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Command training: Simple tips for new incident commanders

From windshield box alarms to command post practice, these drills solidify your command skills


Photos/Madison DelBello

The 2024 Firefighter Safety Standdown, June 16 to June 22, challenges us to recommit to training, with a focus on a return to the basics. If command officers have not already taken the opportunity, many of us could benefit from a return to basics on command and control as well. There are a lot of high-tech capabilities out there, but that doesn’t mean command and control has to be rocket science.

When it comes to fireground command, it is important to look at the formal programs and processes all incident commanders (ICs) should master. The NFPA standards provide what is essentially a syllabus that the PRO Board certification process uses. There are many programs to help get you there – the Pro Board Fire Officer 1 and 2 are great places to start. Fire Officer 3 and 4 providing a little more complex decision-making skills development. And the CPSE credentialing processes provide an even more rigorous and complex opportunity for maintaining your skills.

Windshield box alarm

Have you ever been sitting at a stop light, pondering the day and just waiting for the light to turn? Sure you have. There’s a better way to use this time. Instead of staring off into space, practice keeping something from burning down, metaphorically speaking, of course. In short, select a structure in your line of sight and practice your IC skills.

Most stop lights follow a 15 to 45 second cycle (and yes, others much longer – that’s OK for this). Let’s assume you’ve got 30 seconds to think through the dispatch assignment. What are the strengths or weaknesses of that dispatch? Or use those 30 seconds to give your initial size-up radio return as though you have just arrived at the scene of a reported building fire (the structure you can see through your windshield). If you’re by yourself, verbalize the return in the same calm intensity that you would strive for under REAL conditions. If you’re with a crew, engage the members in the size-up, and talk in terms of “what-ifs.” When you’re doing this, make sure you’re thinking about ALL the contingencies – life safety, water supply, building protective systems, etc.

To avoid becoming a distracted driver, make sure you’re looking straight ahead and simultaneously paying attention to the stop light. And keep in mind that you can accomplish the same windshield size-up without stop lights; just make sure you pull over to a safe spot off the roadway and talk yourself through the call in the same way.

Work your command post

After you’ve practiced a few windshield box alarms, find some time to pull into the parking lot and “work your command post.” When I did this over the years, certain buildings became my go-to windshield box alarm locations where I would later return to set up a faux command post. Over time, the windshield box alarms on the same building would accumulate to units operating in the building with rescues being made, and eventually to a mayday being called. Any of these scenarios will require you to keep a calm and methodical posture.

In the Command Post Management for New Officers video series, which you can find at the Fire Command Ready resource center, I walk through a few of these discussions. The one tip from the videos that has helped many newer chief officers is to establish your “10x10 box” with cones, your vehicle or whatever you have to establish this space. The IC (and an assistant if available) should be the only people allowed in the 10x10 box, giving the IC time to observe, orient, decide and act (the OODA Loop).

I have used many methods to establish a command post and prefer the rear-of-vehicle (think flip-up tailgate) command posts. As I trained myself, I started with four collapsable cones that I would place to the rear of the vehicle – this became my “office” on many a fire. Over time, crews knew what the cones meant, and I’d see people standing right at the edge, outside the cones, instead of crowding the command post functional area. If we needed to talk, I’d come to the edge and talk. The same 10x10 principle can be implemented when you need to set up in a yard, a lobby or in any place remote from a vehicle.

Many people like to sit in a vehicle while running their command posts. This option can keep about four people out of the weather and in a position to close the windows to keep out the noise. On the flip side, it’s not always advantageous to block out all the noise. I preferred to hear all those noises – anything from PASS devices sounding to structural component failures, even someone screaming. Of course, there are times when the vehicle works best, and I did occasionally use that option.

Stay in your box

Once a functioning command post has been established, it is important for the IC to remain there; however, it is also important that the command post can be quickly repositioned, should changing conditions dictate the need. A roving IC, or one operating in the hot zone, will be an IC with too many distractions. Except for that initial-arriving officer establishing “tactical command” (taking a forward operating position as part of a crew), the IC should remain at the command post, which should be at/near the edge of the warm and cold zone.

Finally, it is important to recognize that “chief” is just a title. “Command” is a function that can be carried out by any rank, despite some departments’ insistence that the battalion chief is in-charge, whether they’re on the scene or not.

Final tips for new ICs

There’s a lot to unpack here, but I offer you these three closing thoughts on the topic:

1. Be present: An IC must be ON SCENE to have a full view of the scope of an incident. I submit that departments that continue to allow a chief to assume command of an incident while that chief is still responding to a scene are compromising their firefighters’ safety. Yes, area command requires multiple incident command posts to operate under one IC who can’t possibly be at all scenes at the same time; however, someone on scene must still be in charge of what’s happening on that scene. Much to the chagrin of some, Emergency Operations Centers are not where a singular command function can be effectively run. EOCs are coordination points, not scene commander seats.

2. Capture your information: No matter how intelligent you are, no matter how many titles/initials you have after your name, no matter how long you’ve been a member, you won’t be able to remember everything. Capture that information somewhere, whether you have to write it down or use an electronic solution. Not only does your brain only have so much bandwidth, but studies show that our brains simply do not process information as well when the stuff hits the fan. Documenting scene information helps provide a verifiable tool for transfer of command, and serves as backup for both AARs and potential legal processes later. [Download a simple incident command worksheet here.]

3. Bring calm to chaos: Distilling all things down, you have but one job as an IC – bring calm to the chaos. This begins with training and can be maintained through continuous practice (think windshield box alarms).

Recognizing that any rank may be responsible to establish command, these principles should apply to all of us, regardless of rank. That said, remember that CHAOS cannot mean Chief Has Arrived On Scene! Be present, be calm, be strong – we’ll all get through this together!

Video: Command post management for new officers

Chief Marc S. Bashoor joined the Lexipol team in 2018, serving as the FireRescue1 and Fire Chief executive editor and a member of the Editorial Advisory Board. With 40 years in emergency services, Chief Bashoor previously served as public safety director in Highlands County, Florida; as chief of the Prince George’s County (Maryland) Fire/EMS Department; and as emergency manager in Mineral County, West Virginia. Chief Bashoor assisted the NFPA with fire service missions in Brazil and China, and has presented at many industry conferences and trade shows. He has contributed to several industry publications. He is a National Pro-board certified Fire Officer IV, Fire Instructor III and Fire Instructor. Connect with Chief Bashoor at on Twitter, Facebook or LinkedIn. Do you have a leadership tip or incident you’d like to discuss? Send the chief an email.