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IC successes and failures in focus

Is your IC truly prepared, ready and able to execute on the fireground?


Photo/John Odegard

The incident commander is the crux of fireground leadership, and the “What Firefighters Want” survey provided considerable insight into what firefighters think about the incident commanders (ICs) at their fires.

Like almost every survey, there is a lot to unpack – enough info for another 20 articles beyond the ones contained in this edition. But the data is only valuable if we view, apply and use it in the context of our department, the fires it faces, and the results from both. That data needs context and additional enhancement in order to have the maximal utility. With that in mind, let’s unpack some of the high-level successes in IC actions, plus the trouble spots where we need more work.

The good news

It’s clear that there is a lot of good news displayed in the results.

360 size-ups: Many of you are (finally!) performing a 360 at fire incidents. In fact, 84% of respondents agrees that ICs ensure a 360 is complete – an overwhelmingly positive response.

The fireground strategic and tactical benefit of putting eyeballs on all four sides during your information-gathering/size-up phase is massive. Even without recounting the number of serious injury and line-of-duty deaths (LODDs) that have occurred because we failed to do a 360, we know that the “one lap” provides a perspective not available from the street. It also provides time to think, consider the conditions in the rear, understand access and terrain, and come off the last side with a solid plan.


Risks vs. benefits: That frequent 360 supports the results of the “IC’s carefully weigh tactical risks,” which pointed significantly to agree – 81% positive. We all hope/expect our IC to have their brains firmly engaged and deploy resources in an intelligent manner to meet the incident’s needs. Weighing risk against benefit, expected outcome and the current situation all factor into the decision calculation.

It should be noted that those tactical risks, and their outcomes, likely vary depending on the community and department. The decisions permitted in a compact community with a rapid effective response force arriving on scene is significantly different than a geographically large community with sparse resources. Said another way, if your full-alarm assignment, with adequate personnel on each apparatus and a reliable water supply, is on scene in a cascading 8/10/11 minutes, that permits a strong level of commitment to fireground actions in rapid succession. However, if the first unit arrives in 12 minutes, followed by another in 16, with maybe 8-12 members total, then your tactical risk and decision model is different. Make fireground decisions based on the reality of the circumstances of your today – the department you have, not the one you wish you had.


The decisions permitted in a compact community with a rapid effective response force arriving on scene is significantly different than a geographically large community with sparse resources.

Photo/John Odegard

Trouble spots

There are a handful of trouble spots in the results. The survey data points us to issues with following fireground command polices, using available technology, and having decent radio discipline. Each of these had a negative view by over half of the respondents. Why is this a problem?

Department policies: Breaking down the data, we see that 9% of respondents report ICs not following department policies for fireground command and another 13% without a strong opinion either way. That’s more than one-fifth of respondents who show some degree of negativity or question about an essential element of fireground behavior. After all, if the IC doesn’t follow the procedures applicable to them, how can they expect the members to follow the procedures that impact them?

Command tools: When it comes to reports of ICs using command technology, the results are primarily positive, but again, there’s still too many – nearly 40% – who indicate negative or neutral views.

The days of not using a tool to track personnel, function and actions have been over since the 1980s – or at least, they should be over. Standing in the front yard (turnout coat, uniform pants, parade hat, cigar firmly in your mouth) looking at the building and attempting to keep everything square in your mind may be someone’s romanticized version of an IC. And it might work if the fire building is the size of the average doghouse. Otherwise, you’re simply asking for trouble – and make no mistake, trouble will eventually show up on your fireground.

And let’s not overly complicate this. A tool could be as simple as a pencil and a lined pad of paper. (Chief John Tippett takes a deeper look at this topic in the article “Command tools: Getting the marbles back in the bag.”)

Radio discipline: “Strict” radio discipline certainly implies some level of judgment. Regardless, the issue prompts several questions:

  • Do we (you) even have a policy on fireground communications?
  • Do we script fireground messages (Conditions-Actions-Needs or something similar)?
  • Does everyone have a radio and every radio an identifier by company (Eng 2b) or function (Ladder 1 Irons)?
  • Is it a free-for-all on the radio? (Be honest now.) Not too long ago, I heard a fireground commander issue this order: “I want you to bring a line over here.” Now maybe the receiver of that direction had eyes on the IC and knew what line needed to go where, but likely not. Say what you mean, with brevity and clarity (no screamers, no speechmakers), and ensure the message is heard and understood.

Even for those who think they do a good job with radio communications, try this: Record all the fireground radio transmissions and then listen to them the day after. It’s possible (likely) that you will be shocked by what you don’t hear or don’t hear well, plus the messages that went unacknowledged or the ones where you really had no idea what they meant. This makes for a great learning (not judging) kitchen table training activity.


AARs: We hear you

While the data is essential, the anecdotal feedback is such a powerful complement. The survey asked, “What is the most important action incident commanders at your department could take to improve fireground operations?” Nearly all the survey respondents had something to offer that they feel would improve their department’s fire operations. However, the overwhelming and oft-repeated sentiment focused on AARs. There were different ways to say it, of course (hot wash, critique, AAR), but the theme was the same: Your members want to review what they did.

Here’s a snapshot of quotes:

  • “AARs after EVERY incident, shared with the troops; strong action taken when willfully negligent, derelict, or dangerous actions are taken.”
  • “AAR is a crucial step in changing the fire ground ops. Everyone has to know what went right/wrong to make the appropriate changes.”
  • “Honest AARs. Be blunt. Stop worrying about feelings and everyone needs to be OK with being vulnerable to their mistakes so we all collectively learn and improve.”
  • “An open 360-degree ‘tailboard talk’ after each incident with a follow-up AAR as needed.”
  • “After-action reviews to facilitate learning of less experienced members.”
  • “More after-action reviews, or if they do have them invite the volunteers more.”

There is tremendous learning value in an AAR. Today, we have younger members, officers and ICs – and fewer fires. We must take advantage of every fire call as an opportunity to both learn and teach. This means the ability to quickly review what we set out to do, what we did well, what we did less well, and what we’d do next time is critical. Do it before a single piece of hose gets picked up or ladder taken down. Huddle everyone in the street, and quickly walk through the decisions made, actions taken and lessons learned.

The IC should make some notes for more investigation/clarification later, and everyone should have the chance to contribute. At the same time this conversation is occurring, everyone should be handed a wipe or two so they can clean up hands/face/neck, then rehydrate and get ready to pick up and return to service. (I encourage you to read Captain Brad French’s article “After-action reviews: Because the ‘perfect fire’ doesn’t exist.”)

Make the effort

It isn’t easy being the IC. Done correctly, it never will be. Making decisions that impact others’ life, home, family, wellbeing while balancing those decisions on the backs of the members who have sworn to serve is intimidating, nerve-wracking, and should never be taken for granted or discharged in some mechanic or rote fashion.

Reducing the nerves, increasing the ability, and gaining confidence and competence in that role takes time, experience training and an honest look at your ability. We’ve offered some places to start that process and help you make the effort.

John Oates is the CEO of the International Public Safety Data Institute. Prior to being appointed as CEO, he served as chief of the East Hartford (Connecticut) Fire Department. He has a bachelor’s degree from Franklin Pierce University, a master’s degree from Oklahoma State University, is a graduate of the National Fire Academy Executive Fire Officer Program, and holds numerous professional certifications. Chief Oates is a longtime contributor to the NFFF’s Everyone Goes Home Program, and serves as a member of the Behavioral Health Advisory Committee created by the First Responder Center for Excellence, an NFFF affiliated organization. Oates serves as a member of the technical committees for NFPA 3000: Active Shooter/Hostile Event Response and NFPA 610: Guide for Emergency and Safety Operations at Motorsports Venues.