There is no ‘I’ in command: The impact of multiple officers on scene

Now is the time for us to start thinking of command as a multi-person staffed function, just like we staff our other units


An oft-quoted proverb says, “If you want to fast, go alone. If you want to go far, go together.”

When it comes to the command function, the 2,457 respondents to FireRescue1’s What Firefighters Want: Fireground Leadership survey overwhelmingly lean toward command operating from a team posture as better than going it alone.

Now is the time for us to start thinking of command, including the command post, as a multi-person staffed function, just like we staff our other units.
Now is the time for us to start thinking of command, including the command post, as a multi-person staffed function, just like we staff our other units. (Photo/FDNY)

A disadvantage from the outset

The fireground – and for that matter any highly charged, sensory-overload incident scene – places the command officer at a disadvantage from the outset, no matter their order of arrival:

  • The first-arriving IC is outnumbered and threatened by an overabundance of sensory insults.
  • The command-level IC is either arriving in the “middle of the movie,” where even the best of operations still requires some sorting out for clarity or, on some occasions, arriving before any of the companies.

Both situations are initially lonely but cacophonous environments with unanswered questions and high levels of uncertainty. At least the “middle of the movie” scenario typically provides the IC with resources immediately at hand to make things better, even if it means an extra minute or two to get the cacophony into a harmony. In the first-arriving solo scenario, ICs, programmed to orchestrate but having no band to direct, can be drawn into a highly frustrated mindset due to the lack of resources available while the incident continues to evolve. While some ICs prefer to be the first on scene, citing the ability to control the resources coming in from the very beginning, others reported feeling so helpless watching the incident unfold that they wished they had been held up in traffic until at least the first company arrived.

No matter which scenario from which the IC’s brain is initiating the incident-control process, the command function is more effective when a team approach is pursued and embraced. “A one-firefighter [engine, truck, squad, ambulance] company is the most effective way to deliver service,” said no one, but command vehicles often roll with a single occupant.

Now is the time for us to start thinking of command, including the command post, as a multi-person staffed function, just like we staff our other units.

Survey respondents support the team approach, with 78% strongly agreeing or generally agreeing that additional officers on scene help support the incident. The survey did not specify where the additional officers would be assigned, but we already know that operational efficiency is enhanced when group and division supervisors are assigned with command-level officers. These positions allow for divisions of labor that use resources more effectively and allow a company officer to return to the tactical/task level they are best trained to handle.

Let’s focus here on how the team concept in the command post can support bringing the incident to a more rapid conclusion, keep firefighters in a risk-dominant posture as they execute the IC’s strategy, and reduce the amount of stress facing an IC operating alone.

Error management

Assume for the moment that you are the first-arriving command officer at a working structure fire with people reported trapped. Your department has well-established SOPs/SOGs, and all companies are either actively engaging, arriving on scene, or still enroute.

Those SOPs/SOGs provide a framework for operation, but they are written with some assumptions in mind:

  • Everyone on the response knows them.
  • Everyone on the response will operate within the outlined parameters.
  • Everyone interprets the various duties identically.
  • Every unit arrives on scene in a timely manner to engage.

That is a lot of “everys.”

We should know by now that humans are fallible. In fact, the whole reason we are on the scene of any incident is likely due to an error committed by a human, and such errors increase as stressors increase.

This increase in error probability and effects of stress are two compelling reasons to staff the command post with an IC, a partner to handle accountability, plus a senior advisor who sits in the back of the command post to keep a more “global eye” on the incident. When levels of redundancy are introduced at the command level, fewer errors occur, minimizing the chaos.

Think about your experience as a company officer for a minute. How many times did you roll out as an “officer only” unit? Each engine, truck, squad, etc., you’ve ridden needed a driver and functioned better with at least one firefighter. Without a driver, you could sit on the right side of the rig and blow the siren until it burned out and make all the radio transmissions about what you were going to do, but the rig would still sit in the engine room, totally ineffective. You and the driver formed a team to get the piece to the scene, conversing about running routes, hydrant locations, on-scene positioning, etc. Even tankers (or tenders, depending on your side of the Mississippi River) operate more efficiently with more than one person in the cab. The experience accumulated from every run with a capable driver enhanced the operational efficiency in the front of the cab and the unit, so why not apply the same logic and lessons to the command post?

Command team concept support and application

The fire service places great weight on experience – and interpreting the survey through the eye of experience bears this out. Nearly 51% of the respondents believed additional officers did not create confusion, and just over 64% believed additional officers adhered to policies and SOGs about their role on the scene. That conscious observation or participation in events (aka experience) is a powerful teacher, especially when the individual immersed in the experience processes the lessons in a way that can be applied for success in the future.

The respondents’ answers suggest that their experience has been more favorable with additional officers than without. So, let’s start building our command posts with the lessons of our experience as company officers in the front of the cab, and capitalize on the opinions from the survey that concur that additional officers overall enhance command.

Increasing segments of the American fire service have been using or are exploring and implementing command team programs that:

  • Assess, quantify and expand the practical application of accumulated experience;
  • Engage in realistic simulated training using the command team model to develop capable ICs who support each other in the command post; and
  • Embrace the research of Lt. Col. John Boyd, CFO Sabrina Cohen-Hatton, Chief Richard Gasaway, Dr. Robert Helmreich, Dr. Gary Klein and others who have studied operating under stress – people who have concluded that decision-making is enhanced through understanding how the brain operates under stress, repetition in controlled environments enhances critical thinking, and maximizing resources by adding at least one additional command officer in the command post enhances the command function.

Individuals who support the command team concept recognize the positive results of investing in thought-process development for commanding under stress. They pursue integrated critical decision-making with team operations using the same energy as teaching the mechanics of selecting strategies and using a tactical worksheet. Incorporating the writings of Boyd, Cohen-Hatton, Gasaway, Helmreich and Klein provides the ICs (both incumbent and newly minted) with a strong basis for introspective thought process improvement and enhanced operational efficiency. Each of the author’s research and published works complement the others’ as they introduce ICs to the value of individual self-awareness and functioning as a team.

Key directives among their tenets:

  • Stay in touch with what your gut is telling you;
  • Constantly visit your orientation to the incident (i.e., does your perception equal reality?);
  • Operate as a team in order to serve everyone better than going it alone; and
  • Trust that having a second set of capable senses will help restore order and keep their charges safe.

Even the command process on a small one-story, single-family dwelling fire functions more efficiently when there are at least two people in the command post focusing on the functions of command. One of the team operates as the IC, the second maintains scene accountability and monitors the progress of the action plan. Simply put, four eyes see more than two, two sets of ears hear more than one, two brains are better at sorting through the tsunami of information pouring into the command post, and so on. Add a senior advisor, supporting and mentoring the front seat operations, and the team is at peak performance.

The FireRescue1 survey suggests what every department in America should strive for: command competency. Rather than leave the command process to chance, we should heed the wisdom of others who have studied the human response to stress in-depth.

Reform the command post

If we truly seek to dominate the risk factors that kill and injure firefighters, then the command post needs to be staffed as rapidly as possible with at least one additional capable member who can help bring the incident to a conclusion where the onlookers are impressed, the engaged crews operate with intent and are protected, and the commanders are at ease due to their command preparedness. We owe that to the people we serve, the members and families who entrust us with their lives, and the highest traditions of the fire service. 

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