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July 6, 2010
By Peter Hunt

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Fire IQ
The term incident scene management is often confused with incident command. As Peter Hunt explains in his Fire IQ column, it refers to the combined process of command, communications, accountability, RIT, rehab and safety in creating a manageable span of control to safely and efficiently mitigate an incident.

Writer’s note: If you believe a review of this subject isn’t worth your time, I would ask you to consider the events of August 24, 2009, in Buffalo, N.Y., where two firefighters tragically lost their lives fighting a basement fire in a mixed commercial/residential structure, and think again.

While the term incident scene management is too often confused with incident command, it actually refers to the combined process of command, communications, accountability, RIT, rehab and safety in creating a manageable span of control to safely and efficiently mitigate an incident.

In some jurisdictions, one individual or crew may be tasked with more than one of these responsibilities, while some have entire crews or divisions assigned to each one.

Regardless of the category into which you and your department fall, each task must be established early in an incident and all responsibilities carried out in strict compliance with departmental policies and procedures to ensure a successful outcome with minimal risk to firefighters, civilians and property.

It is widely acknowledged that the early stages of an incident are the most dangerous as too few firefighters attempt to carry out too many tasks.

Therefore, it’s reasonable to assume that this phase of the operation requires that crews exercise extreme caution while initiating only those activities that staffing and equipment can support following a critical risk-versus-benefit analysis of all tactical priorities.

Many key roles can be combined as first due companies prioritize their rescue, fire control and property conservation responsibilities. Command can account for a few companies while managing these tactical priorities. Fire attack can conduct a quick search while stretching the initial attack hose line. The first truck company can raise a single ground ladder, force a door, vent or conduct a more thorough primary search.

Dispatch should thoroughly monitor all radio communications in its controlled environment as fire ground noise and confusion virtually guarantees that critical messages will be lost. In effect, dispatch has the backs of first due companies before formal accountability, RIT and safety roles are assigned.

I firmly believe that the dispatcher’s role in the incident scene management process (command, communications, accountability, conducting the PAR, etc.) should be formalized in department policies and supported through appropriate field, ride-along and communication centre training.

Another widely acknowledged principle states that the single best way to save the most people from the threat of fire is not rescue or evacuation but the rapid extinguishment of fire and the co-ordinated removal of heat and smoke.
Firefighters are always willing to risk everything to accomplish this but who has their backs during this critical early phase of the incident?

Too few departments can mobilize enough members early in an operation to comply with two in/two out policies or provide an adequate number of RIT members to assist an individual or crew if required.

As second and further alarm companies arrive, the risks shift from too few firefighters doing too much work to too many companies that threaten to overwhelm the incident commander’s manageable span of control.

At this point, crews must be strategically assigned to support ongoing firefighting operations (fire attack, search, vent, salvage, overhaul), while others must be assigned to supporting roles (sector officers, accountability, RIT, safety, rehab, staging).

I have read far too many line-of-duty death reports, and all too frequently a breakdown in the incident scene management system is identified as a contributing factor (more specifically, command, communications and accountability).

Clearly, there is a huge responsibility on chief officers to manage and organize the chaos of a rapidly escalating operation. However, the best incident commanders can’t protect against inadequate equipment, poor training, lack of discipline (freelancing), unsafe practices or complacency. In other words, there is an equal responsibility on the organization and the individual firefighter to support command officers in creating a culture of safety. A single member working outside the system can have tragic consequences.

While most fire departments have excellent policies concerning incident scene management, many suffer from compliance issues that threaten to undermine firefighter safety and survival. Therefore, the obvious question becomes how to bridge the gap between policy and compliance? Clearly, the answer lies with the fire chief and  officers. It is not adequate to assume that writing a policy will ensure compliance. Chiefs and company officers must know and thoroughly understand all policies and consistently enforce them.

In addition, incident scene management policies and procedures must be practised at routine incidents to ensure compliance at high-risk incidents where firefighters’ lives are on the line.

It takes a well-trained and disciplined organization to have a chance of successfully resolving a serious or life-threatening incident. When a lost or injured firefighter or crew further complicates an already difficult operation, a marginal command system may be pushed to the breaking point.

Never let it be said that a lack of training, practice or discipline let down a firefighter. Every member, at every level, has an obligation to work to build a strong incident scene management system and ensure that everyone goes home.

Peter Hunt is a captain in the Ottawa Fire Department’s suppression division. E-mail peter.hunt@rogers.com.


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