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FRI 2019 Quick Take: Initial incident command for special operations

10 response considerations for high-risk/low-frequency events


Photo/Janelle Foskett

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ATLANTA — You may have 10 years on the job but have never actually responded to an incident deemed a “special operations.” That’s why it’s imperative to study the critical differences and challenges in the initial phases of any special operations response for the first-arriving incident commander.

In his Fire-Rescue International session “Initial incident command for special operations,” Charles “Chuck” Ryan, assistant chief with the Fairfax County (Virginia) Fire & Rescue Department, tackled the response considerations for these high-risk/low-frequency events that can strain a department’s resources.

Memorable quotes

Ryan shared many notable tips related to incident command at special operations:

“Having a unified command with the right people who can get you the assets you need is critical. This can’t be an operation where fire stands there and says “We got this” – because we don’t.”

“[The urge to do something] is where our folks get in deep trouble. We see it with swiftwater rescues, especially in summertime storm season. We see a car in the water, and firefighters feel compelled to go into the water to do something. You as the IC gotta rein those horses in.”

“You can’t always see your personnel, which can be disquieting for the IC. They might be half a mile down the river. You need to work with your special ops folks to make sure they are painting a good picture for you so they can run the incident and not let the incident run you.”

“You need to know who is where and doing what at all times. Practicing your accountability system is key to this, so that if something goes south, you know what to do.”

“If you’re the IC, you don’t get a pass on [wearing proper PPE].”

“It’s not always easy to get the PIO there, but you want the messaging to be right. Unless you have been a PIO, you don’t really know what the messaging should be.”

Key takeaways

Ryan outlined several critical differences and challenges related to special operations responses:

1. Defining special operations responses – Ryan explained the types of responses that qualify as special operations, noting that it’s typically anything non-fire and non-EMS:

2. Unique factors – There are several factors that are unique to special operations responses:

  • Low frequency
  • High risk
  • Specialized resources
  • Lack of experience for ICs, who may have many years on the job before experiencing one of these events
  • Involvement of non-traditional partners
  • Unified command
  • Potential time delays
  • Longer term, sometimes “campaign” events
  • The urge to “do something!”
  • The “action” is often out of sight from the incident command post (ICP)

3. Command post considerations – Ryan delineated several factors to consider related to command post location and logistics:

  • Establish and announce the location
  • Try to get a view of the incident, but don’t let that be overriding factor; you can be away from the incident
  • Stay there! (Use a runner if you need.)
  • Establish unified command early
  • Appoint an aide/deputy
  • Insist on personnel accountability (early and accurate)

4. Command safety – Ryan also highlighted the command considerations related to safety:

  • Address immediate concerns (e.g., rescue) to take them off your place
  • Designate a safety officer early
  • Assistant safety officers should be knowledgeable of the specific incident risks
  • Isolate and deny entry/control access by civilians, other responders, media, chief officers, etc. Don’t let the problem get worse after we arrive!
  • Eliminate shock and vibration – request utility companies and shut down surrounding areas (highway, rail, construction site) as needed
  • Beware of overhead dangers
  • Weather forecast – be prepared and get regular updates as needed
  • Ensure anyone entering the operations area is using proper PPE for danger at hand

5. Resource needs and operations – There are a handful of resource-specific considerations for the IC:

  • Request specialized resources – consult with experts
  • Establish control zones (hot/warm/cold, Ops/CMD/Staging, etc.) and control access
  • Establish and enforce a staging area

6. From the seat of command – Ryan provided some additional basic initial steps for the IC:

  • Establish, prioritize and communicate clear SMART objectives to all responders
  • Use an appropriate command worksheet/board and a proper organizational chart
  • Develop an incident action plan (IAP)
  • Document everything
  • Build out the command structure (deputy IC, planning section chief, logistics section chief, liaison officer, PIO, technical specialists, and scribes/runners)

7. Command size-up – Ryan shared the key steps to conducting a size-up at a special operation incident:

  • Determine rescue vs. recovery – don’t commit people to action when there’s nothing to save
  • Ascertain/estimate the number of victims and their last reported location
  • Determine type of rescue – do you have the correct resources?
  • Ensure sufficient EMS transport capability – typically one unit for fire personnel and one for each potential viable victim
  • Identify and interview witnesses/information gathering
  • Assess resources needed – think long term (more than one operational period)
  • Obtain information to complete your IAP

8. Common incident support considerations – There are several other support factors that are sometimes overlooked in the process:

  • Apparatus needs (maintenance, fuel, etc.)
  • Scene lighting
  • Shelter for environmental concerns
  • Personnel rehabilitation/rest/work cycles
  • Food hydration, “comfort” issues
  • Support for yourself, your command staff and those supporting the operation (police, utilities, outside agencies, etc.)
  • SCBA cylinder refill
  • Compressed gases, mixed fuels, extra tools
  • Uniforms/PPE
  • Decon (gross, technical)
  • Mobile ICP or fixed facility (long term)

9. Special operations discipline tips – Ryan offered tips related to a handful of technical rescue disciplines:

  • Structural collapse: Ryan suggested getting a bird’s eye view of the scene. He also advised that buildings that have collapsed tend to keep moving, so it’s important to get a structural engineer to the scene.
  • Vehicle extrication with entrapment: Consider travel routes and apparatus placement, as well as whether you need heavy wreckers, cribbing or hazmat response.
  • Confined space: The biggest tip is to ensure that you don’t commit untrained personnel to the space, as there is a high risk of them becoming a victim. Also, OSHA will need to see confine space entry permits
  • Swiftwater: Ryan implored attendees to not let their personnel go near moving water wearing structural gear.

10. Incident termination – Ryan explained that incident wind-down can be one of the most dangerous times of the incident, as people let their guard down. The safeguards need to stay in place, he said. He added that the demobilization plan should actually begin well before the incident is terminated, and someone should be thinking about how the teams will begin to disentangle themselves from the incident, return units to service and get personnel back to a state of readiness.

Safety first

Ryan concluded by noting that these incidents have a high risk of injury or death to fire personnel, so it’s important to follow protocol. “Be patient. These things are going to take some time,” he said.

See more Fire-Rescue International 2019 coverage here.

Janelle Foskett is the editor-in-chief of, responsible for defining original editorial content, tracking industry trends, managing expert contributors and leading execution of special coverage efforts. She also serves as the co-host of FireRescue1’s Better Every Shift podcast. Foskett joined the Lexipol team in 2019 and has nearly 20 years of experience in fire service media and publishing. She has a bachelor’s degree in journalism from California Polytechnic State University in San Luis Obispo and a certificate in technical communications from the University of California, San Diego. Ask questions or submit ideas via email.