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When things go sideways: How ICs can keep their cool on the incident scene

Simple steps to maintain composure when the scene is anything but routine


Whether the incident is “routine” or not, the IC is given the awesome responsibility of controlling the incident.

Photo/Vincent Bettinazzi

Routine is a funny word. It’s commonly used to describe our fire calls. “Bread and butter” is another term thrown around, especially during training sessions. And here I am now, travelling down the road in the battalion car, and I am overcome with the feeling that this one is going to be anything but routine.

It’s a two-story multi-family apartment building – wood-framed with eight units, four on the front and four in the rear. The two second-floor apartments are only accessible by a single center staircase. There is no access to the rear apartments unless you go to that side of the building.

I’m the first to arrive. Some incident commanders (ICs) probably prefer this – time to get eyes on the scene and set up their resources. I, however, do not. I like to have the rigs arrive first, take position and initiate action.

I’m directed in by bystanders, wildly waving to me like a third base coach giving me the green light to go home. I quickly find the fire apartment and back my vehicle into a nice spot to view the incident, but far enough away that the key players can file in for firefighting ops. I update the address and size-up the building over the TAC-channel – smoke showing from the second floor.

For what it’s worth, the Monday-morning quarterbacking that spotlights every single factor that should have been picked up or all those decisions that could have been made is a very real phenomenon. All you have to do to prove this is scroll through social media posts about specific incidents – you’ll quickly learn how the crews could have performed better. But put all that aside. The incident scene is not the time to think about what others will say or how they will judge. As an IC, you must find a way to keep yourself grounded, focused and rational; otherwise, it’s too easy for miscellaneous non-essential factors to influence your judgment or persuade you to give orders that aren’t aligned with normal operations. If I had thought about those Monday-morning quarterbacks or got caught up in the “what-ifs,” this fire could have sent me on an uncontrolled spiral of emotional unbalance. Here’s the rest of the story.

First, wrong address. Not a big deal in this circumstance, as the fire apartment was next to the entrance into the complex, but this detail always has the potential to significantly delay our operations.

Next, the first-due engine was out-of-pocket, traveling down to the training academy to conduct some reps with their probationary member. This resulted in the rescue company as the first suppression apparatus. Although they have preconnects and water, it is not routine for them to initiate fire attack, as primary search is considered their primary role. The driver quickly realized that his placement would be better suited somewhere else and repositioned after dropping off his officer and firefighter.

The second-due engine, unaware that the first was not on scene, stopped at the hydrant and informed me that they were going to initiate water supply. This is their normal job function on reported fires. I quipped back that they are the first engine here. I could feel the increased anxiety build in that officer and me when he responded back that he was positioning for fire attack.

Remember the size-up? Smoke showing on the second floor. I reinforced that when I radioed to the rescue to initiate primary search and that the fire appeared to be on the second floor. I watched the firefighter and officer from that company race up the stairs to the second floor. “Good,” I thought to myself. “I should get some information soon.”

Our safety officer positioned on the Charlie side and provided valuable intel to me. A good move considering the event as well as the potential for extension and rescue/evacuation for occupants.

The first truck split their company. The two assigned to outside vent quickly threw a ladder to the second-floor window at the apartment that looked to be the origin.

The first line was placed on the ground. The firefighter was a probie. First fire jitters seemingly resulted in a loss of situational awareness. All of a sudden, the fire vented from the first-floor apartment’s door and Alpha window. The fire quickly extended to the staircase, cutting off my rescue company on the floor above. Compound that with fire now impinging on the extension ladder thrown to the floor above. All access was cut-off.

Not routine at all.

Find a calming mentality

As a college athlete, I often found myself in positions of discomfort, especially during off-season conditioning. Somehow, I started coping through these moments by singing the ABCs to myself. This process had a calming effect on me. It allowed me to regain my focus and center my emotions within 30-seconds of song.

At the scene I described, I followed a similar approach, taking the time to evaluate conditions instead of immediately reacting in a state of panic. Something remarkable happened. Firefighters were firefighters, quickly taking action to suppress the flames within 15 seconds of the fire showing itself to us. I didn’t amp up the emotional tone by barking on the radio. Instead, I went to my mental place and evaluated. Of course, I didn’t just sit back and watch, hoping that good things happen. You are the command and control of the incident. Take the time to take in your chessboard before moving your pieces like a professional player. And find your method to achieve a calm mind, whether through a quick ABC or mantra or visualization technique.

What’s your system for tracking assignments?

Whether it’s a shift roster, white board or prepared checklist, you better have a way to track your resources. In times of chaos, having this command reference will be invaluable to you. This is one resource an IC can use to effectively manage and regain composure on the fireground.

Make sure it is accurate. Systematically work through this worksheet to ensure that companies are accounted for and tactical benchmarks are being achieved. Any time I encountered a challenge, I cross-reference my command sheet like an airline pilot conducting their pre-flight checklist (crew resource management anyone?). My attention would go to the items I may have missed early in the incident in an attempt to build a solid base for the incident to be successful.

Before taking command, know what’s going on

So often a chief will arrive on scene and immediately take command of the show. By doing so, you are taking responsibility of the incident. Hopefully, you have a good understanding of the actions that have been initiated prior to your arrival by on-scene units. Take the time to get a good pass-on from the officer before you. Use the information received to complete your tactical worksheet, predict needs, and develop your incident action plan to manage the incident.

When things go sideways, it is hard to get control of the proverbial snowball that may have started rolling down the hill without any clue where previous arriving units are operating or what they are even doing. This leads to stress, anxiety and rapid decision-making without facts that could have guided you.

Have a ‘think location’

You need to have a “think location.” A location that removes the IC from as much distraction as possible is a haven at times of increased stress or when critical command orders need to be divided among key players. The fireground is an immersive environment. Every little tug on your jacket and sidebar conversation initiated by a bystander or even a company officer can contribute to misses. Going to your quiet place, especially as you feel the anxiety creep in, is a smart way to stay focused and eliminate mistakes.

Final thoughts

Whether the incident is “routine” or not, the IC is given the awesome responsibility to control the incident. With this is the onset of elevated emotions and myriad distractions. Take the time to develop a good command system. Maintain accountability, and try your best to manage your emotions. Sometimes, I found it was harder to manage the stress than the people in your control. Hopefully, these pieces of advice will help you perform in that element.

Follow the SROVT principles – solid, realistic, ongoing, verifiable training – to develop strong incident commanders

Vince Bettinazzi joined the Myrtle Beach (S.C.) Fire Department in 2007. He currently holds the rank of battalion chief and is assigned as a shift commander on C-Shift. Bettinazzi is a member of the department’s Ocean Rescue Team as a certified USLA lifeguard. He completed the NFA’s Managing Officer Program in 2016, and recently obtained his Chief Fire Officer Designation from CPSE. Bettinazzi is a co-host on the “Beyond the Stretch” podcast.