Fireground organization and command: The evolution of approaches

The origin of our current command system began 50 years ago and was further developed through the work of Chief Alan Brunacini


By Steve Ashbrock

The current and generally accepted approaches to commanding resources on the fireground and providing an organization for their effective use and safety has a heritage beyond the brilliance of Chief Alan Brunacini. While certainly worthy of enthronement as the “father of the modern fireground command,” there were many before Chief Brunacini that seemed to set the stage for many of his concepts and provisions.

Origin story

"Approaches to the planning, organizing, directing, coordinating and supervising of the staff and equipment resources brought to bear in incident management on the emergency scene should be overlayed by an effective incident command system," Ashbrock. (Photo/Seth Lasko)

In the last 50 years of fire department history in the United States, Emanuel Fried, William Clark, Warren Kimball, Edward McAniff and others advanced many of the concepts that have become essential tenets of fire department standard operational guidelines (SOGs) and foundational elements of current practice. Consider the following examples:

Fried observed in his 1972 “Fireground Tactics” that arriving companies routinely assigned themselves to a situation in a “free enterprise” manner. Arriving in a varied order, each incoming officer decided which actions they would take. Today we call this freelancing. Fried dedicated a chapter in his work, Command at Fires, to a discussion of the ineffectiveness of such deployment and how to better organize and command the resources arriving on the fireground.

Fried also addressed the concept of span of control, the importance of a “conspicuous frontal position” for the IC, procedures for transfer of command, and the necessity of receiving reports of conditions from currently operating units. All of these concepts of incident command remain with us, evolved in subsequent years by others.

Writing in 1973, William Clark’s first “Firefighting Principles and Practices” reinforced the importance of span of control, pointing out the role of physical separation in determining the scope of span. Clark invoked the thinking of Keith Royer on “free enterprise” system of firefighting as leading to “chaos,” and saying fire officers should have approval for their actions before initiation.

Clark discussed location for command and alluded to the benefit of “getting several viewpoints” by taking advantage of the portable radio. Today, we have settled on this concept as the 360 size-up. Clark advocated that any continuing use of “10 codes” in radio traffic is of dubious value to the fire service – and we have virtually abandoned this practice in favor of “clear voice.”

Further, Clark described subdivisions of the areas of supervision needed (top, bottom, four sides and inside) at an incident as sectors. He pointed out the differentiation of tactical and geographic subdivisions of these sectors. Clark suggested, when the incident is over, to apply a Japanese approach to incident critique that would point to our current use of “hot wash” or after-action review.

Each of these concepts live on today.

Warren Kimball’s “Fire Attack 1” and “Fire Attack 2” alluded to concepts in fireground command in 1973, perhaps the most important of which is the essential nature of the role in command of the first-arriving officer. The first tactical decision is their dilemma to order a “fast attack.” Using the term “fast initial attack” for the first-arriving engine, Kimball discussed management of the first three units under operational direction of the chief of the district in which the fire occurs. The role and direction of fast attack is outlined in many SOPs today.

In “Strategic Concepts in Firefighting” (1974), Edward McAniff addressed the importance of the portable radio in communications among the chief of the department and their sector commanders. McAniff recommended exchange of information about current conditions, immediate needs and probable needs of these sectors every 5 minutes. Though we might not provide the every-5-minute frequency, our current use of a “CAN report” or similar updates to command is a common practice.

[Read next: The do’s and don’ts of commanding your first fire]

McAniff stressed that companies will operate only on orders flowing through the chain of command, reinforcing the key element of “no free enterprise” assignment on the fireground. He organized his assessment of a situation as being some continuum of between an offensive state and a defensive state and determined strategy and tactics appropriate to the situation.

FIRESCOPE and ICS

Even before these works were circulating in the profession, the problems with the management of wildfires by the California Division of Forestry precipitated an effort to improve effectiveness and efficiency through cooperation and coordination, and thus the FIRESCOPE project emerged in 1972. FIRESCOPE defined organization, procedures, roles, terminology, etc., to overlay the effort to best use and organize the resources used to fight California wildfires. This guidance sought to standardize the coordination of action by hundreds of units, and the concepts migrated eastward and began to be applied by the fireground command theorists.

After a decade of development and application in California, by the mid-1980s, the Incident Command System (ICS) had emanated from the work of FIRESCOPE, with refinements to expand its applicability and make it less focused on the wildfire environment to an all-hazards approach. Included in the program were considerations for Planning, Logistics and Administration/Funding associated with the incident. With FEMA endorsement, the ICS was intended to have the following characteristics, among others: common terminology, modular organization, manageable span of control, chain and unity of command, integrated communications, accountability, incident action planning and resource management.

The National Fire Academy (NFA) honed both the intent and the content, and incorporated a formal ICS training program into their curriculum in 1983.

“Fire Command” brings it all together

Arguably the most significant application of many of the preexisting command concepts, with the addition and development of many durable others, came with the first edition of “Fire Command” (1985) by the aforementioned legend Chief Alan Brunacini of the Phoenix Fire Department.

The first edition of “Fire Command” drilled down on so many issues related to the organization and management of the routine fire emergency in such an amusing and illustrative manner that the work was wildly popular. Brunacini applied many preexisting concepts to conditions that were immediately applicable to the experiences of company officers and district or battalion chiefs across the country. He intertwined command and control issues with strategic and tactical actions in a relatable and understandable way.

Span of control, transfer of command, staging, and fast attack were not only simply defined in the context of a common structure fire but cleverly illustrated. The concept of a fire situation being offensive, defensive or somewhere in between (a la McAniff, 1974) was similarly illustrated to leave no doubt in the concept, even illustrating the “parking lot” as an endpoint. For Brunacini, the situation report from a forward officer back to the incident commander was organized to state progress, position and needs in clear terms.

“Fire Command” was the most complete examination of the art and “science” of organizing and commanding the many units on an emergency scene that had been developed, as it focused on the field practice of emergency operations.

Finding a common voice

Provisions of the ICS occasionally bumped against the local application of its principles, and though a solid and generally accepted theory, use in day-to-day operations wasn’t always the case. A common example of digression was the use of “sector” to universally replace the ICS “groups” and “divisions” for subdivisions of the command structure at an incident.

In the early 1990s, there were Model Procedure Guides (MPG) for Structural Firefighting, Civil Disorders, High Rise, Hazardous Materials, USAR, Wildfire, Civil Unrest, and Highway situations. The MPG set was developed by a consortium of fire service and related agencies to bring together and make more acceptable the intent of the application of the provisos of the ICS to more commonly encountered emergency situations.

The series outlined and formatted in clear and transportable language the essential operational elements of ICS for the “routine” incident of the various types. The series has been widely used as the basis and reference document for incident command SOPs.

The scope and complexity of the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, and a series of hurricane events drove a return to a more rigid guidance for large-scale, multijurisdictional events, and addressed the four elements of the NFA ICS: Operations, Planning, Logistics and Administration/Funding.

[Read next: ‘A command structure was emerging from the rubble’: Incident command on 9/11 and beyond,’ by Chief Joseph Pfeifer]

The National Incident Management System (NIMS) directives by FEMA and associated Presidential Directive(s) emphatically pointed all emergency response to NIMS and its operational component of ICS. Training for the system was mandated, and formal adoption by various levels of authorities having jurisdiction in emergency response was decreed.

Nothing in the NIMS mandate flies in the face of most, if not all, of the previously adopted and applied fireground/emergency scene management systems and procedures. What seems to have evolved to address local variations and colloquialisms is an assertion that local fireground command is used for Type 4 and Type 5 incidents, and that NIMS/ICS applies to all others.

A rich history

The bottom line: Approaches to the planning, organizing, directing, coordinating and supervising of the staff and equipment resources brought to bear in incident management on the emergency scene should be overlayed by an effective Incident command system. There is a rich heritage from which we can borrow to make sure this happens.

[Additional reading: State of incident command: 9/11 gave us the system to succeed, wildland fires model how to succeed]

About the Author

Steve Ashbrock is the retired chief of the Reading and the Madeira & Indian Hill fire departments in Ohio. With over 40 years of service, Ashbrock has had the opportunity and the challenge of experiencing day-to-day operations of emergency response, fire-based EMS, technical rescue, incident command, disaster planning and officer training and development. Ashbrock maintains active participation through his work with the Ohio Fire Executive (OFE) program, the Ohio Fire Chief’s Consulting Group, and the International Fire Service Training Association (IFSTA).

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