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The first officer on the scene, often a company officer from an engine or truck, establishes command upon arrival to all types of incidents, day in and day out. Ranking officers, usually chiefs, whether they show up simultaneously or some time later, often assume command out of hand.

When officers get comfortable and competent with managing incidents with all their many facets, whether high or low frequency, high or low risk, there is a reward system that exists in every one of us. It is a system of internalized “badges” a person earns for doing something well. These badges add up, collecting on an internal wall in our brains which build a confident officer over time. Couple these with a good path of knowledge, and we end up with an officer who takes pride in setting up a good command system, managing risk, forging strategy and tactics from their job experiences and training, seeing an incident to a successful close, and conducting a good hot wash with the sweaters and the doers. These are “high five” moments that build a solid foundation.

If we have truly adopted ICS, we know that the command structure should fit the incident at hand and not grow any larger than necessary. So, although it is the chief officer’s job to command incidents, it is also their responsibility to manage risk and triage incidents that may or may not need their level of intervention. When chief officers gain experience, and competence, they also take on another responsibility – that of developing their successors.

In order to develop company officers into future chief officers, we have to purposely let them carry the ball. We have to let them develop Recognition Primed Decision-Making (RPDM) abilities of their own. We have to let them make the mistakes we all make, recognize them constructively, and change.

An independent officer will never develop if chief officers take over all of the day to day incidents and assume command every time they respond.

The question is, when is it appropriate to let subordinates keep command, and when should superior officers assume command? There are SOPs and SOGs on when and who takes command in most departments, but there are few hard and fast rules for officer development.  Some SOPs and SOGs completely block the willingness of a superior officer to let their subordinates keep charge, due to fear of some sort of reckoning.

But, where there is a will there is a way, and just like everything else you raise to “project” status, you will get better with practice at developing and supporting subordinate officers on the incident scene. With each successful outcome trust is gained and a team atmosphere is forged. Another badge goes on the wall of both the chief officer and the subordinate.

In general, we should let subordinate officers keep command whenever it is an incident that they “should” be able to handle. But here are some more-specific guidelines:


  • Incident is in the “investigation” mode and nothing is showing. Example: Automatic fire detections (still alarms), smell of smoke.
  • Incident is under control already upon your arrival. The incident is not growing and therefore this command system doesn't need to grow. Example: Incipient fire reported out, MVA on low speed roadways w/no need for extrication.
  • Incident is being effectively managed at the current level of oversight: MVA w/extrication and one trapped occupant that is being managed appropriately. Room and contents fire that was quickly knocked down. This can usually be recognized while you as a the ranking officer are still en-route by communications, tone of voice, etc, but will be more evident upon an on-scene briefing.
  • When other more urgent incidents have already been dispatched or are likely forthcoming in your territory. Apply incident TRIAGE, but verify with on-scene units if possible.



  • Incident goes quickly to the “working” mode, where crews are consumed rapidly by the evolving dynamics of the situation.
  • Incidents involving high risk, especially if they are low frequency, i.e. building fire with trapped occupants, trench rescue.
  • Any situation where the initial IC needs relief and someone to watch his or her back, provide accountability, safety, liaison, or logistical support. Incident is growing, and so must the command system.
  • Situation where mistakes are likely, or have already occurred, and need quick intervention for safety and uniformity, or adherence to standards and regulations to which the officer may not have been trained.
  • Incidents where an incident command system is statutorily or otherwise regulated and documented (i.e. a Level-II hazmat incident).
  • Incidents of a politically sensitive nature. I.e., the mayor is in an MVA.

How not to take command, but provide support, is a skill learned over time.  Just like any other learning situation, the superior officer must avoid taking over, skipping the chain of command downward, ridiculing, yelling, etc. Provide support and take a back seat deliberately so that not everyone on the scene runs to or calls for you as the chief officer on the radio. Defer all questions, but be ready to consult with the subordinate as an IC.

Communications can include keywords such as “staging” that your subordinate officers will recognize when you arrive on scene that mean command will not be assumed at this time. That doesn’t mean you don’t expect a radio briefing, but following the radio briefing, let them know they will be keeping command for now, if that is indeed the case.

Afterwards, allow some reflection time, but then take time to sit down with the subordinate and ask them what they would do differently next time. This should be done in private, not during a critique or hot wash session. Avoid ridicule again and always. Avoid damage to their dignity always.

Avoid telling them what you would do. Instead, tell them what resources to consult, look up, etc. Make sure they take an active role in developing themselves. Refer to constructive tools that help build their RPDM, and you will end up with a great support staff.


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Comment by Dan Miller on March 31, 2015 at 9:57pm

I have to share this email I got from Jim Wick, Chandler, AZ:



            Your blog “when not to assume command” reminded me of a related story:  I went to work for DuPont in 1969 in Belle, WV.  I was a volunteer fire fighter and officer  in my PA hometown, so soon joined the Belle, WV, Volunteer Fire. Dept. BVFD elected the Chief, who appointed all line officers.  In 1971 the late Victor G. Ashley was elected Chief and appointed two Deputy Chiefs.  I was one of them at age 25.  Vic was a veteran Navy Chief Petty Officer and an accomplished machinist.

He soon got the 3 of us together to review his expectations.  “We will have Lieutenant sized fires.  I expect you to teach the Lieutenants to manage those.  We will have Captain sized fires.  I expect you to let the Captains manage those.  We will sometimes have Deputy Chief sized fires and I expect you to manage them.”  He paused to let that soak in.  Like the green grasshopper I was I asked “What about Chief sized fires?”  He looked me straight in the eye, slowly and deliberately saying “There will be no Chief sized fires.”

            There weren’t.  I was in command of some major incidents, with a 5 trumpet Vic nearby, coaching, once in a while suggesting quietly, always teaching. A day or two later, over a cup of coffee, separate from the incident review, he facilitated wonderful leadership reviews.  He was the best. 

A few years later I transferred to Corporate HQ and joined my next volunteer department.  I’ve known some great leaders in my life.  Belle Fire Chief Vic Ashley is in the top tier.  


I did not post a reply to your Blog as I refuse to get sucked into anymore social media…. I enjoy Fire Engineering, even wrote articles for them years ago.  At age 68 I like to stay in touch, but as a bonafide curmudgeon I refuse to get sucked into Twitter, Facebook, and the Fire Engineering Training Community.. so I hunted up an email address I hope gets to you so I wouldn’t have to “sign up” to comment to your blog and then be subject to a great increase in email traffic, even though these all make sense for those still very active in the field. 

I hope Vic’s take on when not to assume command brings you a smile.

I appreciate your contribution to continued excellence as evidenced by your Blog.


            Thank you. You make a difference.

            Take care, stay safe & be healthy,

Comment by Dan Miller on February 17, 2015 at 4:56pm

Just an added comment about when you should assume command:

- When an incident will require a second operational period. This usually alludes to a multiple alarm or long term, complicated incident, where manpower and resources may need advanced planning concepts. In these incidents the filling of general staff positions in addition to Operations may be required, such as Planning,  Logistics, Finance, or Intelligence.

(This is what happens when you lose one sticky note made during a class on ICS.)

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