Leading a mobile command unit’s incident management team

Navigating incident and operational briefings, team feedback and morale, and hot washes

By Bryan Sky-Eagle

Stepping into a mobile command unit (MCU) can feel like stepping into a Navy ship’s Combat Information Center. The similarities are striking because both contain multiple workstations compressed into a small area filled with computers, telephones, radios and flatscreen monitors. Some even have telescoping cameras that resemble a periscope.

The operations in an MCU are typically controlled by an incident commander (IC) working with an incident management team (IMT) comprised of firefighters, paramedics and police officers. Considering the tight quarters, communication among these team members can be chaotic, with multiple conversations taking place at the same time in close proximity.

"Considering the tight quarters, communication among these incident management team members can be chaotic, with multiple conversations taking place at the same time in close proximity," writes Sky-Eagle. (Photo/Bryan Sky-Eagle)

The technical skills necessary to run an IMT are acquired through training in different positions in mock IMTs. And these mock IMTs typically train in simulated Emergency Operations Centers. However, the interpersonal skills needed to lead an IMT are not taught in any formal environment, and working in an MCU complicates the process. These skills must be developed on the job, sharpened through continual practice, and strengthened by failure and reflection.

Here are some observations worth considering when leading an MCU’s IMT.

Incident and operational briefings

Some ICs conclude that their orders will be the primary means of directing the IMT’s operations. However, the IC’s orders usually come after completing a Planning-P cycle that begins when the IC briefs the team on the incident objectives, and then continually issues orders throughout the multiple meetings in the process.

The briefings on incident objectives are the bedrock of the IMT’s collective focus because they keep the team aligned to the mission and develop the team’s battle rhythm. Cycling through the Planning-P gives the IMT time to anticipate orders, fill in missing information, and provide a warning to the IC of tactical challenges in the incident’s changing environment. When the IC’s orders do come down, they are usually unremarkable and carried out with little shine.

They say the difference between a meeting and a briefing is whether there are chairs in the room. And that certainly proves true operating in an MCU, not only due to the lack of space but also because a typical IMT briefing is a concise summary of the ongoing objectives and events that move the team forward. For example, the IC might brief the team on tactical or resource changes that realign the efforts to the new information. But before moving into the next operational period at the end of the cycle, the IC will describe the incident objectives and poll each team member for relevant information to share with the team. Ad hoc and planned briefings may not precede orders, especially when those orders are directed to emergency actions to avoid a crisis, but they should be common enough to make tactical and planning decisions.

In addition to informing the team of incident events, the briefings should align the IMT to the IC’s objectives and harmonize efforts in the MCU to a common purpose. Vocalizing the IC’s intentions provides the opportunity for feedback to correct the IC or ideas on how to complete an objective. Lastly, they make the IC think ahead about what they are doing, why they are moving in that direction, and plan on what comes next.

Mastering the skills to effectively deliver operational briefings requires practice. New ICs tend to speak too much and overfill the MCU with unnecessary verbal ramblings. Others forget to prepare for the briefs and can surprise their teams with unknown objectives pulled from the sky. Fortunately, these communication patterns tend to be corrected by the developing ICs after experiencing a few avoidable and/or embarrassing mistakes.

Photos taken at the Mobile Command Unit Rally in January 2023 in Houston. (Bryan Sky-Eagle)
Photos taken at the Mobile Command Unit Rally in January 2023 in Houston. (Photo/Bryan Sky-Eagle)
Photos taken at the Mobile Command Unit Rally in January 2023 in Houston. (Photo/Bryan Sky-Eagle)
Photos taken at the Mobile Command Unit Rally in January 2023 in Houston. (Photo/Bryan Sky-Eagle)
Photos taken at the Mobile Command Unit Rally in January 2023 in Houston. (Photo/Bryan Sky-Eagle)
Photos taken at the Mobile Command Unit Rally in January 2023 in Houston. (Photo/Bryan Sky-Eagle)

Taking recommendations

Moving through the Planning-P, the IC will need to be available to receive and process the IMT’s recommendations. The MCU presents the IC with a more stressful operating environment, and while right answers would appear obvious in a comfortable office with less demands, it is less evident when operating in the crowded space of an MCU. This is one reason the IC shouldn’t make decisions in a vacuum. Team input is critical. It’s the IC’s practice of taking recommendations during the operational period that allows the team to operate in such an efficient manner that the different sections (EMS, Fire, Police, Hazmat) comfortably move together toward the same objectives.

To prevent the IC from feeling like a puppet of the IMT, some ICs will make a misguided attempt to appear independent and issue an order that is different than the team’s recommendation. This can be a sign of uncertainty and is harmful because the IC is communicating to the team that their input is either less valued or even worthless. While the IC may have good reasons for dismissing the guidance, it is important to share their thoughts when the reasons are not readily apparent to the team.

In contrast, processing a recommendation before issuing an order is generally accomplished with a quick mental check based on the IC’s situational awareness and experience. And this action reinforces the trust in the relationship because it allows the IC to critically assess the recommendation while displaying the team’s efforts are not ignored. It’s important to understand that while one recommendation was not useful this cycle, another could save the IC on the next cycle.

The IC needs to stay vigilant on the relationship with the team players to guard against undermining trust to a level where recommendations simply stop coming. Trust is a fundamental element to establish as the team passes through the five stages of team development to reach the level where the team’s ideas are transformed into effective actions.

The end goal of taking recommendations is to achieve team harmony that avoids groupthink, respectfully measures others’ assumptions and meets the incident objectives.

Hot wash

The hot wash is routinely led by the IC after a major event or when the response has come to an end. At times this may feel like a waste of time because agendas are often vague, redundant or unprepared. Or, if the team is highly proficient, they may feel they have outgrown the hot wash routine all together. Despite the desire to leave a cramped MCU and the foggy benefits to be gained, reinforcing the team’s learning culture is the responsibility of the IC.

For inexperienced teams, the IC should set expectations for the participants to avoid common missteps where they feel the impulse to self-congratulate and ramble on. Highly sophisticated teams, on the other hand, may be unable to perceive their own decline.

Moreover, the IC should be aware of the tendency to emphasize positive actions at the expense of learning from our errors. They must be careful with trying to balance criticism with praise. Unlike a performance review, the purpose of the hot wash is to identify what needs to change to become more successful.

Team morale

For those agencies that create IMTs from their own ranks, the relationship between discipline and morale is often misunderstood. It is a misguided belief that morale must be sacrificed to achieve a high level of discipline coming from heavy-handed leadership. Likewise, relaxing job standards to promote higher morale is setting the team up for failure.

Morale is not delightfulness and it’s not owned by individual players; rather, it is obtained when a team completes the incident objectives.

For the prospective IC, there is one thing you should never forget: Morale is not about you. Learning the technical skills of the IC position is only a prerequisite to fulfilling the IC’s larger purpose to direct the collected potential of the IMT members in an environment that allows them to effectively meet the incident objectives. In short, the IC will be measured by the team’s performance.

Success as a team

ICs can easily become overwhelmed by the challenges of leading in the close quarters of an MCU. But the MCU is simply an apparatus that requires a proficient IC and skilled team. And it’s paramount that the IC knows that the team is the true source of all the success and esteem the IC could hope to realize when operating in a submarine-like space positioned right outside our daily experiences.

About the author

Bryan Sky-Eagle, JD, MPA, CFO, is a deputy fire chief in the Houston Fire Department, currently serving as the department’s resilience and sustainability officer with the mayor’s office. He is an affiliate scholar with the University of Houston Law Center, president of the HFD Chief Officers Association, and holds the Chief Fire Officer designation from the Center for Public Safety Excellence. Sky-Eagle co-authored the book "Texas Disaster Law Guide: Legal Considerations for Emergency Responders and Managers." He previously served as area commander during Hurricane Harvey and operations section chief for Winter Storm Uri, and currently serves on the Terrorism and Homeland Security Committee with the International Association of Fire Chiefs (IAFC). Connect with Sky-Eagle on LinkedIn.

Request product info from top Fire Incident Management companies

Thank You!

By submitting your information, you agree to be contacted by the selected vendor(s) and that the data you submit is exempt from Do Not Sell My Personal Information requests. View our Terms of Service and Privacy Policy.

Join the discussion

Copyright © 2023 FireRescue1. All rights reserved.