The Incident Commander: A Prestigious, but Potentially Painful Proposition

We’ve spent the last year examining the Incident Management Organizational Structure. This structure includes the Command Staff (Safety Officer, Liaison Officer, and Public Information Officer) who keep the Incident Commander (IC) smart. We also examined the Incident Management General Staff (Operations Chief, Planning Chief, Logistics Chief, and Finance/Administration Chief) who keep the IC sane.


This quarter, let’s examine the Incident Commander, which is a position that is frequently desired and sometimes despised. It is natural for members of the fire service to have a desire to promote. That desire often results in individuals wishing that they one day will be the IC at incidents. However, I have frequently written about how much easier it is to run into burning buildings than it is to command operations at burning buildings. 

Consider the IC at the Worcester Cold Storage and Warehouse Co. fire on December 3, 1999. The fire occurred in a 93-year-old abandoned building in Worcester, Massachusetts. The fire was started accidentally by two homeless people who were squatting in the building and had knocked over a candle. They left the scene without reporting the fire which allowed the fire to grow for 30 to 90 minutes until it was detected by a passing police officer. The building was a 46,000 square foot, multi-floor labyrinth of connecting meat lockers with layers of polystyrene and polyurethane foam used as insulation. There were many dead-end corridors and rooms, only one staircase that extended from the basement to the roof, and very few windows throughout the structure.

The owner arrived early in the fire and advised the IC that a homeless couple may be trapped inside. This caused firefighters to initiate an interior attack and search and rescue efforts. At that time, light smoke was present in the upper levels of the building which didn’t even compel the firefighters operating in the interior to don their masks. According to the IC, within a period of about “four seconds,” the smoke condition changed to the building being charged and filled completely with “black, hot, boiling smoke.” Approximately 33 minutes into operations, the crew of Rescue 1 reported that they were lost on the fourth floor and were running out of air. The crew of Ladder 2 began to search for the crew of Rescue 1 but become separated and lost. The crew of Engine 3 searched for the crew from Ladder 2 and although they eventually got together, the four-person search crew (Ladder 2/Engine 3) are unsuccessful at locating the crew from Rescue 1 and cannot find an egress path.

Shortly after the fifth alarm was struck, the IC is forced to make a decision that I pray (a lot) that I will never have to make as an IC. The IC ordered a switch to defensive operations and no one else was permitted to enter the building. This decision was made while the IC knew there were six firefighters still missing and trapped in the building. I imagine that there were more than a few firefighters on the scene that wanted to continue search efforts for the missing firefighters. What I cannot imagine, and hope I never experience, is being the IC telling those firefighters that they cannot enter the building. The IC effectively decided that six missing firefighters was enough. To put more firefighters in the building was to invite the potential for more missing, trapped and, ultimately, deceased firefighters. Lieutenant Timothy Jackson, Lieutenant James Lyons, Lieutenant Thomas Spencer, Firefighter Paul Brotherton, Firefighter Jeremiah Lucey, and Firefighter Joseph McGuik died in the line of duty at the Worcester Cold Storage and Warehouse Co. fire. 

Part of the appeal of the fire service is that we are always seeing new things. From those new things we experience, we create a frame of reference and learn how to handle similar things in the future. I hope and pray that having a line of duty death at a call is not something that any of us would want to add to our experience resumes. It is an IC’s worst nightmare. Those of you with aspirations to become an IC should consider the above scenario as a possibility. Being an IC does not make you responsible for just talking on the radio. It makes you responsible for the safety of everyone on the scene. This responsibility cannot be taken lightly and should be in the forefront of everyone who keys up a radio and assumes command of an incident.

In the last year, we examined the importance of the command staff keeping the IC “smart” by handling public information, overall incident safety, and liaising with requested resources. We also examined the general staff keeping the IC “sane” by handling planning efforts, logistical requests, operational resource management, and the finance/administration aspects of the incident. The strategic decisions made by an IC often fall on that one individual. But it doesn’t have to be that way. Unified command is used to bring together various jurisdictional and/or operational representatives together in a command post to make strategic decisions.

A wildland fire that is affecting multiple counties would require multiple jurisdictional representatives to ensure the resources are being properly allocated to mitigate the incident. Likewise, a terrorist attack resulting in a hazardous materials release, bomb threat and active shooter would require multiple operational representatives be brought together in a command post to make strategic decisions due to the various fire, law enforcement and emergency medical concerns. But it doesn’t have to be a large or complex incident to be overwhelming.  As Chief Brunacini said, “It is very painful to be challenged and lonely at the same time. When you have problems, take on a friend to share them with.” This advice applies to large wildland fires, terrorist attacks and abandoned building fires. The IC is forced to make decisions, based on limited information, in a time compression. The results of those decisions have the potential for catastrophic consequences. If you put a crew on the roof for vertical ventilation and the roof fails, you now have much bigger problems than an unventilated fire.

If you are a company level or chief level officer, you should also remember that your performance is not measured by your bravery, but by your willingness and capacity to protect your firefighters. On February 11, 2008, during a woods fire outbreak in my county, I assigned an engine to respond to an incident where another engine was requesting assistance with structural protection. The responding engine had just cleared from another woods fire but was only missing one crosslay and was relatively “in-service.”   was about a mile in front of that engine, responding to the same incident when my radio came to life with a question from the dispatcher about what route I was taking. The dispatcher then said that she had a report of a fire truck overturned on that route. No longer seeing the responding engine in my rearview mirror, I feared the worst. I turned around and the sight of what I found around the first curve I passed through is forever etched into my brain.

The engine had overturned multiple times and the driver was trapped inside with serious injuries. Although he survived, his career ended. To say I have thought about that call a lot, really does not begin to explain it. While I did not cause the apparatus rollover, I was responsible for assigning the apparatus that rolled over. Had I not ordered that apparatus to respond to that call, the apparatus would not have been in an accident and that firefighter’s career may still be intact. I’m not saying that it is my fault. It is not feasible for us to tell our firefighters to stay in the station with the doors shut because we are concerned that bad things might happen to them if they pull out onto the pad or go run a call. However, make no mistake, you risk the lives of your firefighters every time you task them with a response. As an IC, you risk the lives of your firefighters every time you give them an order on the fireground.

On large or complex incidents, if you feel like the information is overwhelming to the point that you cannot manage it properly, follow Chief Bruno’s advice and take on a friend to help you manage the incident. The friend, Command Staff, and General Staff can help you to manage all of the moving parts and keep your troops safe. As an IC, your job is to successfully resolve the incident while ensuring all of your firefighters go home at the end of the call. Being an IC and being charged with the responsibility of others is not an easy undertaking. Consider having to make the decision that the IC in Worcester made.  While many may view the IC’s decision as sealing the fate of the six missing firefighters, there are probably countless other firefighters’ lives that the IC saved by properly protecting those that were not already trapped or missing. Despite that fact, the decision is likely a great pain that is still felt by that IC today. Consider the potential pain associated with being the IC before you take command of your next incident.

Be safe and do good.

Dr. David A. Greene has over 27 years of experience in the fire service and is currently the deputy chief with Colleton County (S.C.) Fire-Rescue. He holds a PhD in Fire and Emergency Management Administration from Oklahoma State University and an MBA degree from the University of South Carolina. He is a certified Executive Fire Officer through the National Fire Academy, holds the Chief Fire Officer Designation from the Center for Public Safety Excellence, holds Member Grade in the Institution of Fire Engineers, is an adjunct instructor for the South Carolina Fire Academy and is a Nationally Registered Paramedic. He can be reached at

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