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The do’s and don’ts of commanding your first fire

What new incident commanders should and shouldn’t do before, during and after their first fire


Maintain a strong command presence throughout the incident, but also allow your members to do their job in the manner they know how.

Photos/Madison DelBello

Command post management is a critical skill for new officers. In a four-part video series, Fire Chief Marc Bashoor breaks down the LABOR acronym to help new officers bring calm to chaos. Watch the videos here.

Whether you’re a newly promoted chief or a company officer who will have to “ride-up” as a chief, the day will come – the day that you have to command your first fire.

Are you really ready? Are you comfortable with that idea?

Training to run the show

Only you know at the moment, but soon enough everyone else will know, too.
The ideal scenario would be to have all officers who could potentially command a fire receive some type of department or third-party certification or formal training prior to being placed in such a position. Sadly, this is not reality for the fire service. Complete the form on this page to download a copy of this guide for yourself or to give to the new commander in your department.

I know in my own department, more often than not, a newly promoted captain will often find him- or herself “riding-up” in the position of a district or battalion chief’s job for the day, many times on their first day of being promoted.

When we prepare for promotions, we study the books, watch the videos, listen to and watch our chiefs as they do their jobs. We study the guidelines and we take a test. This goes a long way in preparing us, but real experience will play the bigger factor in how comfortable we are in the incident commander (IC) position, and real experience takes time.

To help guide a company officer or newly promoted chief, I put together a few lists of do’s and don’ts for running incident command on your first fire.

Before the first fire: Steps for new command officers

  • Get your coffee first, and then share your expectations with your firefighters. Call the other stations in your district as well. A district meeting early in the shift will do wonders for eliminating any confusion later.
  • Expect a fire! If you’re “riding up” in a command position for the first time in your career, expect something to happen that will test your knowledge and ability to command an incident.
  • Find a pen and keep it on you. As a company officer, I rarely find the need to have a pen, but as a command officer, I need one regularly. A pen will always be needed for documentation, accountability and tracking crews on the fly, writing down names and numbers of building personnel.
  • Review any command worksheets that other chief officers use in the car. See if you like them and, if not, create your own. Keep it simple and become familiar with it.
  • Spend free time during the day to study guidelines. This is not a day you want to “take it easy.” If you are not busy learning about your firefighters’ abilities, spend time better understanding your guidelines and tactics.
  • Review your territory to understand its potential as well as what apparatus will be responding and are available.
  • Practice your size-up and radio reports in the privacy of your office. A strong command presence on the fireground goes a long way in maintaining control of the scene – and it starts with your size-up.
  • Question your firefighters on their job knowledge. This will give you a good idea of their abilities and understanding of the fireground. It will also allow you to feel more comfortable when giving high-risk orders.

At the first fire: Steps for new command officer on the fireground

  • Provide a good size-up and announce command, immediately followed with orders to the initial-incoming companies. Again, your command presence begins with your size-up.
  • Maintain a strong command presence throughout the incident, but also allow your members to do their job in the manner they know how. You must allow for knowledgeable officers to make decisions. You will want to share the success of the incident with your company officers.
  • Park out of the way of additional incoming apparatus. It’s not necessary for you to be in the front yard or have the perfect view. That’s what division officers are for.

Park out of the way of additional incoming apparatus. It’s not necessary for you to be in the front yard or have the perfect view. That’s what division officers are for.

  • Give orders, not directions. Don’t be the command officer who micromanages or gives step-by-step directions to individual companies. Tell them to vent and let them vent. Tell them to search and let them search. The only communications that should follow is the vent crew telling you that the assignment is complete and they are ready for reassignment.
  • Listen to your company officers and division officers, and take or use their information as a request or advice. This is where knowing your firefighters’ abilities comes into play. If you know they are aggressive and capable, yet restrained and mature enough to make smart decisions, it would be reasonable to go with what they are requesting or advising. If you do not know the crew or you know the crew is weak, you may want to take some precaution and get a second opinion from a division officer.
  • Use crews that are staged for Vent-Enter-Isolate-Search (VEIS). If an incident comes in with people trapped, use multiple crews to initiate VEIS. This can complement the interior search as well. The only crew that should be staged is your rapid-intervention team (RIT). And even they can assist in VEIS by softening the building. If crews are not needed for VEIS, assign them to a division officer. The division officer should always have relief crews or replacement crews staged in their division area.
  • Ventilate when conditions call for it. Ventilate to save the lives of the occupants. Ventilate to protect your crews and make their job safer. Do not be afraid to use vertical ventilation. Do not be afraid to use it often. Vertical ventilation with backdraft conditions is literally the only safe option in regards to ventilation.
  • Require a coordinated attack. Hold that first line until ventilation is near completion. Do not send your first line down the barrel of a loaded gun.
  • Request Conditions, Actions, Needs (CAN) reports frequently if conditions are bad or not improving. CAN reports should be requested from all divisions, interior attack, ventilation, search, etc.
  • Use aerial devices to the fullest potential. A firefighter at the tip ensures that water is always being applied directly on the fire. A firefighter on the tip is also the best set of eyes you have on the fireground. Finally, a firefighter on the tip can tell you if the roof is still intact and aerial operations are not called for at the time or an additional aerial would be required.
  • Assign division officers to additional incoming chiefs as soon as possible.
  • Use chief’s aides to provide additional 360 views and size-up later in the event.
  • Consider your firefighters’ needs during extended incidents. Hydration, food and shelter are basic needs of every human, including your firefighters.
  • Use the equipment you have on scene at your disposal – everything! Allow your firefighters to use everything they have at their disposal as well.

Don’t do this: New command officers should avoid these moves on their first fire

  • Don’t be timid. This can create an atmosphere where officers feel that they can walk around your orders or freelance.
  • Avoid being too restrictive. Give your orders, but allow the officers to do the work their way.
  • Do not move around. Stay at your command post until the incident is declared under control, then you can browse the scene.
  • Never yell. Never yell at the individual company officers. Never yell over the radio. Never show or display a loss of self-control.
  • Don’t assign the wrong crew to a high-risk task. If you happen to know your district or battalion’s abilities, utilize that to your advantage to ensure that the assignment gets accomplished. If you know you are dealing with a weak crew or a crew that rarely trains, do not assign them to search, ventilation or rescue in an extreme environment. Use crews that you know are capable of getting the job done.
  • Do not flow water onto intact roofs or into holes that burn through the roof. This does little in the way of extinguishment and only prolongs the inevitable complete loss.
  • Do not stage companies in or around the command post. Do not leave them staged in their apparatus either. Utilize them in a productive and proactive manner.
  • Do not change modes multiple times. This is a sure sign of a lack of confidence in yourself and your companies. Commit to an operation and go with it. Unless conditions are so extreme, when you choose an offensive mode, continue in that mode until your division officers advise otherwise. I have seen all too often where command officers are timid on the fireground. Switching from offensive to defensive modes three or four times on one incident will raise a red flag. Commit the crews and let them work. Listen to their reports. Let them tell you what the conditions truly are. This includes the use of division officers on the exterior.
  • Do not disregard additional companies or mutual-aid companies too early. Again, a large void space could be concealing a rather large and potentially explosive fire. Make sure your officers have confirmed the absence of such possibilities first.
  • If you have a three-alarm working fire, do not worry about stickers on a firefighter’s helmet or other trivial issues. This is a time to prioritize fireground tactics, not enforce a uniform or equipment guideline.
  • Do not get discouraged when things do not go well. This is, after all, your first fire. This is your wake up, your eye-opener. You just realized you have a long way to go and a lot of work to do with your crews. Understand and use this as a learning opportunity.

After the first fire: Know your role

  • Give credit where credit is due! There is nothing worse than a chief officer who feeds off the success of his officers and firefighters and then leaves them looking for crumbs.
  • If you have to give a post-incident interview, include all the typical interview information, but remember to note how well your firefighters performed.
  • Take the hit. When your firefighters screw up, that’s on you. Own it. However, you will need to correct it with training and disciplinary actions at times.

Expect a fire – and be ready!

As you can see, there is quite a lot to consider for a first fire. Be mindful that this is actually a short list of recommendations. There are many more that will come across the radio during your first fire. Some will be more important than others, but all will require some degree of attention, consideration and action on your part.

Come to work expecting fire. Do your best to prepare for fire. Prepare throughout your shift for fire. You have expectations of your companies. Your companies have expectations of you. And the people who called 911 have high expectations of everyone during the worst time of their lives.

A final note: Remember who you are and what your function is. You are a facilitator and an enabler. Your job is to give assignments. The individual companies make it all happen, not you. Remember that.

This article, originally published on May 1, 2020, has been updated.

Chris DelBello is a 31-year veteran of the fire service. He currently holds the rank of senior captain with the Houston Fire Department, working in the Midtown District. He is also the district training officer, which encompasses all the stations in downtown and midtown, and holds a Training Officer II certification. DelBello also serves as a captain with the Fort Bend County (Texas) Emergency Service District. Connect with DelBello via email.