When Incident Command isn’t really Incident Command

CarolinaFireJournal - By John Bierling
By John Bierling
10/22/2013 -

We all know the process. The first unit on scene provides a size up report and establishes command. You get the responding units into level one staging — so you have a moment to think — determine your operational mode (investigative, fast attack, or command) and deploy your forces.


Now here is where the wheels come off the wagon.

Please be honest and introspective with yourself, nobody else knows that you’re reading this article. With the exception of someone saying, “I’ll take operations,” you rarely build the command organization beyond the point of establishing command.

When you exceed the span of control, possibly with the first alarm assignment or certainly with the second alarm, it is absolutely essential that the Incident Commander begin to use groups and divisions to organize the units and to manage the span of control.

There is an absolutely straight line between effective command and control and CHAOS. You get to choose and it begins with span of control. When your span of control is exceeded you cannot effectively supervise the resources and they will immediately begin to freelance!

We established in a previous article that when the freelancing begins, effective incident command ends. While we might applaud the initiative of the freelancers, the fact of their actions nearly always delivers three predictable outcomes. First, we comprise their safety; next, we loose accountability for them; and finally our system of incident command begins to fall apart.

When you count resources in your span of control you MUST include all resources on scene — law enforcement, EMS, fire, hazmat, special operations and the alphabet soup folks.

If you have more than four or five resources (all resources) on scene, or the incident is complex or will last a long time and you are not building your organization with groups, divisions and branches, then you are an incident commander in name only.

Incident Command is NOT really Incident Command! “I’ll Take Operations!”

These are words that should make the Incident Commander cringe. First and probably unimportant to the story, no one should “take” anything in incident command; assignments in ICS are exactly that, assigned. The level above supervisor always places supervisory positions as they build an organization below them in the supervisory chain.

OK, back to the point at hand. Many times when we assign the position of “Operations” we do so unnecessarily. The Operations Section Chief is the supervisor of the tactical part of the incident organization. Now, Operations is an important position and when it’s needed always create that position. It is, however, only another part of the ICS structure and should only be used when it is necessary to manage our current or anticipated span of control. The Incident Commander is not allowed to micromanage the Operations Section Chief. Create the position, be sure they understand your objectives, and empower them to do the job. If the incident is only tactical and the IC wants to maintain control of that tactical part, then there are many other ways to manage your span of control other than creating the Operations Section.

When the opportunity arises, listen to the radio recordings of major incidents. You’ll receive a tremendous education to hear how it’s really done in the real world. This is not so you can “second guess” or criticize, remember it’s not your incident. You can learn from these recordings and, if necessary, adjust/improve your activities accordingly.

Thanks and be safe out there.

Fire Chief (retired) John Bierling has been in the emergency services for more than 45 years including 17 years as a Chief Fire Officer. 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 throughout the nation to emergency responders, health departments, hospitals, airports, private industry, and local government. He can be reached at [email protected] and his website is www.IncidentMT.com.
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