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Taking Command

There are many things that can negatively impact an emergency incident: lack of communication, disregard of SOP’s, poor tactical decisions, and lack of command, just to name a few. In this article I will focus on the command aspect. A strong command presence can overcome most issues that arise on an emergency incident. Most think that command starts once a chief officer arrives on the scene; this ideology can prove to be detrimental to a successful outcome. The fact is, during an emergency, the incident command system needs to start once the first unit arrives on the scene and completes a good size-up. The transfer of command will then be smooth once a chief officer arrives because they can get a status report/update and quickly assume command of the incident. In this article I will focus on how to have a successful outcome when operating on the day to day incidents we run (structure fires, small Hazmat incidents, automotive accidents). Most of these incidents will be mitigated in less than 12 hours and will not require additional operational periods.

National Incident Management System (NIMS)

A good fire department will have a good working knowledge of the NIMS. The definition of NIMS is long, but it is important to understand in its entirety.

NIMS is a comprehensive, national approach to incident management that is applicable at all jurisdictional levels and across functional disciplines. It is intended to:

● Be applicable across a full spectrum of potential incidents, hazards, and impacts, regardless of size, location or complexity.

● Improve coordination and cooperation between public and private entities in a variety of incident management activities.

● Provide a common standard for overall incident management.

NIMS provides a consistent nationwide framework and approach to enable government at all levels (Federal, State, tribal, and local), the private sector, and nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) to work together to prepare for, prevent, respond to, recover from, and mitigate the effects of incidents regardless of the incident’s cause, size, location, or complexity.

Consistent application of NIMS lays the groundwork for efficient and effective responses, from a single agency fire response to a multiagency, multi-jurisdictional natural disaster or terrorism response. Entities that have integrated NIMS into their planning and incident management structure can arrive at an incident with little notice and still understand the procedures and protocols governing the response, as well as the expectations for equipment and personnel. NIMS provides commonality in preparedness and response efforts that allow diverse entities to readily integrate and, if necessary, establish unified command during an incident.1

NIMS Terms

Knowing the terms that NIMS has defined will assist the incident commander to run an incident smoothly and keep all units on the same page when giving out instructions. Using the terms set forth by NIMS greatly improves communication within your organization and any other jurisdictions and/or mutual aid units that are operating on the scene.

Division- Divisions are used to divide an incident into geographical areas of operation. A Division is located within the ICS organization between the Branch and the Task Force/Strike Team. Divisions are identified by alphabetic characters for horizontal applications and, often, by floor numbers when used in buildings.

Group- Groups are established to divide the incident into functional areas of operation. Groups are composed of resources assembled to perform a special function not necessarily within a single geographic division. Groups are located between Branches (when activated) and Resources in the Operations Section.

Initial Action- The actions taken by resources that are the first to arrive at an incident site.

Operations Section- The Section responsible for all tactical operations at the incident. Includes Branches, Divisions and/or Groups, Task Forces, Strike Teams, Single Resources, and Staging Areas.

Span of Control- The number of individuals a supervisor is responsible for, usually expressed as the ratio of supervisors to individuals. (Under the NIMS, an appropriate span of control is between 1:3 and 1:7.)

Unified Command- An application of ICS used when there is more than one agency with incident jurisdiction or when incidents cross political jurisdictions. Agencies work together through the designated members of the Unified Command, often the senior person from agencies and/or disciplines participating in the Unified Command, to establish a common set of objectives and strategies and a single Incident

Action Plan.2

These are a small fraction of terms NIMS defines, but the above are the terms that are most often used during an emergency. It is important to utilize the NIMS defined terms to reduce confusion on an incident. The NIMS terms are specific to operations on an incident and allow personnel to know who they are working for or where they are working during an incident. As an Incident Commander (IC) try to avoid broad terms such as:

● Interior

● Fire attack

These terms do not define a specific area operation. In a multi floor dwelling it is difficult for an officer to give good reports back to an Incident Commander when they are responsible for an entire structure. It is best to assign groups and divisions with supervisors.

Tactics vs. Strategies

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As an Incident Commander it is important to understand the difference between Tactics and Strategies. Tactics are doing the work set forth by the Incident Commander and/or policy. Strategies are identifying what work needs to be done on the incident. Admittedly these are stripped down definitions.

When talking tactics, the acronym most often stated is RECEO-VS-RA.








RA-Risk Assessment

On most fires the RECEO is done in order. The VS moves around in the order, there is no set spot for these tactics. The RA is ongoing throughout the incident, and must continually be evaluated. The Incident Commander will tell crews what they want done; this is usually accomplished by setting up objectives. The crews then figure out how to accomplish the objectives. This is tactics.

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When we think about strategies we are not thinking about how to do the work, but moreover relaying what work needs to be done. As mentioned above this is done by setting and relaying objectives. Strategies uses the acronym LIP.

L-Life safety

I-Incident stabilization

P-Property conservation

Life safety: is accounting for people possibly in danger. Personnel must use the fastest and most prudent methods available to ensure the safety of people. Life safety concerns include civilians and firefighters alike.

Incident stabilization: means stopping a problem from getting worse. Incident stabilization is situational. Personnel must first stop the spread of a danger or risk before addressing the risk directly. It is often the case that a direct attack on a given problem is the best solution for preventing the problem from growing worse, but not always.

Property conservation: is often the most meaningful act to those we serve. Property conservation must be considered as part of all actions. Personnel must constantly be on the lookout for opportunities to maximize property conservation.

One can draw parallels with the acronym for tactics and the acronym for strategies. Life safety is all lives on the fire ground, firefighter and civilian. Incident stabilization is fire control, overhaul, utilities, and ventilation. Lastly property conservation refers to controlling the damage.

There is a very fine line between managing and micromanaging. The Incident Commander tells the units on the scene what needs to be done (extinguish the fire on the 2nd floor, search the building, or protect the items in the basement). The Incident Commander is embedding objectives; these objectives are what needs to happen on the fire ground. The objectives can be broad (over the entire fire ground) or focused (each group or division). Notice these examples state what needs to be done, but not how to do them. It is the responsibility of the crews on the scene to carry out the orders. Many firefighters are quick to point out when they feel a supervisor is micromanaging them. Firefighters are smart and resourceful; when an Incident Commander gives an order, fire crews will figure out the best and safest way to complete the task.

Initial On Scene Reports (IOSR)

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We have all heard at one time: when the first arriving unit officer is on the scene of a fire, they should “paint the picture” when talking on the radio. This means giving a good description of what you have and what you are seeing. There are 6 pieces of information that should be given when arriving on the scene:

● The arrival side of the building;

● The number of its stories;

● The type of occupancy;

● Conditions evident on arrival, with associated geographic location, using

Incident Command System terminology;

● A request for additional resources (example: a call for additional alarms);

● Any deviation from the SOP, designating other unit assignments.

This will give all incoming units a great mental picture of what they will encounter. This allows the incident command to formulate a plan and enact it once command is transferred to him/her. The first arriving officer must be trained to start the command process. The first arriving officer starting the command process, will set the tone of the incident. Many organizations have different names for this initial command:

● Tactical command

● Limited command

● Fast command

This initial command process gives dispatch one person to communicate with, thus reducing fire ground communications. The initial Incident Commander has the capability to direct the first few arriving units as well as their crew. This initial command is designed to be held for a short period of time. Once a command officer arrives they will have one point of contact to receive information prior to assuming command.

Transferring command

Once the chief officer arrives on the scene, a quick “CAN” report (condition, actions, needs) should be done. Some departments are utilizing the “LCAN'' acronym. The “L” stands for location and is added so the command officer understands where the crew is operating. Once the exchange of information is complete, the command officer will announce they are assuming command and let everyone operating on the fire ground know where the command post is located. This will be known as a stationary command post. Most command posts are marked with a green flashing light or flag.

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The incident commander can run command inside or outside the vehicle, but needs to remain at the command post so he or she can be found by units on the scene.

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Writing it down

The Incident Commander will continue to receive updates from the crews working, and should consider using the “CAN” or “LCAN” report which allows for quick reports which keeps radio traffic down. The IC will document crew assignments and location in the structure on the Tactical Worksheet. They will limit the span of control by assigning crews to work under supervisors. The IC should denote who the supervisor is by utilizing some sort of mark next to the unit assigned as the supervisor. I have used a (◾) or an (S) this let me know who I was talking to. A typical fire ground may consist of divisions and groups. In a 2-story house, an Incident Commander may assign 2 divisions with 2 units working in each. The incident commander may also have a search group and a vent group. They will only need to speak to the supervisors to get updates, so in this instance that would be a total of 4 supervisors (between the 2 divisions and the 2 groups). Although there may be 30 people on the fire ground, the Incident Commander will only need to talk to 4 of them. This reduces the span of control and greatly reduces radio traffic. All of this information will be captured on a tactical worksheet.

Typical Tactical worksheet

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Taking command should equate to being able to set or change the tone of the operation. Having the prerequisite knowledge based off NIMS, SOP’s, and fully understanding organizational structures to increase your span of control and improve accountability will only get you so far. To ensure your companies can aggressively, safely, efficiently, and effectively control the incident you must get out and train.

The Incident Command needs to participate, not just observe, in company and live fire training. Command skills are perishable and must be practiced and critiqued. Participating in training allows you to improve your communications skills and allows your personnel understand your expectations.

The fire incident scene can be a chaotic place. The Incident Commander must know the difference between tactics and strategies and trust their members to perform while verifying tasks and tactics are completed to meet the strategic goals of the incident. Couple this with having a strong command presence (Calm, Competent and Confident) and one should have a smooth fire ground with reduced radio traffic.

Page Break


1.FEMA. (2005a). NIMS FAQ. Retrieved from

2.FEMA. (2005b). NIMS Glossary. Retrieved from

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