What makes an effective leader?

CarolinaFireJournal - By John Bierling
By John Bierling
01/10/2013 -

Last month we ended the Command and Control article with these words: “We’re all partners in this ICS process and that’s a good thing.”


There was a time and place when the County 911 folks put forth a directive to the effect that the EMS agencies were not allowed to establish command and the 911 center would not recognize as IC any EMS responder who “established command.”

“Ridiculous,” you exclaim. “Outrageous,” you shout. “Impossible,” you declare!

Incomprehensible? Really? How many times in the last 10 years, throughout the USA has a similar event occurred? Unfortunately, too many emergency responders believe that the focus of EMS at an incident is purely patient care. OK, that’s certainly the primary focus and the primary focus of fire is fire suppression and the police focus on law enforcement. There is no hesitation for those agencies to be IC and fill the command roles so why the hesitation with EMS. In this situation it occurred because of a lack of leadership.

If we accept that throughout the incident the IC position should be filled by the most appropriate agency then there can be no hesitation for EMS or any other agency to fill that role.

Perfect, we’ve now successfully completed that conversation on WHO should be in command. Leave all the other junk at the door. Now let’s talk about qualifications.

It’s always about leadership! When good things happen it’s always about leadership. At home, at work, at the incident scene, it’s always about leadership. Now, it’s certainly obvious how this applies to command and control.

Effective incident command always follows the principles of good leadership. Remember, when we talk about incident command and the incident command system (ICS) we are referring to all the supervisory (ie: leadership) positions in the ICS system. Whether you are a unit leader, group supervisor, branch director, section chief, or IC your effectiveness is in direct proportion to your ability to lead.


An effective leader in the incident command system has self-confidence that they can do the job as assigned. Equal in importance, the individuals supervised by that person must have confidence that they will be led safely, knowledgeably and with skill and experience.

Leadership in the ICS is much more than just possessing good firefighting skills. The leader must be able to account for their people, must be willing to delegate the work, and must be able to carry out the mission — objectives, strategy, and tasks — required to accomplish the incident goals.

If you don’t have confidence in yourself or the people you supervise have limited confidence in you, you’ll probably fail. If the ones who supervise you don’t have confidence in you, it is impossible to be an effective leader. Do what you need to do — education, training, experience — to build those confidence levels.


The definition for our purposes refers to personal discipline and crew discipline. Now, we may be able to force crew discipline by the use of “discipline” (how’s that for dancing with the language) let’s stick with the first definition. This is really very simple. Personal discipline means you are following your training and adhering to the known safe principles and tactics of the industry. For example, when it’s time to be relieved for rehab you don’t ask for 10 more minutes, “we’ve almost got it” and you don’t pretend that the radio isn’t working. You follow the orders of your supervisor, period. Crew discipline means that your crew is following your lead, not freelancing, not encouraging you to violate orders, and staying together as a crew — maintaining crew integrity — until the crew is disbanded. It’s easier to do this if your crew has confidence in you because they know they’re safe in you hands.

The knowledge, Skills, and Ability to Be Part of ICS

This is pretty simple. You must have the education and training to completely understand all the parts and pieces of the incident command system. This is the foundation necessary to build command. If, while reading this you are not sure of the difference between divisions and groups, if you’re not sure what a branch does or the title of the person who supervises the branch, if you use terms like “operations command” or “medical command” when identifying yourself to incident commander, then you had better get back to the books and learn the basics of incident command.

The second part of this is the experience in using the ICS. While we may be very proficient in the knowledge foundation of ICS many of us do not possess the experience to fill the ICS roles in a type three, two, or one incident. Please do everything you can to gain as much experience as possible in ICS. Go to experience training whenever possible. Use ICS during every training event. Use ICS for every special event in your community. We do not get the ICS necessary experience in our daily work and it’s essential to find it elsewhere. Without the experience, when we are faced with the major, complex, extreme — use whatever word that fits — incident, we are unlikely to be able to build an effective command system simply because we lack the experience.

Go out there and always be the best you can be. Do whatever it takes to (be) (become) the finest incident command officer you are capable of being.

Next issue we will discuss “The Rules of Incident Command.”

Fire Chief (retired) John Bierling has been in the emergency services for more than 45 years. Chief Bierling is the CEO of The Incident Management Team, a consulting company that teaches incident management and facilitates the OurTown Diorama Incident Command Training Programs. He can be reached at [email protected].com and his website is www.IncidentMT.com.
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