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Anatomy of fireground decision-making

Fire chiefs need to foster opportunities for incident commanders to develop their situational awareness skills through training and experience

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When fire suppression operations are needed at known hazards, the risks associated with those hazards should be part of the decision making before, during and after the emergency operations. In other words — plan, assess and adjust, and evaluate.


Most fireground dangers fall into the category of being expected, or at least known about in advance. When a threat is expected, it can be guarded against to a certain extent; although anticipating when and where the dangers will strike is much harder.

When fire suppression operations are needed at known hazards, the risks associated with those hazards should be part of the decision making before, during and after the emergency operations. In other words — plan, assess and adjust, and evaluate.

Interior fire suppression is one example of when assessment and adjustment are necessary, yet difficult.

Despite the hazard being known, tactical deployment can change interior conditions that the incident commander may not be aware of for a variety of reasons. Those changes can be due to the application of water, ventilation, fire growth, and heat or smoke generated — and they can have significant consequences.

The role of the incident commander in managing risks has three central components.

  • Perceiving the critical elements on the fireground.
  • Understanding the significance of these elements.
  • Making projections as to their future status.

Aware of the situation

Each of these risk-management factors are impacted by the building construction and layout, resources available and how they are deployed, the material that is burning and the capability of resources to rapidly execute the tactical operations selected by the incident commander.

Of all the fireground risk-management components, situational awareness is most important. And the skill of situational awareness is probably the most difficult for many incident commanders to acquire for a variety of reasons.

The lack of practical experience is the most significant barrier to acquiring competent situational awareness skills for many incident commanders.

While training is an important component of learning situational awareness, what’s learned from implementing decisions on the fireground or emergency operations situation is the better teacher.

Being skilled at situational awareness helps an incident commander refine her decision-making process by repeating what has been done in other situations. This feeds into the incident commander’s ability to recognize the consequences of decisions and project the outcome of those decisions.

Assess, adjust

Again, situational awareness plays a large role in assessing and adjusting on scene. Not every decision is the correct one.

And the incident commander’s ability to recover from initial decisions that are not being implemented as planned is directly related to discipline, training and leadership. Personality has a lot to do with accepting that an initial decision’s impact is not going as planned.

One’s ability to admit error before catastrophic consequences occur is sometimes difficult but is obviously essential to reducing the risk to firefighters operating on a scene.

The incident commander’s ability to balance strategic and tactical choices comes by way of training, knowledge and experience. This manifests itself partly in their ability to adapt to the factors present at the situation. The balance necessary between old and new tactics is also critical to achieve a successful outcome.

The one most influencing factor to positive outcomes on the fireground is having the right personnel in the right place at the right time. For the incident commander, that means having someone who employs situational awareness to maximize the chances of making good decisions.

But those commanders are rarely if ever born. They exhibit professionalism, team work, situational awareness, and calm and collected decision making. Those abilities are trained, nurtured and supported by the chief officers.

This article, originally publised on Feb. 5, 2016, has been updated.

Chief John M. Buckman III served 35 years as fire chief for the German Township (Indiana) Volunteer Fire Department, and 15 years as director of the fire and public safety academy for the Indiana State Fire Marshal Office. He is the Director of Government and Regional Outreach for Buckman is a past president of the International Association of Fire Chiefs and a co-founder of the IAFC Volunteer and Combination Officers Section. In 1996, Fire Chief Magazine named Buckman Volunteer Fire Chief of the Year. Buckman is an accomplished photographer, a co-author of the Lesson Learned from Fire-Rescue Leaders, and the editor of the Chief Officers Desk Reference. He is also the owner of Wildfire Productions. Buckman is a member of the Fire Chief/FireRescue1 Editorial Advisory Board. Connect with Chief Buckman on LinkedIn or via email.