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How company officers can keep firefighters safe at the big one

A large-scale event will push everyone, company officers included, outside their comfort zone, but firefighter safety must remain a top priority


Day in and day out, firefighters and officers respond to a wide variety of emergency calls for service. The vast majority of those calls for service will be successfully and safely handled by a single fire company (engine or truck) or volunteer fire company.

Less frequently, are the calls that require multiple companies or mutual aid from surrounding volunteer fire companies.

And then there’s the big one. It’s the “once in a career” emergency incident that forces everyone out of their comfort zone. It’s the one that requires vastly more resources, an expanded incident command system for management of those resources and extra effort on everyone’s part.

The safety of your personnel dictates that you take immediate action, but what action? (Photo/Joe Thomas of Greenbox Photography)
The safety of your personnel dictates that you take immediate action, but what action? (Photo/Joe Thomas of Greenbox Photography)

The company officer will potentially be called upon to perform many key roles in such a scenario. None, however, is more important that ensuring that the personnel under their supervision are safe and well-cared for during the operation.

The incident scene, whether it’s a fire in a large industrial site or response to tornado strike, is bigger geographically. It also has more unknowns such as layout, building construction, the presence of multiple types of hazards, unstable structures, or damaged or missing infrastructure.

The company officer will likely find themselves managing more people than just their own crew as they are appointed to tactical leadership positions within the incident command system structure, such as division or group supervisor or unit manager. Those supervisory responsibilities will have them managing personnel from non-familiar companies within their own department or from mutual-aid departments.

Success at keeping everyone safe means the company officer must understand the job responsibilities for those positions when assigned. It’s also incumbent that they communicate and work well with other officers within their tactical unit.

To that end, the company officer must ensure that they stay in the role of supervisor and don’t become involved in task completion.

Being the eyes and ears

The company officer must also take responsibility for being actively engaged in the personnel accountability system at the tactical level. That means everyone under their supervision should know and understand who their boss is, what their assigned tasks are and where those tasks are being worked on.

In addition to being the eyes and ears for the incident commander as part of their tactical leadership role, the company officer must do the same for the incident safety officer. This safety officer is responsible for addressing safety incident-wide, and they can’t be everywhere at once.

Therefore, it’s incumbent that the company officer is constantly identifying and evaluating risk within their area of operation and feeding that information upward to the incident commander. Nobody should be more informed and educated about the safety risks in their tactical area than the company officer.

When the company officer is placed in a tactical leadership position, the incident commander needs the company officer to do more than just relay by radio what is happening in their area of the overall operation.

The company officer must address rapidly changing conditions (a phrase that appears all too frequently in NIOSH firefighter fatality investigation reports) that can affect the welfare and safety of personnel.

One tool officers can use is the OODA Loop, a model was developed by Col. John Boyd, USAF (Ret) during the Korean War. It is a concept consisting of the following four actions:

  • Observe
  • Orient
  • Decide
  • Act

This looping concept referred to the ability possessed by fighter pilots to cycle through the four actions that allowed them to succeed in combat. It is now used by the U.S. Marines and other organizations.

There is much value in the company officer becoming skilled and practiced in the use of the OODA Loop model for making decisions in their tactical area to ensure the safety of their personnel. Here’s a closer look at the four steps in the loop.

Observe

We more commonly refer to this as size-up in the fire service. Scan the environment and gather information from it. Gather as much current information from as many sources as possible.

One of the key challenges to effective observation is knowing what information to monitor and applying the right filters to each piece of information.

Orientation

Use the information to form a mental image of the circumstances. That is, synthesize the data into information. As more information is received, you deconstruct old images and then create new images.

Different people require different levels of details to perceive an event. Often, we imply that the reason people cannot make good decisions is that people are bad decisions makers – sort of like saying that the reason some people cannot drive is that they are bad drivers.

The reality is that most people make bad decisions because they often fail to place the information that they do have into its proper context. Orientation emphasizes the context in which events occur, so that we may facilitate our decisions and actions.

Orientation helps to turn information into knowledge. And knowledge, not information, is the real predictor of making good decisions.

Decision

Consider your options and select a subsequent course of action. The goal is to make better and faster choices than your opponent – the fire or the changing environment. The ability to predict the future can make the difference between success or failure.

Act

Carry out the conceived decision. Once the result of the action is observed, you start over.

Note that in combat or when competing against others, you want to cycle through the four steps faster and better than the competition, hence, it is a loop, rather than a one-time affair.

At a large-scale incident, you have to cycle through the loop faster than the conditions change; the built and natural environment is often the fire officer’s enemy.

The OODA Loop in practice

None of the above is meant to imply that the company officer makes up their own plan for managing their part of the incident’s operation. Company officers must always be operating under the incident commander’s incident action plan and working to implement strategies and complete objectives assigned to them by the commander.

The power of the OODA Loop is that it provides a model for decision-making that the company officer can rapidly work through to address changes in their tactical area, particularly changes that will adversely affect the safety of their people.

For example, you’re the company officer who’s been appointed as a group supervisor managing several fire companies for search and rescue operations on the outskirts of town in a subdivision that’s been devastated by a tornado. There are still active thunderstorms in and around the area of the devastation.

While your crew leaders and their firefighters are engaged in the search and rescue tasks, you would be using the OODA Loop to stay abreast of changes in the weather through your observations (and listening your radio). You see an air-to-ground lightning strike off in the distance followed by a clap of thunder 10 seconds later.

Using the “flash-bang” method for calculating how far away that strike was, you determine that the strike occurred roughly two miles from your present location. What should you do? What would you do?

Such a situation is not the time to be calling the incident commander and asking what you should do. The safety of your personnel dictates that you take immediate action, but what action?

Using the OODA Loop before that lightning strike could have enabled you to identify what might need to happen (get your people protective cover), where to get that cover (inside fire apparatus or a nearby intact structure) and how to make it happen if necessary (by briefing your crew leaders about your plan).

And that, as any good fire officer knows, is what we call being proactive.

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