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 From the Chief's Desk
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Flawed Progress

From the Chiefs Desk

Though it is said that the fire service is 200 years of tradition unimpeded by progress, it has changed more radically in the past 35 years than it had in the 165-plus years prior. Gone are the days when the fire chief was simply the best fireman on the department. Instead, today's chief officers must spend the vast majority of time and effort dealing with vital topics other than firefighting.

And therein lies a problem. With these challenges, the increased emphasis on incident management systems and the decreased number of actual fires responded to, chief officers seem to be becoming less knowledgeable, skilled and confident when it comes to, arguably, their core responsibility — firefighting strategy and tactics.

For decades prior to the 1970s, the main focus for chief officers centered on fireground strategy and tactics. New chief officers learned these skills from older, experienced chief officers. They took classes, attended seminars and studied an array of textbooks, all centered on firefighting strategy and tactics. Buried within these lessons were informative discussions regarding the process of commanding and controlling the fireground.

The primary emphasis, however, always was placed on strategy and tactics: observing factors that affected the fireground, establishing fireground priorities, and employing various methods and techniques that addressed those priorities. The process by which these strategies and tactics were implemented and overseen seemed to be secondary.

This began to change in the 1970s. Fire officers in California began searching for a better way to manage the hundreds of personnel and the various apparatus and resources needed over several days or weeks to combat the wildfires they were experiencing. Firefighting Resources of Southern California Organized for Potential Emergencies, commonly known as FIRESCOPE, was created. Many concepts from the military's approach to commanding and controlling battlefields were adapted to commanding and controlling these large fires.

Around this same time, Chief Alan Brunacini and the Phoenix Fire Department were developing the concept of Fireground Command. This method seemed to center around a simplified, straight-forward approach to commanding and controlling the fireground. Brunacini and his staff began to share their findings, good and bad, across the country, and their concept began gaining popularity.

In the 1980s, the National Fire Academy drew from the basic theories relating to command and control, the concepts of FIRESCOPE and FGC, as well as the practices and procedures of several fire departments for large events, and developed the Incident Command System. The emphasis was on establishing a system to command and control not only a fireground, but the array of incident types to which fire departments were responding.

Later, ICS was modified to the Incident Management System. The logic seemed to be that major incidents lasting days or weeks required even more emphasis be placed on management concerns such as planning, organizing, and tracking information, resources, and finances. In 2004, Homeland Security Presidential Directive 5 called for the establishment of a National Incident Management System, standardizing the process and structure by which we all should manage our incidents nationwide and requiring NIMS training for all chief officers.

In many ways, the evolution of ICS and NIMS has been very good for the fire service in general. It certainly was well intended. However, during this time period, some related problems have arisen. The emphasis of training, and in turn, the focus of actual practices, seemed to shift. Understanding and developing fireground strategy and tactics became secondary to the concepts of commanding and controlling the incident scene. Then, commanding and controlling the incident scene became secondary to the concepts behind managing the system. While this is not all bad, as a result, many chiefs now seem to be concentrating more on the system rather than solving the problem they were called to handle in the first place. Too many chiefs seem more concerned with filling out the boxes on the chart than with getting the job done that those boxes were created to represent in the first place.

To say it another way, chief officers seem more concerned with whether to call something a division, branch or sector, than they are with whether they understood what the fire was doing, how the building as reacting, and whether the right amount of water was being applied in the right spot at the right time within the division, branch or sector they were placed in charge of.

To complicate the problems associated with this shift in emphasis is the lack of actual fireground experience many chief officers are now getting. As the number of fires continues to decrease, so does the actual fireground experience of current and upcoming chief officers. In 1997, I was sitting in the audience at the Fire Department Instructors Conference listening to then-FDNY Deputy Chief Ray Downing on the main stage. He stated that he believed the biggest problem facing the FDNY at that time was that the department did not respond to enough fires for their newer and upcoming chief officers to gain the experience needed to become proficient fireground commanders.

My jaw hit the floor. As a new fire chief of a small combination department that responded to about six working fires per year, I was extremely concerned. If FDNY chief officers were not going to enough fires to gain adequate experience, what did that say for the rest of us across the nation?

Recently, a retired chief watched a fire in his neighboring community. He observed that well-trained and well-meaning chief officers managing the incident established a fixed command post, donned vests with their assigned function emblazed across their backs, set up a personnel accountability board, assigned a rapid intervention team to stand-by in the neighbor's yard, and staged a mutual aid engine company down the street. All the while, the fire in the 1,200-square-foot single-story residence continued to burn and spread throughout the home. One or two properly placed hose lines and some timely ventilation could have extinguished this fire in the time it took to put the system in place to manage it.

In this case, the chief officers were obviously well-versed in the Incident Management System, but lacked insight into basic firefighting strategy and tactics. As a result, the fire continued to burn while time and resources were wasted and extensive and unnecessary property damage occurred. To their credit, no one got hurt. But this scene seems to get played out all too often, especially in smaller to medium-size communities, or in younger departments covering growing communities, where actual fireground experience by command officers is lower.

On the other hand, chief officers still try to command or manage large multiple-alarm incidents by circling the fireground holding a single portable radio. These chiefs are criticized for not grasping or accepting the concept of the Incident Command System, which might be true in some instances. In some of these cases, however, the problem also stems from the lack of understanding basic firefighting strategy and tactics. If a chief officer underestimates his size-up of the situation or the potential of the situation, he undoubtedly will underestimate his strategy and related tactics. He also will underestimate the resources needed. As a result, he will underestimate the effort it will take to command and control those resources. In other words, his ICS will be insufficient to maintain control over the incident.

In these cases, before long, the chief officer finds himself overwhelmed by the incident. The results might not only include extensive property damage, but injury or death as well. These are exactly the situations the original Fireground Command system was developed to avoid. This type of scene not only occurs in departments with little actual fireground experience, but also in departments with much experience with the same types of fires over and over. When confronted with an unusual fire, the chief officer still may rely on the usual strategy and tactics, which may not be appropriate for that particular situation.

One of the basic foundations of the ICS is that the system put in place to manage the incident be commensurate with the size and complexity of the incident. In modern terms, an incident commander's initial incident analysis will dictate the Incident Action Plan. The IAP then will dictate the type and amount of resources needed to mitigate the incident. This, in turn, should dictate the size and scope of the ICS.

In cases where the established ICS is either overboard or insufficient for a given incident, a lack of understanding fireground strategy and tactics can be found to be a major factor, if not the reason. This lack of understanding fireground strategy and tactics is a result of the misplaced emphasis of training chief officers, the insufficient training of chief officers, the lack of fireground experience of chief officers, or a combination thereof.

It's often asked how, with all the advances in firefighting technology in the past 30 years, firefighters still are killed and injured while responding to fewer working fires. The answer is obvious — because they are responding to fewer working fires. Or, in some cases, because they are going to the same fire too many times.

The most acceptable solution to make up for this lack of actual fireground experience is to provide firefighters with more, meaningful, realistic training, at all levels. But here we are talking primarily about chief officers who operate on the strategic and tactical level. Chief officers who are responsible for responding to fires and commanding these incidents must have more meaningful, realistic training on fireground strategy and tactics.

Many aspects of the fire service have gone full circle throughout history. From apparatus color and helmet styles to nozzle selection and ventilation techniques, what once was considered outdated or ineffective eventually seems to reemerge, being hyped as new and progressive. And what was once hyped as new and progressive eventually is considered outdated and ineffective. Often, neither is the case.

Fire chiefs and chief officers can't get caught up in whatever trend is being hyped as the latest, greatest breakthrough in firefighting; nor can they hold on to old traditional concepts simply because they're familiar. It's their responsibility to carefully weigh the advantages and disadvantages of both and make intelligent, informed and justifiable decisions to deliver the most effective, most efficient and safest firefighting operations under the circumstances.

This is not to suggest that chief officers ignore the importance of ICS or NIMS to concentrate solely on fireground strategy and tactics. They must continue to embrace the concept of Incident Command and continue to train with it and practice it until it becomes habitual, but they can't disregard or de-emphasize the importance of the basic firefighting strategy and tactics the system is designed to oversee.

Fire departments need to get back to spending more time and effort training chief officers in basic fireground strategy and tactics. They need to recognize that a better understanding of strategy and tactics can lead to a better use of ICS; and, ultimately lead to much more proficient and safer handling of fires.

Fires burn the same in New York City as they do in Los Angeles as they do in Cape Girardeau, Mo., as they do in Groton Township, Ohio, as they do everywhere else. The differences lay with the resources each location has available and the knowledge, skill and experience chief officers possess to best use those resources on the fireground.

 

 




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