The fireground disconnect: Where the IC and company officer miss each other

It’s vital that the IC and the company officer share a knowledge of tactics, plus each other’s abilities and training level

There often seems to be a huge disconnect on the fireground, specifically related to the tactics employed, and more specifically, the time between when an order is given and the task is completed, not completed or completed incorrectly. I see it in small organizations, and I see it in large organizations – it happens everywhere.

Does anyone else see it? If they see it, why hasn’t something been done to correct it? Is there anything that can be done about it? Do you know what I am referring to?

The fireground disconnect is a result of the incident commander (IC) and the company officer not sharing the same terminology, knowledge of current or new tactics, and knowledge of each other’s abilities or training level.

The fireground disconnect is a result of the incident commander (IC) and the company officer not sharing the same terminology, knowledge of current or new tactics, and knowledge of each other’s abilities or training level.
The fireground disconnect is a result of the incident commander (IC) and the company officer not sharing the same terminology, knowledge of current or new tactics, and knowledge of each other’s abilities or training level. (Photo/Spokane Fire Department Media Services)

The incident commander: Ultimate responsibility

I’m not trying to step on feelings here. This is simply an observation from a firefighter with 33 years of observing multiple ICs from multiple organizations. In no way should my statements here be misconstrued as an attack or disrespectful to commanding officers, only an eye-opener (hopefully) to those who do not see the disconnection between giving orders and expecting those orders to be completed in a proper and timely manner.

The bottom line: It all starts with the IC.

Why do I take this position? Because I’ve witnessed so many times, and still continue to see it today, the difference between an IC who knows their crew’s training and capabilities and an IC who assumes way too much or way too little of their crews. I’ve witnessed an IC have all the faith in a single company while knowing the others on the fireground would fumble, and I’ve also witnessed ICs hold back a good crew that could have made all the difference on the fireground because they felt compelled to micromanage the incident.

This is where the disconnect on the fireground exists.

This is why we see some fire scenes progress flawlessly, seemingly anti-climactic, in some districts but result in complete embarrassment and near total failure in other districts. Sure, there are always those fires that were a losing battle before we ever arrived, but how many times have communications, misunderstanding, underappreciated crews or even over-confidence of a crew’s abilities by the IC made things worse after we arrived?

When it comes to the officers who could serve as ICs, it’s the district chiefs, battalion chiefs or shift commanders who have done little to stay up on new terminology or tactics and know little about the crews they are working with who cause the fireground disconnect. And don’t get me wrong, company officers have a fair amount of blame to share. But I’m referring to ultimate responsibility here.

How can you give a company an order if you don’t know their abilities or weaknesses? It is a huge risk to make assumptions about a crew’s abilities.

I once watched after a ladder company was given an order to go to the roof of a two-story house with active fire in the attic. I watched the ladder company fumble around with the ground ladder, eventually make it to the roof, and then watched in complete shock and embarrassment as the officer sounded the roof with his 10.5-inch boots, literally stomping on the roof to check it for weakness. In whose world is this OK? How can that IC send a crew like that to the roof? Maybe because they didn’t know the crew’s abilities. 

How can an IC order a company to initiate vent-enter-search when they don’t know if that crew has a complete understanding of how to perform such a tactic?

How can an IC order a crew to the third floor to initiate attack when they know that the company officer rarely trains with their crews and struggles on single-story occupancies? Is the IC hoping the company officer gets it right on the third floor? Is a third-story fire somehow magically less complicated than a single-story?

That leads me to wonder, if the IC knows that they are dealing with a weak crew, why even gamble with assigning critical fireground tasks to them at all? If not the first-arriving company and if staffing and response numbers allow for it, maybe it’s time to put them back in service, send them back to the station and request an additional company to replace them? I have seen it done on rare occasions. Maybe it should happen more often – of course only when it would not jeopardize the response. It certainly sends a message. Let the officer and crew think on it for a while, realizing that they need to get it together to be useful on the fire scene.

How to reconnect

So, how can we do it? How can we fix the disconnect?

Simply sitting in an office, giving a speech at the breakfast table, pounding a fist on the table at dinner or sending emails telling your district members to train more will likely only lead to disappointment. I promise it will not lead to any real change in their performance on the fireground or repair the disconnect.

DCs, BCs and shift commanders should, at the least, watch their crews train. This will give the IC some idea of the caliber and abilities of their crews. The more the IC watches their crews train, the more confident the decisions and choices the IC makes on the fireground become. Training with and observing companies train not only give the potential IC a good idea of a crew’s abilities, it also gives the IC an idea of any reflex times associated with orders. This will help on scene with limiting any confusion and unnecessary radio traffic.

The reconnect can only happen when everyone knows everyone else’s abilities, weaknesses, determination, heart and have earned or instilled trust in each other. The reconnect can only happen when an IC trains with, understands and listens to their crews instead of giving textbook, hardline guidelines or check-box command functions on the regular.

Allowing the crews that you are confident in to perform tactics they suggest on the fly is one of the most effective ways to enhance fireground efficiency and overall results. However, the IC must have the confidence in those crews and not be so hard-lined or insist on micromanaging the fireground. After all, why send two, three or four crews to perform a task when you know one good crew is all that is needed?

Further, buy-in from the command officer regarding changing tactics is essential and required to improve fireground operations. Without buy-in from the command officer, nothing will change and nothing will improve. Sometimes this may take a little pushback from company officers who realize that there is a disconnect with the IC whom they work with on a regular basis.

What about accountability? Yes, accountability with company officers plays a role. However, how will the DC, BC, shift commander who will be the IC know anything about the crews to whom he will be giving orders to unless they actively watch or train with the crews?

Confidence and trust in a crew’s abilities must be earned, just like respect. Respect for the IC will be enhanced when the disconnect on the fireground is repaired and operations are almost predictable.

Get out and train together!

Editor’s note: How do you see the IC/company officer disconnect play out on the fireground. Share your stories – or tips for minimizing the disconnect – in the comments below.

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