Command, management and leadership: How they connect on the fireground

The relationship among these principles is vital for effective incident management


Commanders give orders, managers coordinate things, leaders help others achieve their maximum potential.

In Matthew Broom’s recent article “Making the case: Why a decentralized command structure is the answer for fire departments,” he outlined the advantages of decentralized command, a form of leadership, which, in its purest form, will produce perfection on the first responder battlefield.

Unfortunately, we don’t live in a pure and perfect world.

Most chiefs try to establish their incident command post where they’ll best be able to observe progress. Clearly, as incidents expand geographically, a logically located command post is much more important than its visibility at an individual location.
Most chiefs try to establish their incident command post where they’ll best be able to observe progress. Clearly, as incidents expand geographically, a logically located command post is much more important than its visibility at an individual location. (Photo/Marc Bashoor)

Effective and tenured chiefs understand that aspects of command, management and leadership (CML) will be necessary throughout their career. While the notion of decentralized command as a leadership principle of its own is noble, you will not always be able to use decentralized command in the emergency services field. It has been my experience that firefighters (like vested members of most professional groups) always believe they have a better way to “get it done.” Exploration, experimentation and innovation are hallmarks of successful growth development patterns and programs; however, the emergency scene will require use of all three of the principles of CML, principles that don’t necessarily allow for exploration and experimentation.

For example, apartment 3C in a burning residential building with people trapped may indeed be the place for innovation, but it is not the place for exploration and experimentation. There is a symbiotic relationship that must exist between the hot zone crews, division/group supervisors and the incident commander (IC). The IC has to trust their crews, and crews need to trust the IC. Broom talked about the “Commander’s Intent” (CI), which in the case I just described will be to make rescues and put the fire out. Based on their training and experience, those crews and supervisors will attempt to fulfil the CI, with or without very specific information from the IC.

The command timeout

If you have ever been in the position as an IC to pull firefighters out of a deteriorating burning building, you understand that there comes a point where the leadership exercised in the original Commander’s Intent is either no longer viable or has been achieved to a point that the isolated interior crews don’t understand.

That’s where command and management take over.

I can’t count how many times I’ve heard from an interior crew, “Interior to command, fire’s knocked, we’re checking for extension,” immediately followed by command saying something to the effect of, “Yeah, well, we have fire showing from the cockloft.” Now fire showing from the roof is NOT necessarily an immediate call for evacuation, but it is a sign that needs serious attention and consideration – again, not the place for experimentation. The radio exchange above is usually followed by, “Chief, gives us 20 seconds we’ll have it knocked,” followed by the evacuation order a minute later.

The fireground evacuation order is the quintessential football timeout – with one HUGE difference. In football, you call the timeout, all action stops (excepting a fight or two), and you go to a commercial break, returning to the same spot you were at two minutes earlier. On the fire scene, the action doesn’t stop; in fact, our evacuation tends to lead to deterioration. This is where the Commander’s Intent and the CML principles cross paths.

Division supervisors must ensure the evacuation order is carried out and accountability of people under their charge has been completed. The evacuation, however, should be much more than a pied-piper march. On their way out, crew can close doors, windows and pathways, which helps cut off flow paths and compartmentalizes the scene; they should be conducting visual searches during the entire evacuation and might be able to take pivotal extinguishment steps on their way out. NONE of those opportunities, however, changes the NEW Commander’s Intent (get out or to a specific location) without an express order from the IC allowing it. The IC, while trying to complete an evacuation and formulate a regroup strategy in their mind, cannot become distracted by opposing views and explorative ideas at the point the evacuation has already been ordered – the message is simply “get out, while taking steps I describe above on your way out.”

Command post management

It’s called the incident command post (ICP) for a reason; it’s the location where orders are given, information is taken, and coordination is conducted.

In a decentralized situation, the command post would be called the incident coordination post. In exceptionally well-oiled battalions (or whatever you call your local groups of stations), the incident coordination post might be possible; however, I’ll submit these are far fewer than most firefighters tend to believe.

ICPs (of the command variety) need to be visible, logically located and nimble. Most chiefs try to establish their ICP where they’ll best be able to observe progress. Clearly, as incidents expand geographically, a logically located command post is much more important than its visibility at an individual location. ICPs need to be nimble enough to move if deteriorating or otherwise changing conditions warrant the move.

Even though we have the National Incident Management System, the principles of ICP management are employed widely differently across the country and vary based on myriad factors:

  • Accessibility
  • Weather
  • Amount of staffing (the IC might not physically be able to stay out front)
  • The type of incident or hazards present
  • Law enforcement concerns

As an arriving crewmember or supervisor, have you ever arrived at a scene, requested direction and received no reply? Maybe the IC is busy, maybe they’re just not listening, maybe they’re running around like a chicken with their head cut-off. Whatever the issue, I suggest finding the command post instead of making the radio request. This keeps the radio clear for priority traffic and contributes to a calmer scene. If the IC has done their job well, they will have announced the establishment and location of the ICP, and you won’t have to guess where it is or look around for it.

Since most chiefs around the country do NOT have chief’s aides, I encourage chiefs and other commanders to create command groups as an institutional management component that include firefighters, drivers and lower-ranking officers. Recognizing that many of us do not have enough staffing, where it is feasible, the command group helps the IC manage the ICP. The ideal method to achieve this might be use of an uncommitted engine company or light-duty personnel. The key is empowering the people to learn and training them to fulfill the ICP tasks you’ll have.

Outside of typical NIMS nomenclature, and not necessarily meant to be inclusive, the command group might include individual assignments such as:

  • Dispatcher – the person who speaks for command and identifies on the radio as “command post”
  • Recorder – the person who writes down or captures information from the ICP assignments
  • Parliamentarian – the person who keeps other people out of the command box (see below)
  • Runner – that one person who you send on recon or message delivery missions

The 10 x 10 box

As a fairly new county emergency services director, I responded to a warehouse fire where I arrived on scene and asked the first unit I saw for the location of the command post. In the starry-eyed/glazed look that I saw, a finger pointed around the corner to another fire truck. I walked around the corner to be pointed clockwise around the building. Now I’d like to think this was a coordinated goose-chase I’d been sent on, but it was not. Not one of four people I asked had any idea where the command post was – because there wasn’t one. With at least seven units operating on the scene, the IC was on air deep inside the warehouse. As much as some of you might disagree, that cannot be acceptable under any circumstances.

I have long taught commanders to establish a proverbial 10 x 10 command box – and to stay there. As a young battalion chief, I bought my own collapsible cones and created an imaginary box that helped me focus. The command box might be the inside of the vehicle, although I personally found that the rear tailgate up was my most effective command box.

My self-diagnosed ADD and OCD has become a large part of my command success. Standing outside the buggy listening to and watching everything going on allows me to think and, at the same time, capture those odd sounds to which others seem to become desensitized: PASS devices sounding, the faint “mayday” on the radio, the creak from structural elements or, while looking around, the visual of “that guy” who always seems to show up, sending up a possible-arsonist flag.

The command box might also be at a fence rail out front, on a car hood in the driveway, or in a remote vehicle or secure location. The importance is that the box has been established, announced and remains accessible.

Establishment of your command box as I described above is a great example of Commander’s Intent, at the commander level. After all, we say, “Establish a command post”; we don’t say, “Establish a command post at the rear of a command vehicle with four cones deployed, wearing your vest, with a command group in place.” You’ll find what works best for you. The key is actually doing it, not just training on it.

The art of command, management and leadership

Command, management and leadership are not merely tasks. The art of CML shows up on the tapestry of not only your scenes, but also the overall performance of your department. The leadership you provide transcends every one of your members, paid, volunteer, fire, EMS. Whatever their form or function, they are a reflection of the artistic abilities who possess and demonstrate. The key to understanding the artistic balance of decentralized leadership and CML principles is that the artist has to allow other artists into the studio.

A final recommendation: Whether or not you like or appreciate it, you SHOULD be training your replacement. Take a look at your department, take a look at your scenes, use vehicle-mounted video for command posts, and video yourself during staff meetings. Is the picture you see the picture you would want on display in the studio walls of FireRescue1.com?

Editor’s Note: What’s your take on decentralized vs. centralized command? Share in the comments below.

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