Managing multiple crews: Knowing how to prioritize and deploy resources

Strategies the IC can employ to effectively coordinate resources and handle the growing list of tasks


By Nicol P. Juratovac

The great San Francisco 49ers football coach Bill Walsh once said about winning, “Strong leaders don’t plead with individuals to perform.”

This sums up the aggressive firefighting mindset that ultimately saves lives and translates to wins on the fireground. Winning on the fireground is when everyone goes home, lives are saved, property is conserved, and camaraderie is strengthened.

Units are deployed according to the priorities presented by the incident. Here, the first-in engine deploys their initial lead to the seat of the fire while the first and second in truck companies perform LOUVERS functions (Laddering, Overhaul, Utilities, Ventilation, Entry, Rescue, and Salvage). (Photos/Nicol Juratovac)
Units are deployed according to the priorities presented by the incident. Here, the first-in engine deploys their initial lead to the seat of the fire while the first and second in truck companies perform LOUVERS functions (Laddering, Overhaul, Utilities, Ventilation, Entry, Rescue, and Salvage). (Photos/Nicol Juratovac)

There is no question that firefighting is a team sport and winning is the goal. There is nothing we do completely alone in fighting a fire. Whether it is in football or in firefighting, on the field or on the fireground, there is a symbiotic relationship that any team must have in order to be successful – and win the battle.

IC strength and coordinated efforts

Whether the quarterback (company officer), coach (battalion chief) or manager (assistant/division chief), strong ICs need to be intelligently (versus arbitrarily) aggressive, knowledgeable (experienced, well-trained and educated) and decisive (trustworthy). They must be a student of the profession, possessing a working knowledge of current and existing building construction and fire behavior within such construction. They must also know the personnel who are working for them and effectively utilize them based on their capabilities.

While the company officer (quarterback) may direct and supervise one other company aside from their own, the battalion chief (coach) may be directing and supervising an engine and a truck company. The assistant/division chief (manager) would then be directing and supervising a full complement of a one-alarm response all the way up to a fifth alarm, for example. They would also be ultimately responsible for managing a large-scale incident involving a good section of the city, such as a major earthquake, hurricane, tornado, terrorist attack or explosion. Such large-scale incidents would involve some form of unified command involving multiple agencies and jurisdictions, for which they would have had extensive training.

We can all agree that the mission, drive and purpose of every firefighter is to save lives and protect the environment then property. In our effort to save lives, that also includes our own lives as firefighters and the lives of our fellow firefighters.

When managing multiple crews on the fireground, it is critical then that the IC knows how to prioritize and deploy their resources to achieve the mission and keep firefighters safe.

Resource availability

In order to be able to successfully manage multiple crews at an incident, the IC must first know what resources are available to them. Who is coming to the big dance? What units are expected on a first alarm? Second alarm? Fifth alarm?

What specialized resources or units are available within your fire department (e.g., Hazmat, Mobile Command, Canine, CO2)? Additionally, what resources are available by allied agencies, such as law enforcement, your local utility company for gas and electricity, water department, building inspection department, Environmental Protection Agency, etc.? If you don’t know what is available, you will not know to call for them when you need them most.

I have learned through experience that maintaining a cheat sheet of available resources is helpful, particularly specialized resources and resources available by allied agencies, as they are not everyday resources that one would call for. I have laminated some of these sheets and keep them in my turnout coat pocket. Memorizing them is better, particularly in an acronym format. This approach is also helpful in ensuring that critical functions get accomplished in intricate high-risk/low-frequency extended operations, such as a fire in our underground transit system or a high-rise fire.

This is not to say that I espouse “checkbox firefighting” where the IC simply refers to an itemized list of tactical objectives to accomplish our strategic goal. Rather, it is a guide so as not to forget a valuable resource or function that one could use as part of their arsenal.

“The Checklist Manifesto: How to Get Things Right” is a good read. Author Atu Gawande explores the use of checklists in the business world and the medical profession, examining how it could be used for greater efficiency, consistency and safety.

You cannot use on the fireground what is not available or at your disposal. Remember, you can always send resources home once you call for them and no longer need them. What you want to avoid is regretting not calling for them or calling for them later in an incident where you are now playing catch up. Don’t make the command post a lonely place!

Standard resource deployment

Once you have a solid grasp on the resources that are expected and available, the successful IC will prioritize and deploy them in an effective manner.

How these units are deployed depends on the complement of your first-alarm response companies. If you are in a typical major metropolitan fire department, you may get three engines, two trucks, a heavy rescue squad, two battalion chiefs, a division chief, a medic unit and a paramedic captain.

The priority of the first engine company will be to get water on the fire. That is music to a chief’s ear as they stand out in front and take command. The officer of the first-in engine will be responsible for rescue, limiting any exposure problems, locating the seat of the fire, confining the fire and extinguishing it.

They may then be directing and supervising the officer of the first-in truck company, the second-arriving unit, ensuring that they perform a primary search (for life and fire), ventilation (both horizontal and vertical), gaining entry so the engine crew can mount their interior offensive aggressive attack, and checking for extension (as part of fire attack and overhaul).

The first-in engine officer should strongly consider that the truck company splits its crew so that both vertical and horizontal ventilation is accomplished, particularly in a top-floor fire or fire in a balloon-framed structure. In some jurisdictions, it is standard operating procedure to have the first-in truck ladder the roof and deploy at least two firefighters to the roof regardless of the location of the fire. This is to allow that view from the roof perimeter of any signs of smoke, fire or life. The exception to this is if that first-in truck company is presented with an “all-in” rescue situation with multiple victims in need of rescue.

Ventilation is also a form of rescue in that the truck company must vertically ventilate a top-floor fire or a non-top-floor fire if faced with a balloon-framed construction building. Such ventilation must be timely, coordinated, safe and with discipline. Horizontal ventilation can be achieved by either the truck or engine company (provided that the engine company is equipped with a ceiling hook) when mounting an interior offensive attack inside, so long as ventilation is accomplished in the direction that the fire is being pushed (from the unburned to the burned).

If you are from a department that includes the response of a heavy rescue squad, its tactical objective may be to perform a primary search, searching for life and fire, freeing up the truck company inside to perform horizontal ventilation and overhaul. The luxury of have a heavy rescue squad on scene to perform a primary search also affords the luxury of the first-in truck company to dedicate its entire crew to the roof for vertical ventilation.

If there is an immediate rescue present upon the arrival of the first-in engine company, and they are the only unit on scene, their priority will be to effect the rescue, particularly if it presents a Vent, Enter, Isolate, Search (VEIS) situation. A top-notch engine company may be able to effect both the rescue and getting water on the fire. After all, while two firefighters (one of whom can be the driver) throw the ladder to the window, the other firefighter can deploy the initial hoseline and mount an interior offensive attack with the assistance of the officer. This is assuming that this is an engine company consisting of one officer and three firefighters and in a jurisdiction that has a truck company eventually responding with the engine company. If the truck company gets on scene at the same time as the engine company, they can certainly handle VEIS while the engine company focuses on getting water on the fire. Remember, fire extinguishment is a form of rescue.

The IC must ensure that a protection line gets deployed to protect the VEIS rescue, even as a precaution, as things have been known to go sideways with fire behavior as the VEIS window gets opened while the front door also gets opened for fire attack. Flow path must be considered in this type of high-risk operation. Striking a second alarm is also a consideration for the IC.

If you are in a jurisdiction where you must do more with less, a combination of these tactical objectives may be employed depending on the situation.

The first-in battalion chief can ensure that the first-in engine and truck are performing their tactical objectives driven by incident priorities. They will direct and supervise the officers of each of these units, asking for and receiving frequent Location, Conditions, Actions and Needs (L-CAN) reports. The battalion chief will also ensure that they name Command, announce the location of the command post, and identify that they are in command. Remember, the IC is there to support the existing operation that is taking place prior to their arrival, and to enhance the mitigation of this incident by placing units in tactically advantageous positions.

Once the division chief arrives on scene, this battalion chief should be prepared to relay where companies are operating (accountability), what hoselines are working and operational, the mode of operation (offensive or defensive) and the status of search. Once this is achieved, the division chief can then announce this transfer of command and assign the battalion chief as Fire Attack. Subsequent division and/or group supervisor positions may include Roof Division, Exposure(s) Division, Safety Officer, etc.

It is critical that the division chief, who is now the IC, assigns all units with the “Big 3”:

  1. Tactical objective;
  2. Location where they will be operating; and
  3. Who they will be working for.
The effective IC establishes a visible and accessible Command Post where companies can check-in to receive the “Big 3”: Their task, where they work, and who they work for.
The effective IC establishes a visible and accessible Command Post where companies can check-in to receive the “Big 3”: Their task, where they work, and who they work for.

The Big 3 is critical as the incident progresses and the Incident Command System expands as the incident grows. If an engine or truck company checks in and they are not told the Big 3 by the IC, a company officer who has their head in the game will ensure that they get this information before they enter the fire building. This will enhance accountability and safety on the fireground and reduce freelancing.

A note about command: There may be some deviation to the aforementioned approach if the officer of the second-arriving unit out-ranks the officer of the first-arriving unit, or if the officer of the first-arriving unit transfers command to the officer of the second-arriving unit. Either way, someone is in charge. The converse is applicable where the officer of the truck company is the first-arriving unit at which point they are directing and supervising the engine company officer, ordering the engine crew to mount an offensive fire attack by leading a line to the seat of the fire.

Preventing extension and other tasks

When the incident remains at a first alarm, the IC must anticipate where this fire is going and do everything within their power to stop its travel. Hence, consideration must be made to get a hoseline to the floor above where firefighters are operating to stop fire extension.

In many dense cities, priority may be to stop extension in an exposure building so a hoseline must be deployed there. This is typically achieved by assigning this task to the second-in engine. They may also be requested to deploy a backup line to the first-in engine depending on the need to protect their means of egress and the integrity of the corridor/hallway.

The IC can also utilize the second-in truck company, not only to perform tasks not fulfilled by the first-in truck, but also to secure a second means of egress for firefighters operating on the roof, check exposure buildings for fire extension, check the basement, etc. The last thing anyone wants to discover is what they thought was a first-floor fire is really a below-grade fire. In the San Francisco Fire Department, the last three line-of-duty deaths (LODDs) we experienced were at below-grade fires.

Here, the aggressive engine company is mounting an offensive interior attack in the living area of this residential structure.
Here, the aggressive engine company is mounting an offensive interior attack in the living area of this residential structure.

Ideally, it would be the job of the officer of the first-in unit to verify that we do not have a below-grade fire, but this is not always possible given the circumstances, particularly if there is a known, viable and immediate rescue of a victim in an upper-floor window.

The second-in truck company can also be assigned to open the garage door, something that may not have been accomplished by the first-arriving units. This must be performed with caution and discipline, as it may reveal fire in that area (many garages in San Francisco have residential units added on) and/or affect the flow path, endangering crew who are operating inside the structure. Hence, this must be performed with maintaining the integrity of that garage door.

Striking additional alarms

If the IC strikes a second alarm, it is essentially a “do-over” and, in some jurisdictions, will duplicate the complement of the first alarm.

If you are with a major metropolitan fire department, a third alarm could generate an additional four engines, a truck and a battalion chief. Fourth and Fifth would generate the same as the third alarm.

10 sides of a box

A good rule of thumb is for the IC to view a structure fire as one big box. The objective is to keep the fire to that box. Whether that box is your typical room-and-contents fire or a major conflagration consisting of four blocks of buildings own fire, your job is to flank that fire and prevent it from spreading to even a bigger box.

In viewing that box, the IC can further view a fire to have 10 “sides” and how they must ensure that all 10 sides of a building are addressed at every working fire:

  1. Fire room
  2. Fire floor
  3. Floor above
  4. Floor below
  5. Roof
  6. Alpha side
  7. Bravo side
  8. Charlie side
  9. Delta side
  10. Basement

ICs have terminated incidents only to return for a rekindle or a victim because one or more of these sides were left unchecked.

Get the win

Much of the prioritization and deployment of assigning units may be viewed as mental gymnastics. And while we talk about firefighting as a team sport, what we do is not a game. What we do deals with life and death, so we must come to every incident fully prepared. We can always be “ready,” but to be truly prepared is to be armed and equipped for a ferocious firefight to get the big win, every time.

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