The Incident Commander in the Hazard Zone

Firetown Training Specialist: Leader in Mission Focused Fire Service Training

The Incident Commander and Hazard Zone Management


At all fireground operations, there is a point in which someone will be in charge. Usually the first arriving Officer will make a decision based upon a number of factors whether or not he/she will assume the command role officially. Let me point out, “Whether the first arriving Officer makes a formal announcement or not, he/she has command until another equal or higher ranking officer is on scene and formally assumes that command role and thus communicating the transfer notification to all units on scene and incoming”.

A lot of people want to get wrapped around the axel related to NIMS. It should be noted, the current version of NIMS (the National Incident Management System) was signed into federal law by Homeland Security Presidential Directive 5 in 2003. Both NIMS and the National Response Plan were designed to connect firefighters, camp cooks, law enforcement, weather specialists, the Department of Housing and every other incident resource under the umbrella of a Type 1 overhead team for large-scale, widespread events.

The systems used to manage hazard-zone operations must keep pace with resource deployment while simultaneously protecting the workforce. In most instances, the initial attack component implemented by the first arriving Officer and responding units solves the major incident problems by eliminating the hazards. This approach also has the greatest positive impact on firefighter safety. When we put out the fire, it can no longer destroy life or property.

The only reason we transfer command is to improve command. As a responding Chief Officer, I assumed/transferred command from the initial incident commander (IC) on approximately 50 percent of the working fires I responded to. I quickly figured out that if command didn’t need to be transferred, and I transferred it anyway, the “Communication” problem raised its ugly head.

If the initial IC has a well established IAP in place, resource controls ordered and a mitigation strategy which in is tune with the complexity of the incident, has achieved “all clears” and “fire control,” the need for me to assume command for the sake of assuming command is ludicris.

For the incidents where I did assume/transfer command, it actually improved command. The initial operation had not eliminated the major incident hazard or completed the tactical priorities. In these instances, we must reinforce incident operations and provide a centralized command. If not, firefighters are exposed to a higher degree of risks. A structure fire that isn’t quickly controlled with one or two attack lines must be treated as an extreme threat to all those assigned to the particular incident. This is going to require a larger response to cover uncovered positions and reinforce existing ones. We must also upgrade the incident-scene organization to manage both the increased hazards and additional companies required to control those hazards.

Far too often we hear first arriving company officers arriving on scene and passing command to units not on scene or not in a position to assume the command role. This is allowed under the rules of ICS. However, clearly spelled out in ICS are the following tenants:

  • Assumption of Command by subsequently arriving Officers is not automatic, but rather is a discretionary decision reached between the initial IC and the arriving higher or equal ranking officer.
  • Passing command to another Officer not on scene creates significant safety issues and should not be done.
  • Transfer of command requires communication between the initial IC and the officer assuming command. Face-to-face communication is preferred, but radio communication may be required when the initial IC is functioning in a mobile command mode. It is the responsibility of the person being relieved to provide a briefing for the officer assuming command that includes:
  1. Incident conditions
  2. Strategy, tactical assignments, and deployment of resources
  3. Anticipated needs and problems
  • Command shall not be considered to be transferred until the transfer is announced over the radio to all incident personnel and to dispatch. The person being relieved will be assigned to best advantage.

I would think this clearly spells it out, yet, we still continue to struggle with this concept. A point of contention seems to be the staffing issue and the ability to function on the fireground at t task and tactical level while still in command. This issue is simplified when the Officer is aware of his/her job functions and the actions needed to accomplish the task. While still in command the Officer has the option to work in the capacity of “Mobile Command” or in lay terms, “Be a working Boss”.



Stationary and Mobile Command:

The Initial IC may choose to establish a “Stationary” or “Mobile” command post, dependent on incident needs. If the first arriving fire officer is a company officer, and the situation requires immediate action that depends on the company officer’s direct participation and close supervision, he or she may choose to function in a “mobile command” mode. In this mode of operation, the company officer maintains command by use of a portable radio while continuing to direct operations occurring on the fireground, accomplishing a full and complete DRA/360 and the direct supervision of his/her company, including the initial entry into the fire building. The officer should refrain from assuming an interior position on the structure unless no other option presents itself. While in mobile command, an interior position should only occur when no other option presents itself and immediate action needs to occur on the fireground requiring the Officer to assume the interior position while in mobile command. This should clearly be communicated to all incoming units. The officer should announce clearly over the radio that he or she is in “mobile command mode”. The mobile command mode should rapidly culminate in one of the following:

  • Situation is controlled
  • Situation is not controlled and the IC moves to the exterior and establishes a stationary command.
  • Command is transferred to a subsequently arriving officer, and the company officer continues direct supervision of their company.

Should a situation occur where a later arriving Company or Command Officer cannot locate or communicate with the initial IC who is functioning in a mobile command mode, they will announce that they are assuming command and initiate whatever actions are necessary to locate the missing crew. Some situations will require an exterior stationary command due to size, complexity or potential for rapid growth. In these circumstances, the initial IC should establish a command post in a safe and visible location, and maintain that position until relieved by a higher ranking officer. This is to assure that coordination and control are focused toward attaining the objective. The principle of Unity of Command ensures that all efforts are focused on a common goal and the potential of conflicting orders, incomplete command structure and blending or overlapping orders and direction do not occur.

In Maxims of War, Napoleon wrote, “Nothing is so important in war as an undivided command”. This is true in all respects for the fireground. A divided or non-command structure will move forces in a direction of failure. We read it every time we pick up a NIOSH or USFA Line of Duty Death report. Officers must be given latitude to make adjustments on the fireground, they must be given the tool sets to quickly and effectively accomplish task. They use of a solid SOG/SOP principled approach is ideal on the fireground, yet, someone must be in full authority and in charge of the overall fireground. SOP/SOG does not work without some orchestrating the movement of forces and the direction of resourced on the fireground. This is the role of the IC.

The argument that ICS and a strong command structure slows the fireground down and doesn’t put out fires is not valid. Plain and simple…The fireground needs structure ICS and a strong Incident Command gives it that structure to base all task, tactical and strategic needs from.