Don’t Take Command, Let It Be Transferred to You

“Engine 7 to Communications.” 

“Go ahead 7.”

“I’m on scene with a 40-foot by 50-foot residential structure.  I’ve got smoke and fire showing from the second floor. Engine 7 Officer will have the command.”

“Copy that.”

This is a normal start of a radio communications for a response to a structure fire response. Let’s fast forward a few minutes.


“Chief 1 is arriving on scene; taking command.”

How many times have you heard this happen? There is nothing wrong with a ranking officer taking command, as this is how our service is built. The issue in my opinion, is that we are not following proper protocols in ensuring a proper transfer of command.

As a first responder agency, we are to follow the National Incident Management Systems (NIMS) which of course includes the Incident Command Systems (ICS) as a foundational aspect. This national system lays out best practices for many of the methodologies for how we respond. You have likely visited the Emergency Management Institute’s (EMI) online ICS courses such as the IS-100 and IS-200. (If you haven’t, you should as it is a federal requirement for all responders.)

So, what does NIMS and ICS say about transfer of command? They lay out the basic foundations in transfer of command. Now during fires, we do not have time to spend an hour in this, but it is important that we complete some of these foundational actions to ensure proper transfer of command.

First, we must assess the situation with the current Incident Commander (IC). This could be as simple as walking up to the current IC and getting a sentence or two briefing of where the incident is at this time.  This can also include where it was when the initial IC arrived on scene. This provides the foundation of us determining the effectiveness of our initial response. This could lead to us continuing with our initial actions or begin changing directions.

Next, the current IC should give a short briefing. This too does not have to take an inordinate amount of time. What the incoming IC should want to know is what resources they have on scene, what resources have been dispatched, any specific dangers or safety issues to note, and such. This provides a good situational awareness of our incident.

The next step is not as important for us. NIMS and ICS suggest that we determine an official time to transfer command. For us, we will likely be transferring command immediately. 

It is at this time the incoming chief should contact dispatch and announce that they have officially taken command of the incident. Doing this over the radio and ensuring that all responding units get the transmission will provide proper chain of command. 

The final step is assigning the outgoing IC to another position — or to demobilize them which again is not prevalent in the fire service. Depending on resources and size of incident, a good role for the initial IC is the Operations Section Chief. Remember, if you assign the outgoing IC to the Operations Section Chief position, you need to allow them the freedom to actually fulfill that position. 

Remember, once an Ops Chief is assigned, that position makes the tactical decisions. You, as IC, have delegated that responsibility to that position. Too many times, an IC will continue to make tactical decisions, thus minimizing the role of a designated Operations Section Chief. They have all the information needed to immediately begin that role and can be valuable in that situation. Otherwise, we could assign them to a Division Supervisor — which in our service would be the supervisor of a floor or side of a structure. Either way this initial IC could be of great value to your new role as the IC.

Hopefully it is evident how we need to allow the transfer of command to happen more efficiently and thoroughly as is set forth in NIMS and ICS standards. By simply arriving on scene and taking command we have a greater chance of losing situational awareness, putting our firefighters at risk due to unknown to you safety risks, and the inability to understand the advances we are making towards our overall objectives.

Until next time, be safe!

David Hesselmeyer, M.P.A., has been in emergency services for 16 years. Currently he is a firefighter, rescue technician, paramedic, and North Carolina Executive Emergency Manager. Hesselmeyer is the owner and primary consultant with On Target Preparedness (OTP) which contracts with emergency services agencies and non profits to assist in risk assessments, plan writing, plan revision, exercise development, etc. He currently volunteers with Buies Creek Fire Rescue and works part time with Harnett County EMS. He can be contacted at or visit his website at

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