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There are many things that can impact poorly on an emergency incident: poor communication, disregard of SOP’s, poor tactical decisions and lack of command, just to name a few. I will focus on command. A strong command presence can overcome most issues on an emergency incident. Most think that command starts once a chief officer arrives on the scene; this ideology can prove to be detrimental to a successful outcome on an incident. The fact is, during an emergency, the incident command system needs to start once the first unit arrives on the scene and completes a good size-up. The transfer of command will then be smooth once a chief officer arrives. He/she can get a status report/update and assume command of the incident. In this article I will focus on how to have a successful outcome when operating on the day to day incidents we run (structure fires, small Hazmat incidents, automotive accidents). Most of these incidents will be mitigated in less than 12-24 hours and will not require additional operational periods.


National Incident Management System (NIMS)


A good fire department will have a good working knowledge of the NIMS. The definition of NIMS is long, but it is important to understand in its entirety.


NIMS is a comprehensive, national approach to incident management that is applicable at all jurisdictional levels and across functional disciplines. It is intended to:


• Be applicable across a full spectrum of potential incidents, hazards, and impacts,

  regardless of size, location or complexity.

• Improve coordination and cooperation between public and private entities in a variety               of incident management activities.

  • Provide a common standard for overall incident management.


NIMS provides a consistent nationwide framework and approach to enable government at all levels (Federal, State, tribal, and local), the private sector, and nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) to work together to prepare for, prevent, respond to, recover from, and mitigate the effects of incidents regardless of the incident’s cause, size, location, or complexity.


Consistent application of NIMS lays the groundwork for efficient and effective responses, from a single agency fire response to a multiagency, multi jurisdictional natural disaster or terrorism response. Entities that have integrated NIMS into their planning and incident management structure can arrive at an incident with little notice and still understand the procedures and protocols governing the response, as well as the expectations for equipment and personnel. NIMS provides commonality in preparedness and response efforts that allow diverse entities to readily integrate and, if necessary, establish unified command during an incident. (FEMA, 2005a)





NIMS Terms


Knowing the terms that NIMS has defined will assist the incident commander to run things smoothly and keep all units on the incident on the same page when giving out instructions. Using the terms set forth by NIMS greatly improves communication within your organization and any other jurisdictions and/or mutual aid units that are operating on the scene.


Division- Divisions are used to divide an incident into geographical areas of operation. A Division is located within the ICS organization between the Branch and the Task Force/Strike Team. Divisions are identified by alphabetic characters for horizontal applications and, often, by floor numbers when used in buildings.


Group- Groups are established to divide the incident into functional areas of operation. Groups are composed of resources assembled to perform a special function not necessarily within a single geographic division. Groups are located between Branches (when activated) and Resources in the Operations Section.


Initial Action- The actions taken by resources that are the first to arrive at an incident site.


Operations Section- The Section responsible for all tactical operations at the incident. Includes Branches, Divisions and/or Groups, Task Forces, Strike Teams, Single Resources, and Staging Areas.


Span of Control- The number of individuals a supervisor is responsible for, usually expressed as the ratio of supervisors to individuals. (Under the NIMS, an appropriate span of control is between 1:3 and 1:7.)


Unified Command-  An application of ICS used when there is more than one agency with incident jurisdiction or when incidents cross political jurisdictions. Agencies work together through the designated members of the Unified Command, often the senior person from agencies and/or disciplines participating in the Unified Command, to establish a common set of objectives and strategies and a single Incident

Action Plan. (FEMA, 2005b)


These are a small fraction of terms NIMS defines, but the above are the terms that are most often used on an emergency.









Tactics vs. Strategies



As an incident commander it is important to understand the difference between Tactics and Strategies.  Tactics are doing the work set forth by the incident commander and/or policy. Strategies are identifying what work needs to be done on the incident. These are stripped down definitions.


When talking tactics the acronym most often stated is RECEO-VS-RA.











RA-Risk Assessment


On most fires the RECEO is done in order. The VS moves around in the order, there is no set spot. The RA is ongoing throughout the incident, and must continually be evaluated. The incident commander will tell crews what he/she wants done, the crews figure out how to accomplish the orders. This is tactics.





When we think about strategies we are not thinking how to do the work, but moreover relaying what work needs to be done.  Like tactics, strategies use the acronym LIP.


L-Life safety


I-Incident stabilization


P-Property conservation


One can draw parallels with the acronym for tactics and the acronym for strategies. Life safety is all lives on the fire ground, firefighter and civilian. Incident stabilization is fire control, overhaul, utilities, and ventilation. Lastly property conservation refers to controlling the damage.


 It is a very fine line between managing and micromanaging. The incident commander tells the units on the scene what needs to be done (extinguish the fire on the 2nd floor, search the building, or protect the items in the basement). Notice these examples stated what needed to be done, but not how to do it. It is the responsibility of the crews on the scene to carry out the orders. Many firefighters are quick to point out when they feel a supervisor is micromanaging them. Firefighters are smart and resourceful; when an incident commander gives an order, fire crews will figure out the best and safest way to complete the task.











Initial On Scene Reports (IOSR)



We have all heard at one time, when the first arriving unit officer is on the scene of a fire he/she should “paint the picture” when talking on the radio. This means give a good description of what you have and what you are seeing. There are 6 bits of information that one should give when arriving on the scene:


  • The arrival side of the building;
  • The number of its stories;
  • The type of its occupancy;
  • Conditions evident on arrival, with associated geographic location, using

      Incident Command System terminology;

  • A request for additional resources (example: a call for additional alarms);
  • Any deviation from the SOP, designating other unit assignments.


This will give all incoming units a great mental picture of what they will encounter. This allows the incident command to formulate a plan and enact it once command is transferred to him/her.




Transferring command

Once the chief officer arrives on the scene, a quick “CAN” report (condition, actions, needs) is called for, then the Chief officer will assume command by announcing they are assuming command and letting all on the fire ground know where their command post is located. Most command posts are marked with a green light or flag.


Writing it down

The incident commander will continue to receive updates from the crews working and will document crew assignments and location in the structure on the Tactical Work Sheet. He/she will limit the span of control by assigning crews to work under supervisors.  A typical fire ground may consist of divisions and groups. In a 2 story house an incident commander may assign 2 divisions with 2 units working in each. The incident commander may also have a search group and a vent group. He/she will only need to speak to the supervisors to get updates, so in this instance that would be a total of 4 supervisors (between the 2 divisions and the 2 groups).  Although there may be 30 people on the fire ground, the incident commander will only need to talk to 4 of them.  This reduces the span of control and will greatly reduce radio traffic. All of this information will be captured on a tactical worksheet.





A fire incident scene can be a chaotic place.  It is important that all personnel have a good working knowledge of the NIMS, the ability to effectively communicate an IOSR, and know the difference between tactics and strategies. Couple this with a strong command presence and one should have a smooth fire ground with reduced radio traffic.

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