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The evolution of incident command: How technology transforms emergency response

How high-tech tools impact incident organization, safety, decision-making and data collection


Photo/John Odegard

Formalized in the 1970s and universalized following the tragic attacks of September 11, 2001, the practice of managing emergency incidents and making operational decisions can be traced back to the earliest civilizations’ efforts to combat fires.

Throughout history, an “incident commander” has borne the responsibility for overseeing the management of incidents, encompassing strategies, tactics and safety measures. Even in the elite Roman Corp of Vigiles, which boasted over 7,000 firefighters, a chain of command was established to ensure that someone took charge of every firefighting operation.

In more recent history, the concept of incident commanders (ICs) has been a cornerstone of the American fire service since its inception, with early incident commanders, often the fire chief, receiving information, making decisions, developing plans and issuing directions.

While the fundamental responsibilities of ICs have remained consistent, the methods used to execute these duties have evolved significantly over the years. These advancements have typically been driven by identifying flaws in emergency response and creating a better way of doing business. Consider the challenges early ICs faced when trying to relay messages and commands from outside a burning structure using only their voices. To address this need for more organized efforts and improved communication, chiefs began utilizing “speaking trumpets” or bugles to amplify their voices for effective coordination of firefighting efforts.

Today, both the technology available and the demands of the fireground have vastly changed. To equip ICs with the necessary tools to fulfill their responsibilities, it is imperative to explore all possible means of creating safer and more efficient emergency scenes. Most ICs would agree that managing a fireground today is more complex than in the past. However, with the right tools and technology, they can better grasp the multitude of activities occurring at an incident. When evaluating suitable technology for your department, it is crucial to consider several overarching operational areas: incident organization, safety, decision-making, data collection and the cutting-edge advancements that continue to shape firefighting.

Incident organization

The modern Incident Command System (ICS) we use today was conceived in the early 1970s after a series of devastating wildfires in California. The primary objective was to enhance the tracking and utilization of resources during these conflagrations. Initially, resource tracking was done using dry-erase boards, chalkboards or pen-and-paper methods. While functional, these methods struggled to keep pace with large-scale incidents and, as a result, new technology was sought to improve emergency response.

In the present day, several vendors offer mobile incident and tactical command software that can run on various electronic devices. These programs are typically customizable and provide numerous field applications for managing day-to-day incidents, planned events and preplan data organization. With just a click or touch, the IC can coordinate responding units, track progress against critical checklists, and timestamp every milestone throughout an incident. Additionally, they can quickly access and organize critical information for enhancing situational awareness, expediting incident response, and improving firefighter accountability. Most of these systems allow non-verbal communication among responding units and units already on the scene, such as identifying a staging area on a map, communicating this location with a text message to the responding units, and maintaining communications while reducing radio traffic.

Veterans returning from World War II replicated management tools they observed, including the use of a T-Card system to track and maintain the status of artillery. These T-Cards were eventually incorporated into ICS to aid the IC in maintaining accountability during emergency situations. The T-Cards are color-coded index cards representing different roles and resources that were manually moved across boards to indicate the location and status of personnel and equipment. This system was prone to human errors and often resulted in delays for updated information leading to potential miscommunication and inefficiencies in resource allocation. Moreover, the physical limitations of T-Cards made it challenging to maintain a real-time overview of the incident, especially in large-scale emergencies where numerous resources and personnel were involved. This archaic method lacked the flexibility and adaptability needed in rapidly changing and complex situations, hindering the overall effectiveness of incident management.

Until recently, ICs attempting to obtain a complete overview of an incident were mostly restricted to large-area operations and often involved expensive and risky use of aircraft. The evolution of drone capabilities has changed this, as drones can now be deployed in various situations, from single-family residential fires to large-scale mass-casualty incidents. These unmanned aircraft, equipped with cameras featuring thermal imaging technology, serve as scouts and can provide critical information to first responders. Drones also provide safer alternative tactics for ICs such as carrying safety lines and personal flotation devices to persons trapped in swiftwater incidents, completing high-definition 4K reconnaissance on a hazmat incident, and providing search assistance for a missing person. The opportunities for drone usage are still growing, with the possibility of drones eventually being dispatched simultaneously with emergency units to an incident to provide a pre-arrival picture of the conditions on the scene of the emergency.

An exciting development on the horizon is the use of robots for fire suppression. Robotic technology is rapidly advancing, and firefighting is no exception. Firefighting robots are designed to navigate hazardous environments and assist in extinguishing fires, particularly in situations where it may be too dangerous for human firefighters to enter. In addition to fire suppression, they can greatly assist the IC with situational awareness and intelligence gathering for developing strategy and tactics. Most robots are operated remotely offering a live video feed to a controller that can manipulate the device to traverse hazardous terrain and push obstacles from their path, all while withstanding extreme elements. This could play a vital role in enhancing the safety of emergency responders by gathering more information from areas unattainable to humans.

Firefighter safety

During any incident, the IC bears ultimate responsibility for the safety of personnel on the fireground. This responsibility becomes increasingly challenging in larger and more complex incidents. Emerging technological devices aim to provide support in creating the safest possible environment.

Advancements have been made in maintaining personnel accountability by traditional firefighter tracking systems, like accountability tags and passport systems, with the advent of GPS technology-integrated firefighter radio systems and SCBA. Lightweight ID tags attached to firefighters’ gear can pinpoint their exact locations, which is critical if a firefighter becomes trapped or injured, allowing for more effective rescue efforts and saving precious time. Currently, research is being conducted in the hopes of developing a tracking system like the Light Detection and Ranging (LIDAR) remote sensing method. This system would allow ICs a three-dimensional view of a building and allow them to track personnel in the building on the x and y axes.

Moreover, drones have been found to be useful in locating systems as well as live monitoring, locating and tracking personnel. In March 2017, the FDNY launched its first tethered drone in response to a fire in the Bronx. Drones from Los Angeles City Fire Department made their first official incident-based flight during the Skirball Fire in Bel Air in December 2017. Although costly, drones are quickly becoming a useful instrument for ICs to use for enhancing safety on the fireground. Some technologies even integrate with firefighter equipment to allow ICs to monitor factors such as air levels, thermal alarm settings and radio connectivity. These locator systems will continue to evolve and will be invaluable for incidents involving sprawling wildfires as well as structural firefighting.

In addition to personnel tracking, advanced biotelemetry offers greater operational awareness for the IC. Real-time data on firefighters’ vital signs, including heart rate, oxygen saturation and other medical information, are now available instantly. This information equips the IC with insight into an individual’s response to strenuous activity, helps to identify deficiencies in firefighter efforts, and quickly recognizes a potential medical emergency. However, it also raises concerns regarding personal medical privacy and the need for rational policies that are applicable to firefighters of all physical conditions.


Effective fireground decision-making is a fundamental skill that ICs must master to manage safe and efficient emergency incidents. The process involves rapidly acquiring information, assessing options, and providing direction to improve the situation while minimizing adverse outcomes. Technology provides various tools and solutions to assist ICs with making sound decisions in dynamic and stressful emergency environments.

Situational awareness is critical but often challenging to obtain. Many departments now employ various levels of Digital Mapping and Geographic Information Systems (GIS), providing crucial information such as incident location details, resource deployment, evacuation routes, and current infrastructure data. Live data feeds from sources like weather stations, traffic cameras, and sensors offer up-to-the-minute relevant information. Communication systems, including radios, VoIP phones and video conferencing, can seamlessly integrate with a command board, facilitating instant feedback. Mobile device integration allows smartphones and tablets to access incident data, share information, and provide alerts directly from the command board.

Artificial intelligence (AI) represents a breakthrough technology that will forever alter the way ICs acquire information, predict future outcomes, and use data for tactical and strategic decisions. Real-time analytics can collect vital fire data, such as temperature, fire development speed in the current environment, and the time available for firefighters to extinguish a fire before the risk of a flashover in efforts to provide tactical recommendations and predicted outcomes of decisions. These decision-making tools will continue to evolve, assisting the decision-making process, but they cannot fully replace the human element in the IC position. This role demands not only technical skills but also human judgment, adaptability, and the ability to manage complex and unpredictable situations.

Data collection

Data-driven decision-making (DDDM) employs pre-incident facts and metrics to guide strategic operational decisions. It relies on statistics and numerical data to create an objective decision-making process unaffected by external influences or emotions. According to a PwC survey of senior executives, highly data-driven organizations are three times more likely to report significant improvements in decision-making. However, as analytic methods become more sophisticated and data availability increases, ICs may struggle with decision-making due to information overload or making suboptimal decisions.

Recognizing this challenge, many fire departments are turning to data analytics to enhance their strategic decision-making processes. Despite this, most U.S. fire departments still lack ready access to the data and analytics technologies required for DDDM. According to a National Urban Security Technology Laboratory report, incident management software (IMS) is improving the ability to capture diverse, multilayered information essential for first responders and emergency managers. Efforts are also underway to develop interoperable fire information and analytics platforms, such as the National Emergency Response Information System (NERIS) in the United States and the National Fire Operations Reporting System (NFORS) by the International Public Safety Data Institute.

Final thoughts

Technology is reshaping the character of ICs in emergencies, providing them with vast datasets and the ability to issue more informed commands. While some of the technologies are still in the testing phase, their potential to positively impact fire and rescue operations is promising.

Today’s ICs have more information at their fingertips than ever before in our fire service history, and technological advancements are continuing to evolve every day. However, it’s essential to avoid overloading ICs with too many tasks, which could impede their ability to make critical decisions. A balanced approach is crucial, combining new technological advancements with established decision-making methods. Remember that these technological advances come with both immense potential and several challenges. We should remain cautious and strike a balance between embracing innovation and ensuring that technology augments, rather than hinders, the capabilities of ICs on the front lines of emergency response.

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Gary Krichbaum is the managing director for the National Fallen Firefighters Foundation (NFFF) and the deputy incident commander for the NFFF Memorial Weekend. He is a retired assistant fire chief from the Prince George’s County (Maryland) Fire/EMS Department. Krichbaum holds a master’s degree in emergency and disaster management and is a certified Chief Fire Officer from the Center for Public Safety Excellence

LeRoy Smith is the fire chief of the Holly Springs (N.C.) Fire Department. He is also the owner of Burning Edge Leadership Training and Consulting and a former member of the National Capital Region Incident Management Team. He holds a master’s degree in in organizational leadership from John’s Hopkins University and is certified as a Chief Fire Officer (CFO) from the Center for Public Safety Excellence.