I Want Command! And I Want It Now!

Dear Nozzlehead: I’ve been a firefighter in the Midwest for eight years. I’ve participated in and passed all the courses that I’m expected to, including all the NIMS classes, and I am really confused about assuming command. When does someone establish, take or assume command at, for example, a working fire? I hope that’s a simple question because no one I work with seems to have the answer. Correction: They have answers, but it ends up being totally different than what some of them actually do.
—Commander-less in Illinois

Dear Less,
This is one of my favorite subjects. Who “gets” to be in charge? It seems like everyone wants to be in charge. I used to date this girl years ago, and she always HAD to be in charge. Oh, wait, sorry, wrong topic. I’ll stick to the fireground “in charge” thing.

I’m sure this will make some of you nuts, but I have yet to be on an average incident that has anything to do with what we learned in NIMS 100–900. OK, I know that it does apply to the big stuff—Type 1, 2, 3, etc.—but quite honestly, when folks go through NIMS training and expect to apply the training the next day on Type 4 and 5 incidents, it begs the question, “How’d THAT work out for ya?” It doesn’t. There’s much more to it than 16 hours of NIMS 300 and 400. And in fact, sometimes, it can lead to more confusion.

I’ve also found over the years that “command,” “incident command” and being “in command” mean different things to different fire departments. Why? Probably for the same reasons that a red helmet means a probie in some towns and a company officer in others. Oh gosh, it’s our silly and fierce independence AGAIN. How colonial.

But let’s answer your question: When does someone establish, take or assume command at a working fire? Immediately. Always.
Someone must always take command. It’s often the first-arriving officer who becomes the IC and is responsible for determining strategy. The first company may operate in the fast-attack mode until a qualified officer arrives to function outside the IDLH atmosphere. It is at this point that command is transferred, and it stays with that IC unless passing command to someone else can further improve the situation. Note: Just showing up with the most bugles does not necessarily require the need to transfer (or steal) command. To add to that, a working fire with firefighters operating in the IDLH atmosphere requires a Hazard Zone Manager (aka “Operations” or Division “A”).

“Taking command” should happen only in specific instances, like when it would:

  • improve the scene/situation
  • allow the company officer to be a company officer and join their company

But note, if you take it, take it when you know what you are taking.

Command should be established by the first-arriving officer (or acting officer) when two or more units are responding/arriving. Some may say it’s not needed; I say that although that’s true, it’s great preparedness for what may lie ahead. It’s kinda like kissing the person you love—do it a lot; it’s good practice that may not always be necessary, and it may lead to other stuff, too. Besides, what does it hurt to establish command? It doesn’t! You can’t “waste” command—or a kiss for that matter. What establishing command does do is clearly identify ONE PERSON who is responsible for the incident. It can get bigger or be terminated from there, depending on how quickly things are brought under control. A person establishing command is the coach, the band leader, someone who is THE focal point and has an understanding of the situation, what needs to be done, what resources to request, etc. They own that incident—and the scene.

And THAT brings me to another very favorite subject of mine: Taking command or stealing command.

In the last month or so, I’ve been made aware of a few calls in which very competent personnel were commanding incidents and the scenes were going well. Each incident involved several communities/departments responding as mutual aid on the first alarm. In two of the three cases, chief officers (two are NIMS instructors—yeah, seriously) were pulling up on the block, not in view of the actual scene (a block or two away), but announced on the radio (in one case while still driving the car) that they were “on the scene and now assuming command.” Assuming command? Command of what? And why?

Stealing command from someone before you know what you’re in command of, what the conditions and strategy are, what the resource situation is, etc., makes an ASS OUT OF YOU, your authority, your respect and your ability to properly run the incident. You cannot run the incident because you don’t yet know WHAT you’re taking command of. Trying to steal command without a face-to-face with the IC so you know what you are getting into? Ridiculous.

So why do it? It must be ego. Or lack of trust. Or perhaps a lack of training on the part of the folks who command is being stolen from. If that’s the case, THEN TRAIN THEM!

Like many organizations, you need a training program that teaches your company and command officers how to realistically command local incident operations—the runs you handle day in and day out. One program that I’ve attended and became certified in—one that I feel will definitely help you see “through the smoke”—is the Blue Card Command program. It’s a “fire command” program that’s designed to teach all of your “playas” (intentional spelling, homey) how to properly lead local, NIMS Type 4 and 5 incidents. These incidents account for more than 99% of your department’s and my department’s incident activity. Note: This is NOT a paid advertisement or anything like that for Blue Card. If you are aware of anything like Blue Card that works, write me and tell me about it. But after being a chief fire officer for more than 30 years, and having to determine whose interpretation of command we’re using today, I like how this one works.

The bottom line: It’s pretty clear that we need training. Training that teaches us when to properly assume command—so we’re not stealing it … or totally screwing it up after we have it.

So, do YOU have a huge urge to take command every chance you get? Well, be careful what you wish for. You take it, you own it.

Current Issue

September 2016
Volume 11, Issue 9