your command tools (e.g., tactical worksheets, accountability systems, command aides, radios, SOPs) to familiarize yourself with how they’ll work best for you; obtain audio copies of radio traffic from incidents you run to hear what you sound like; take a deep breath before making a transmission to formulate your message; and don’t be afraid to build a command team. Extra sets of eyes and ears at the command post help divide the work.

In Closing
The IC’s role in orchestrating a good performance is defined as much by command presence as any other factor. That command presence is achieved through a combination of factors, including education, experience and performance. The reward for this hard-earned process is being “cool under fire” so you can run the incident in the safest and most effective manner—instead of the incident running you.

By

John B. Tippett Jr.

John Tippett, CFO, is the deputy chief of operations for the City of Charleston (S.C.) Fire Department. He holds a bachelor’s degree in fire science and is pursuing a master’s degree in emergency management. Tippett is an FDSOA-certified health and safety officer and incident safety officer. He is a member of the ISFSI and a board member of the IAFC’s Safety, Health and Survival Section.

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