Are you in charge, or are you in command?
A firsthand account of not understanding the burden of command
At some point in a new officer’s career (or that of a seasoned firefighter in many cases), they will need to take command. Hopefully by the time of this momentous occasion, they have taken the time to fully understand and appreciate the level of commitment associated with commanding an incident.
The burden of command means you are in charge of the entire operation – the safety of the public and civilians, the safety of your firefighters, plus the strategy, tactics, resources and site security, and so much more. Commanding an incident is a daunting task, and there’s a lot to learn to perfect the craft. We all make mistakes along the way, and we learn from those mistakes to be a better incident commander (IC). But until you fully understand and appreciate the burden of command, you’re not 100% ready.
I learned this the hard way very early in my career.
Little training, big decisions
At my second structure fire ever, as a young firefighter with less than a year on the job, I was riding the right front seat heading to a reported fire. The circumstances of why I was in that seat – staffing models, resources and experience – are moot. It simply was because that was how it was in that organization at the time. And the same thing is happening in many fire departments across the country – young and inexperienced firefighters are called upon to make critical decisions with very little command training. I was in that same boat, but being young and naïve, I believed that I knew what I was doing.
I was wrong.
I arrived, performed a size-up and gave my radio report. I rehearsed the radio report several times in my head before I arrived to make sure it sounded good. To my fault, that was the extent of a lot of my command training to that point – just don’t sound stupid on the radio. What I should have been doing was reading the scene, listening for updates, and preparing a game plan for myself and the nozzle firefighter.
We had nothing showing on arrival. I exited the rig and made my way to the front door of a mobile home where I was met by several adults stating there was smoke inside and that their children were inside as well. I did not do a 360, another major fail. I unlocked the front door with a key provided to me and went inside. No line was pulled to the door, and no smoke was encountered inside. I recall smelling something burning but did not understand smells well enough yet; I just knew that I could smell smoke. That would be alarming to me today, but my 19-year-old self quickly dismissed it.
I went to the left and sent my partner to the right to locate the source of smoke. This was a great thing in hindsight as we inadvertently performed a split-search long before I began teaching and preaching on the usefulness of splitting a crew to locate fire and victims when conditions (like these) warrant.
As I went left, I opened a bedroom door and immediately encountered smoke and a glow. I shut the door and began to mask up but did not radio the additional incoming companies about anything. Why would I, I am in command, right? The other units should just magically know what is going on, or they should call me on the radio and ask.
I reopened the door and froze. I was not prepared. In retrospect and after a lot of recalling of this incident, I was in full fight-or-flight mode with adrenaline pumping. Some now refer to it as fight, flight or freeze, and that is exactly what I did – I froze. Not out of fear or out of panic but simply because my brain was not processing the zero visibility on this bedroom fire. The freeze lasted for just a few seconds as another firefighter informed me “those kids are in that room.”
I snapped back in and scanned the room with a thermal imager. Because I was “in command,” I knew I must bring the thermal imager. I scanned the room left to right in less than a second and did not read a single thing on the image. Instead, I put the thermal imager down and began a left-handed search in the blind. That was what I was taught to do in fire school, so it must work, right?
Fortunately, the search tactic did work, as I came upon the first child. I initially passed them in the smoke and remember thinking, “Wow, that is weird that there is a CPR mannequin in here.” I found a second child unconscious in a bed and removed her to my partner. I retraced my search pattern and found that CPR mannequin was actually a 3-year-old boy severely burned and sitting in a chair. I pulled him and removed him to the outside – again, zero radio traffic.
The fire itself was contained in the bedroom and extinguished quickly by next-arriving crews. I began life-saving efforts on the kids as I was also a newly certified paramedic with three weeks of experience. I burned my fingertips performing CPR on the boy as my partner, another paramedic graduate with me, began ventilating his 2-year-old sister.
At this point, command was lost by me. Really, it had been lost as soon as the parking brake on the engine was set.
We transported to the hospital where the 3-year-old was pronounced dead. We air-lifted the sister to a trauma center where I’m happy to say she made a full recovery.
Growing from the experience
While this was a traumatic experience, it also must be understood – by me and everyone who could be in this position – that being in charge and being in command are not the same thing … and not to be taken lightly. When you’re in command, you must lead. I did not know how to do that and had never had any true formalized training in it. Anyone can occupy a seat and claim to be “in charge.” But to be in command, to issue orders and understand the fire, resources and incident priorities are entirely different concepts. If there is a silver lining to this terrible experience, it is that it drove me to dive deep into command, tactics and search – really all things fire related. I learned the importance of size-up, reading smoke, building construction, and how to rapidly process information.
Scene commanders must stay detached and maintain an adequate span of control with proper resources in reserve in order to stay ahead of the incident. Whether the incident is a structure fire, mass-casualty incident or significant vehicle crash, the IC has to stay back to see the bigger picture. I didn’t understand that concept; I was simply filling a seat. ICs must also receive progress reports in order to verify that the appropriate tactics are being employed for their overall strategy so that incident objectives are accomplished. Again, those were foreign concepts to me.
Now 17 years later, I work for a different organization and have been a promoted company officer for nearly 5 years. I have run some incidents and responded and commanded companies as a company officer and as a division supervisor numerous time. Many years of experience in busy departments will teach you a lot of things, but that second fire ever will always stay with me.
Improved training, better outcomes
In a very sad twist of fate, that fire was not the last time I pulled kids from a fire. Just last year, we responded to a fire in an apartment. Similar to that fire years ago, there was nothing showing on arrival; in fact, we would have driven past it had we not spotted a small wisp of smoke. People outside stated that nobody was home. I did not listen to them because my company and I preach an aggressive search culture. Instead, we gained access and began a primary search ahead of the hoseline in zero visibility. This time I scanned slowly with my TIC revealing a very cluttered apartment and a small fire off to my left.
My firefighter and I began searching for bedrooms. We knew the layout because we has taken the time to preplan the apartment layouts in this complex during EMS responses. We’ve even drilled on fires here because we’ve had fires in these buildings before. We found the rear bedroom, isolated the door, and ventilated the windows to create lift. I found a Pack ’n Play portable playpen. Immediately I began searching it and cleared it, just toys and stuffed animals. My firefighter searched the rest of the room and closets, all clear.
We moved back toward the front of the house and heard a woman screaming “my kids are in there!” We gained access to a second bedroom and located four kids ranging from 10-months-old to 8-years-old. We quickly extricated all four. I immediately radioed our IC about the four victims and requested additional resources.
We began EMS care in the front yard and passed care off to arriving ambulances and ALS care. I gave mouth to mouth to an infant until I could transfer care. Once that was done, I gathered my firefighter, and we finished the search. We confirmed the apartment was all clear, no fire extension.
We must take this job seriously, as it has very real and very deadly consequences if we don’t. Whether you are career or volunteer, promoted or not, if you call yourself a firefighter, prepare for a firefight. Expect fire and expect victims – this was a concept I had to learn the hard way. Scene commanders must command and lead the firefighters under their charge in order to maintain communication, orientation and situational awareness. Anything less than that is a failure of your abilities to command. So, do you think you are in charge, or rather, are you in command?