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Command drills for every IC

Focusing on command post location, VES tactics, high-rise incidents and mayday events

Firefighter command training drill

As a chief who could serve in the IC role, you need to get out there and train with your companies.

Chris DelBello

Attention, company and chief officers who will be performing the function of incident commander: There’s a lot of good training going on outside your organization these days, and you need to pay attention. Your companies, your crews and really all the members whom you are leading expect more. They expect more from you than just checking boxes on fireground training. And how can you provide substantial training if you aren’t training yourselves?

I go to a lot of outside trainings, seminars and conferences, and I find it very concerning that I don’t see many chiefs or officers there. This is frustrating for me, but think about the frustration that the younger, more motivated members at these events must be feeling. They learn all these tactics and new terminology only to get back to the station and never get to put it into practice because their leadership has no idea what’s going on outside their organization or its guidelines.

As a chief who could serve in the IC role, you expect your companies to be top-performers. Don’t expect anything! It will be one of your biggest mistakes to assume too much of your companies. You need to get out there and train with your companies. Learn by observing their abilities. At the same time, you will be learning and honing your own abilities by employing your guidelines and tactics.

High-rise operations, mayday operations, RIT deployments and VES are good places to start for such “chief-inclusive” training events within your district and organization.

Remember, leave no training opportunity untapped. Plan the training. Coordinate the required resources. Put the training event on a shift calendar for all to see. Treat the training events as a real event. Make it happen! Here are some IC drills to get you started.

Yard or car drills

There’s a lot of rhetoric regarding where and how the IC should set up their command post – inside or outside the command vehicle. This doesn’t need to be a trigger trap to start a debate, as there isn’t one right answer.

Be fluid and practice being fluid. In other words, get proficient with both options. I have seen multiple speakers preaching about being in the front yard with the action, but I have also witnessed them never step out of their vehicles when inclement weather is around. Let’s not forget extended scene times during hot weather.

When you drill with your crews, drill with both options in mind, building your confidence and ability to maintain situational awareness regardless of where you operate from.

VES drills

Vent-enter-search is as old as the fire service itself. It has been refined over many years, and some continue to try to redefine it. But from my vantage point, when it comes to tactics that have been battle-proven, don’t mess with them.

A good drill for the district and any potential IC is incorporating VES at a two-story residential occupancy. The drill can start as a typical fire attack. In a two-story occupancy, you have many options. You could assign the initial company, the second in, the first truck or multiple companies to VES, as well as the standard primary search. Train with what you know you are going to get on that first-alarm assignment. If staffing allows, after assigning attack, primary search and ventilation, I would assign every extra available crew to VES or simultaneously assign VES as multiple companies arrive. Again, train with what you know you are getting per departmental guidelines, and train on your options.

Also, it is important to include any other officers or chiefs who may be responding and whom you would be assigning as a division officer. Make sure they understand and buy into this tactic, otherwise you are wasting your breath when giving orders over the radio. A division officer that does not understand it and does not have buy-in will only hamper the crews assigned to VES. I have witnessed this on several occasions, and it’s very frustrating.

The IC can set up in the yard or remain in the vehicle. It doesn’t matter as long as they maintain a strong command presence, feel confident, and remain fluid and able to track companies. Do a drill from the car in a position where you cannot see the action, plus a drill where you can see everything going on in real time. Drilling before an actual event will allow you to experience the reflex time needed from the moment when the order is given to when the tactic is initiated.

High-rise operations and the IC

High-rise drills are a rarity in most organizations. Most chiefs assigned to high-rise districts are very good at running those incidents. However, most chiefs in smaller departments that have mid-rise districts rarely train for such an event. They instead rely on their knowledge of the departmental guidelines and presume way too much of the abilities of their crews and themselves.

I implore you to plan a drill starting with a run-through of your guidelines, a walk-through of the building and discussion of key building functions, and then transitioning into a full-on mental and physical assault of your crews’ abilities and yours as the IC.

The drill can be as simple as a commercial drier fire on an upper floor or as complex as a fire that requires a stairwell support division to establish a water supply in the stairwell.

Use charged hoselines. Include occupant evacuation, rescue and ventilation issues. During this drill, you will naturally discover common problems regarding communications, and possibly find a way to remedy that issue before an event occurs. Even with good radios, communication will be a big issue. Communication is always at the top of any LODD report. Communication issues will not be strictly radio issues, though. You will see that with multiple companies with multiple orders, operating in and around the same workspace, face-to-face communication becomes an issue as well. (Google Houston high-rise LODD Oct. 13, 2001.)

Divisions and sector assignments to consider and deploy: resource sector and associated staffing required, ventilation, water supply, staging officer, medical branch and associated staffing, lobby control and associated staffing, stairwell support division and associated staffing, RIT, RAT, search, attack – the list only grows as the incident escalates. Even if your tallest building is only seven stories, you will need to confidently employ every division and sector mentioned here.

Again, it does not matter where you set up your command post. I have observed good chiefs operate from both their vehicle and a command post in the lobby. Don’t restrict yourself. However, as these types of incidents expand, you will soon feel a little crowded in your vehicle.

Repetitive drills are key to becoming comfortable and competent. Watch the YouTube video 3-11 High-rise Fire, Houston, Texas, April 1, 2017. After four tours of drills, I cancelled our last drill. A high-rise box dropped shortly after lunchtime the same day. The fire was the most uneventful fire I have ever been a part of. It is also, given a simple observation of how high-rise events go, a prime example of what training can do for an entire district.

How can you make high-rise training realistic? It’s easier than you think. Just ask building management to assist. I have had nothing but positive interaction with building managers. I have actually never been told no when asking building management if we could use their building for training. I literally held a high-rise conference inside a functioning and occupied 72-story high-rise and had full access to all building functions. Flowing water should be limited to an elevated parking garage with standpipes either in the stairwell or on each level. Your motivated firefighters will appreciate this opportunity greatly. Do not be afraid to ask.

Mayday and the IC

A mayday event will jolt even the saltiest IC. I have witnessed ICs completely withdraw when a mayday was pulled by an interior crew. Operations stall, crews are waiting for orders, orders are changing to less aggressive tactics when it should go the other direction. This is a sure sign that the chief didn’t drill with their crews for this type of incident.

This is an easy drill to create. Put the event on the calendar so everyone knows they will be training that day. Include yourself in the training. While the crews are physically training on RIT and mayday procedures, formalize the training using the incident command system. Use your tactics, terminology and only what resources you know will be available to you in a real event.

Again, communications will be an issue at these events. Expect it. Train for it. If it doesn’t expose itself in training, you are probably not drilling properly or have very limited resources or you are not including all your resources.

Place yourself in a room where you cannot see what is going on, because that is the most likely reality. Run the mayday and RIT procedure several times in a day, multiple times in a tour, and become comfortable and competent with the idea. You will be surprised at the progress you make with yourself and your crews.

Final thoughts

Chiefs, company officers and anyone who could potentially run an incident as the IC: Drilling with your crews is the only key to build your confidence and abilities, regardless where you set up your command post. Include yourself in every drill and make it as realistic as possible.

Stay safe.

Chris DelBello is a 31-year veteran of the fire service. He currently holds the rank of senior captain with the Houston Fire Department, working in the Midtown District. He is also the district training officer, which encompasses all the stations in downtown and midtown, and holds a Training Officer II certification. DelBello also serves as a captain with the Fort Bend County (Texas) Emergency Service District. Connect with DelBello via email.