Leadership: Fireground command and safety: effective management of the scene

Fireground command and safety
December 14, 2007
Written by Barry Bouwsema
Safe and effective fireground operations require the presence of a strong and knowledgeable fireground commander (FGC).  The lack of understanding of this central command role affects more fires than any other management problem. Without a strong central command, the fire scene can quickly deteriorate into an unsafe, out-of-control situation. Lack of command promotes freelancing as every company rolls in “wanting to get some.” This is an unsafe condition that the FGC absolutely cannot tolerate.
Safe and effective fireground operations require the presence of a strong and knowledgeable fireground commander (FGC).  The lack of understanding of this central command role affects more fires than any other management problem.  Without a strong central command, the fire scene can quickly deteriorate into an unsafe, out-of-control situation.  Lack of command promotes freelancing as every company rolls in “wanting to get some.” This is an unsafe condition that the FGC absolutely cannot tolerate.

The first arriving officer must have options regarding the initial actions at a scene.  Command modes or command options are selected according to the conditions presenting at the situation. The Incident Command system allows for three types of command modes: nothing showing, fast attack and command.

Nothing showing
This mode requires investigation by the first-arriving engine or ladder, while other companies remain in Level I staging (parked in the direction of the fire scene, possibly in front of a hydrant, approximately one block away or as the situation dictates).  No other fire department units should approach the scene, unless directed by command.  The first arriving unit gives an on-scene announcement including “nothing showing.”  Usually the officer will go with the investigating company while using a portable radio to continue the command function, utilizing a “mobile command.” 

At this time, all units responding to the scene and monitoring the radio know two key things: a fire department unit has arrived on scene and there are no apparent signs of fire at this time. 

Fast attack mode
In this scenario, the first arriving unit gives an on-scene announcement including the term “fast attack.” This mode implies that immediate action is needed for scene stabilization. In the fast attack mode, the officer feels that his or her involvement will have a definite impact on the incident’s outcome.  If a critical offensive attack is required, the officer may choose to lead the attack while utilizing a portable radio to continue the command function or may transfer the command function to the second arriving officer, before entering the structure. The second arriving unit is then tasked with establishing a formal command.  It should be noted that the officer going “fast attack” is still responsible for the incident until the next-in officer establishes formal command. 

At this time all units responding to the scene and monitoring the radio know four key things: a fire department unit has arrived on scene, there is some type of emergency in progress, the first arriving officer is joining his crew to participate in the incident, and the next arriving unit will establish a formal command.
The FGC cannot tolerate an unsafe condition.
The fast attack mode of command can end with one of the three following outcomes:
•  the first-in officer stabilizes the incident by offensive attack or deems the incident to be minor in nature and announces that the first-in unit can handle the situation.
•  the first-in officer determines the scene is beyond the fast attack stage.  The officer then withdraws and establishes a formal command.
•  the next-in officer establishes a formal command and command is then transferred.

Command mode
Some fire scenarios require a strong and direct command from the outset. In this case, the company officer will assume a stationary exterior command position until the scene is mitigated or until relieved of command. In this command mode there is a working incident and the first arriving officer has determined that it would be more beneficial to stay outside and direct other incoming units as opposed to participating in the attack.  At this time all units responding to the scene and monitoring the radio know three key things:  a fire department unit has arrived on scene, there is a working fire in progress, and upon arrival at the incident incoming units must stage until directed by command.

For fireground operations to be safe and successful, an effective fireground management system with an established fireground commander is critical.  Through the use of the command modes available through the incident command system, a safe and effective fireground can be established.

Barry Bouwsema is a company officer for Strathcona County Emergency Services, Sherwood Park, Alta.  He has been in the fire service for 20 years, and is a graduate of Athabasca University with a Bachelor’s degree in General Studies.  He lectures paramedic students at the Northern Alberta Institute of Technology and teaches firefighters (NFPA 1001) at the Emergency Services Academy.

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