What We Learned From Each Other About Building A Command

3 days of training on how to calm the chaos at a mega event

It all began with a high rise fire at the Phoenix Towers on Singer Island, Florida. Fire crews knew the building and had responded their many times for this type of event, a fire alarm. What they thought might be a routine alarm, suddenly became a mega event, full of the chaos that comes from a high rise building where upper floors are filled with smoke and lots of occupants need help. They also discovered they needed some help too.


The Phoenix Towers condominium on Singer Island, Florida. Photo by Billy Schmidt.

The Riviera Beach Fire-Rescue Department serves the City of Riviera Beach, Florida, which includes Singer Island. The Department has 4 stations located throughout the city, each housing a fire suppression unit and a medical transport unit. Every day there is a minimum of 17 personnel on duty including one battalion chief. It’s a diverse city that keeps the fire department busy on any given day.

The fire occurred at 1721 hours on a Sunday evening in a 25-story residential high-rise building. Initially dispatched to a fire alarm, units arrived and reported “nothing showing from the exterior.” An investigation revealed a smoke detector activation in the penthouse and several residents stating there was smoke in the hallways on the upper floors. Requests were made by the first-arriving crews to upgrade to a high-rise response and for additional units to assist with evacuation. The requests were denied by the responding battalion chief because there were multiple other calls in the city at the same time and their resources were stretched. The crews ascended the stairs and confirmed the presence of light to moderate smoke on floors 14 to 16. When they reached the remaining floors they encountered heavy smoke and several occupants needing assistance. The battalion chief arrived on scene and assumed command. The crews informed command of the smoke conditions and again requested more units for assistance. Command requested that dispatch upgrade the alarm to a full high-rise response and to send additional units for assistance. After some time, the crews found the origin of the fire and extinguished it with a dry chemical extinguisher. Resources from surrounding agencies, including tactical units and command staff, arrived on scene and assisted with ventilation and the successful evacuation of all occupants. There were no civilian or firefighter injuries or deaths. The entire incident lasted approximately 6 hours.

Adaptability is Important on the Fireground

No battle plan survives contact with the enemy. -Helmuth von Moltke

We pre-plan the building and train for the situation. But things rarely go exactly to plan. That’s why it’s important that we are observant and adaptable in every situation. Our preconceived notions about what is going to happen, because we’ve been to this fire alarm before, are likely to change before we even get started.

Complicated incidents, a fire alarm at a high rise with lots of occupants, quickly becomes chaotic when things don’t go according to plan. Critical cues, unexpected things, begin to appear that trigger a revision to our initial plan. Sometimes, the event outgrows our ability as a single fire department to safely and effectively apply the operations and support needed to bring order to the chaos. Building a strategic command team while working with other agencies can be cumbersome, but is necessary to establish a manageable span-of-control and provide for comprehensive resource management. Like firefighters, fire departments must be adaptable.

From Command To A Team

There are new rules for engagement in our complex world, so says General Stan McChrystal in his book, Team of Teams. The ability to react quickly and adapt is critical, and its becoming more important in today’s fire service. Mega events, such as high rise fires and terrorist attacks, require new ways to communicate and work together. All agencies, fire and police especially, must learn to break down the silos, work across jurisdictional lines, and master the flexible response that comes from teamwork and collaboration. They have to be able to work as a “team of teams.”


Agencies must learn to break down the silos, work across jurisdictional lines, and master the flexible response that comes from teamwork and collaboration. Photo courtesy of Artie Werkle.

Practicing And Growing Together

In recent years, fire departments in Palm Beach County found themselves confronting more dangerous and complex incidents than ever before, requiring different levels of effort from all agencies and credible emergency management capabilities county-wide. The fire chiefs and training officers in the County recognized this and decided to do something about it. A county-wide command training program was created to improve incident scene management capabilities that would save lives and protect property, combine individual fire department efforts and increase resources, enhance jurisdictional flexibility to handle large-scale events, and provide for a safer, more accountable emergency scene.

The command training was modeled after the National Fire Academy’s Command & Control series, using a case method practice and decision-making exercises. Regardless of size or current capabilities, all fire departments within the County were invited to send personnel, with focus on potential incident commanders. This inter-agency approach would create an environment for open discussion and collaborative learning. The goal was to build stronger command teams to better handle mega events.

Using the Case Method and Staff Ride Concept

Fire instructors teaching incident command often use stories drawn from historic emergency events that will enliven their presentations and illustrate their points. Much of it is lecture with exciting pictures or video and little, if no student interaction or critical thinking. Instead, this county-wide command training promoted the use of decision-forcing cases that would enhance awareness, strengthen decision-making, and empower action from the front line officers.


Decision-forcing cases enhance awareness, strengthen decision-making, and empower action from the front line officers. Photo courtesy of Captain Steve Trimble.

The purpose of staff rides are to further the development of fire service leaders. They are planned learning events that recreate previous incidents at the actual site of the events to produce a fireground analysis in three dimensions. It promotes maximum student involvement through a pre-study of the incident and the building, an instructor facilitated site visit, and an instructor facilitated dialogue session.

Photo courtesy of Captain Steve Trimble.

Staff rides are planned learning events that recreate previous incidents at the actual site of the events to produce a fireground analysis. Photo courtesy of Captain Steve Trimble.

 What We Learned From Each Other

The recent fire at the Phoenix Towers on Singer Island was the motivation for the latest county-wide command training hosted by the Riviera Beach Fire Rescue Department. Having facilitated the previous county-wide command training sessions, I was asked to help with this one. Over a three-day period, firefighters, company officers and chief officers from a variety of fire departments came together to review and practice command operations at a mega event. Using the recent fire at The Towers as a case study, participants worked as teams in a strategic decision-making exercise to identify the problems, communicate clear objectives, and implement executable plans to manage a high rise fire.

Photo courtesy of Captain Steve Trimble.

Over a three-day period, firefighters, company officers and chief officers from a variety of fire departments came together to review and practice command operations at a mega event. Photo courtesy of Captain Steve Trimble.

The incident at the Phoenix Towers was a big event. While the fire was determined to be electrical and not large in scale, the smoke it produced filled ten floors and required the evacuation of approximately 20 residents. Here are some of the lessons we learned:

  • Recognize the size of the event and call for additional alarms early to reduce the reflex time for needed apparatus, personnel and other resources on any large building or long duration incident.
  • Expand command before the demand. Preemptive actions to front-load a command team will ensure rapid, concise decisions and actions.
  • Build trust between strategic commanders (chief officers) and tactical units (company officers) to better evaluate and act on the CAN reports and information provided by on-scene units.

It’s great to see so many fire departments come together for a common purpose. These are the people who will be out there handling these mega events and the more training they can do now, the better success they will have in the future. I plan to continue working with all fire departments to help them build better command teams that will calm the chaos.

If You Want To Change The World…

United States Naval Admiral, William H. McRaven, delivers sound advice in his commencement speech to the University of Texas Class of 2014. Below are the quick notes on what to do. Listen to the speech to find out why and how to do it.

  • If you want to change the world, start by doing the little things right: make your bed.
  • If you want to change the world, find someone to help you paddle.
  • If you want to change the world, measure people by the size of their heart.
  • If you want to change the world, get over being a sugar cookie and move forward.
  • If you want change the world, don’t be afraid of the circus.
  • If you want to change the world, sometimes you have to slide down the obstacles head first.
  • If you want to change the world, don’t back down from the sharks.
  • If you want to change the world, you must be your very best in the darkest of moments.
  • If you want to change the world, start singing when you’re up to your neck in mud.
  • If you want to change the world, don’t ever ring the bell.

Also, read the workingfirechief’s blog for his thoughts on “Changing the fire service for the positive and keep good traditions alive.”

How will you help change the world?

3 keys to managing the incident when things go wrong

Faced with the unexpected, company officers must be able to manage their crews when the incident doesn’t go as planned.

The best time to know emergency procedures—and the worst time to learn them—is in an actual emergency. Normal emergency scene confusion becomes even more complicated when something unexpected happens. Very rapidly, the familiar can become unrecognizable, as the incident becomes more complex. In such situations, a company officer’s leadership is more important than ever.

Let’s look at an example to illustrate: Like many mechanical failures, this one begins with a minor flaw that either went undetected during routine inspections, or wasn’t taken seriously. One small nick in the SCBA mask strap spawned a tear that migrated radically until the strap’s design strength was seriously reduced, which caused it to fail. The weakening of the strap had occurred over many hours of use, but the catastrophe that followed the strap failure developed in just seconds.

During those seconds, the strap separated and smoke began to fill the firefighter’s mask. In an instant, the firefighter was breathing smoke and became visually impaired, which caused him to become disoriented. At one moment, the firefighter was deep in the building helping advance a hoseline with another firefighter and the company officer. The next moment, the firefighter was in trouble, frantically trying to find fresh air. The company officer quickly realized that a member of the crew had a problem, but couldn’t immediately identify the source of the problem.

It’s the company officer’s responsibility to ensure that every firefighter on their crew is familiar with basic firefighter survival skills—in other words, what to do when you get into trouble. Crews must prepare and practice, together, for these events to facilitate a successful outcome.

Managing an unexpected event in a safe and efficient manner requires that the company officer manage three essential elements: people (starting with yourself), information of all sorts from all sources and the event itself.


Managing an unexpected event in a safe and efficient manner requires that the company officer manage three essential elements: people, information and the event itself. Photo Glen Ellman

Manage People
Manage yourself first. You can’t help anyone else if you become a victim. The first priority for a company officer, when your crew is in trouble, is to manage yourself. You must quickly orient yourself to the situation. This is where your personal preparation should begin to kick in. By knowing and practicing the basic self-survival techniques, you can respond systematically to an unexpected event, instead of wasting valuable time trying to come up with a response plan.

Determine the following: What is the status of your air supply? Where are you? What were you doing when the emergency happened? Make a conscious effort to stay calm, conserve your air and begin to control the situation. Your command presence will help you and your crew work together to overcome the problem.

Manage your firefighters. If one of your firefighters is in immediate danger, you must react appropriately and quickly. Who has a problem? Is it a personal behavior problem (sometimes firefighters do crazy things in a dark, hot building) or an injury? Was there an equipment failure or is the firefighter out of air? Is your crew intact or have you lost a firefighter?

Quickly assess each individual, including the following: breathing status (air exchange), SCBA air supply, level of consciousness and mechanical malfunction or entrapment. You and your crew must stay together and communicate as a team; this will enhance your chances of solving of the problem.

Manage Information
Many sources of information contribute to a successful outcome during a crisis situation, but the most critical may be your department’s standard operating procedures (SOPs) that identify the steps required to cope with such emergencies. SOPs help to maintain focus and expedite the workload. Fire crews that practice mayday SOPs before the event will respond more effectively during an actual emergency.

The company officer must have the ability to size-up the situation (problem) and quickly implement a survival action plan. You must ask many questions to correctly identify the situation, but two questions are vital:

• What’s the fire doing? You and your crew originally entered the structure with a specific objective in mind. The fire doesn’t get put on “pause” just because your crew has a problem.
• What are the current conditions surrounding you and your crew? The current and future conditions will dictate whether you stay and attempt to solve the problem or move to safer location.

A vital link to overcoming an unexpected event is the effective exchange of information between the crew in trouble and command. Remember the LUNAR acronym to quickly relay information to command: Communicate your last known LOCATION, your UNIT identification, your NAME/Number, your AIR SUPPLY and any RESOURCES you need.

Manage the Event
Surviving the unexpected emergency in a safe and efficient manner requires the company officer to quickly but systematically troubleshoot the problem, develop a survival action plan, communicate the plan to the crew and command, and then execute it as quickly as possible. The following are some suggested survival actions that company officers may consider.

Alert command that you have a problem. Even if you think you can solve the problem, don’t wait until it’s too late in the emergency to call for help. If this is a serious situation, such as a lost or trapped firefighter, you must report a mayday to command, which will immediately redefine the incident objectives to include you and your crew.

If it’s a problem that can be solved by you and your crew, or possibly with the assistance of another crew working nearby, then request “emergency traffic.” Relay to command your unit identification and personnel accountability report (PAR), your location, your problem, your actions, your crew status including available air, and what you need (give solutions, not just problems).

After communicating with command, which should be brief, take action on dealing with the problem. If you can solve the problem, then communicate that to command and exit the structure. Once you’ve exited, communicate your PAR and any further needs or information to command.

If you can’t solve the problem, report a mayday immediately! The most important factor in calling a mayday is to actually make the mayday call. You should know, before engaging in firefighting operations, when and how you will make this important decision.

Some examples of possible mayday conditions you or a member of your crew may encounter include:
• Becoming entangled or stuck with low air remaining;
• Falling through a roof;
• Being caught in a flashover;
• Falling through a floor;
• Becoming disoriented and losing connection with other firefighters and/or the hoseline;
• Your primary exit blocked by fire or a collapse and you’re unable to get to a secondary exit; or
• Your low-air alarm begins to sound and you’re not near an exit, door or window.

When encountering any of these conditions, you must immediately call a mayday and report your status to command. Keep the crew together and continue to attempt to solve the problem and/or search for an exit and get out of the building.

Help them find you. Activate your portable radio emergency distress button and your PASS device, when appropriate. Continue to monitor the radio and update command. You may have to turn your PASS devices off to talk, and then back on once you’re done. If conditions deteriorate, retreat to an area of safety.

If you and your crew are still unable to get out, then get into a horizontal position on the floor, which will maximize the audible and visual effects of the PASS device. Aim flashlight beams toward the ceiling and use tools to make tapping noises to assist rescuers in locating you.

Are You Ready?
Fighting fires today is more hazardous than ever before. Fire crews must be prepared for the unexpected. As a company officer, you will face no greater challenge than managing an unexpected incident where a crewmember’s life is on the line.

Ask yourself, “Have I properly prepared myself, and my crew, for an unexpected, challenging event?”

Posted by Fire Rescue Magazine on December 1, 2009

Margin: Is There Room For Error?

What is margin and how does it impact operations in a complex and dynamic environment?

Watch this video from WildlandFire LLC to learn how margin looks to us in the field, and if we understand it, how we can use it to be safer and more effective.

We all have the power to control margin. What actions can you take to build margin?

Firefighter Critical Success Factors: How Do You Measure Up?

Performance-clean-standard-crop-1Observing Firefighter Performance: 3 critical factors contribute to firefighter excellence

“We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act, but a habit.”  -Aristotle

After many years of observing firefighters at my department during training operations and on the fireground, it’s apparent that some of them perform significantly better than others, especially during unforeseen, dangerous events. Firefighters at my department undergo similar initial training programs (recruit academy) and on-duty recurrent training. So what makes one firefighter perform better than another?

Statistics from the International Association of Fire Chiefs (IAFC) Crew Resource Management Program reveal that approximately 50 percent of all firefighter line-of-duty deaths are attributed to some type of firefighter or crew error. Therefore, the reasons behind excellent performance versus merely acceptable performance should be a serious concern for company officers and fire departments.

It’s easy to identify and report the mistakes that firefighters make during training sessions. After all, firefighters are human, and all humans make mistakes. But we can do better than merely relying on post-incident reports. We can observe the attitudes and performance of those firefighters who distinguish themselves during training and fireground operations. Demonstrated excellence in a training environment is no guarantee of excellence during a true emergency. However, firefighters who display excellence during training and normal fireground operations will most likely demonstrate similar behavior during an actual emergency.

Performance-2-Brian Bastinell 2003Critical Success Factors

Excellent firefighters share certain attributes and attitudes that are present at all times. In my observation, excellence boils down to the following three critical success factors:
1. An intimate knowledge of and a passion for the fire service profession;
2. A professional attitude that includes understanding the job’s dangers, practicing situational awareness and reacting conservatively to a challenging event; and
3. The acceptance and use of the department’s operational procedures.

Let’s take a closer look at each of the three.

Critical Success Factor No. 1:

An intimate knowledge of and a passion for the fire service profession. Highly successful firefighters take pride in knowing their profession, much more than the minimum required training. They spend time reading articles in professional trade magazines, talking about tools and techniques with other firefighters, critiquing their own incidents, attending conferences or classes and, most important, reviewing their department’s operational procedures. They are very familiar with the tools and equipment carried on their apparatus, and how best to use them. They accept, understand and practice the Incident Management System (IMS).

Excellent firefighters are knowledgeable about building construction and pre-fire plans. They know the different types of construction and how they affect safety and operational tactics on the fireground. They are students of the fire service and are always seeking more knowledge.

Because they are human, excellent firefighters still make mistakes. But their mistakes are fewer, less serious and more quickly discovered and corrected than those made by other firefighters.

How does an intimate knowledge of and a passion for the fire service influence the daily activities of an excellent firefighter? The answer is simple: Firefighters are constantly making life and death decisions. To make a decision, they must collect and analyze the current information and compare it with past experiences and lessons learned. The excellent firefighter draws on a wider range of information, which leads to better decisions. Lacking important information, especially the understanding of basic operational and safety procedures and techniques, can result in disaster. In the fire service, knowledge is not just power; it’s safety.

Critical Success Factor No. 2:

A professional attitude that includes understanding the job’s dangers, practicing situational awareness and reacting conservatively to challenging events. Professional firefighters know that the fire ground is dangerous and that conditions can change rapidly, without warning. They are not complacent. They are skeptical. They are alert and are always asking themselves, “What if…?” “What will we do if we cannot contain the fire to this room?” Excellent firefighters are prepared with a backup plan should the initial plan fail.

Because they are skeptical, these excellent firefighters will sense abnormalities sooner than their peers. They will anticipate, and thus avoid, potentially hazardous events. When unexpected events do occur, they will identify and handle them more effectively than other firefighters.

A constant situational awareness is one of the most important aspects of the critical success factors. Firefighters who exhibit constant situational awareness always know what their objective is, how much air they have and most important, where they are with regard to some reference point in the structure. Many case studies from tragic fireground incidents cite a loss of situational awareness.

A challenging event is anything that occurs on the fireground that could potentially affect safety. An equipment failure would be considered a challenging event, as would a change in the weather; either could compromise safety. In response to challenging events, excellent firefighters take actions to preserve or enhance the current level of safety. Examples include not entering a fire building if the conditions are deteriorating too rapidly, or revising strategies because of changing weather. The first goal of any fireground operation is firefighter safety; everything else comes second. The excellent firefighter is aggressively conservative.

Critical Success Factor No. 3:

The acceptance and use of the department’s operational procedures. All fire departments should have a complete set of operational procedures called standard operating procedures (SOPs) or standard operating guidelines (SOGs). Regardless of the name, operational procedures provide structure for fireground operations.

Some firefighters rely on operational procedures more than others; some take them for granted, and some ignore them completely. When asked why operational procedures are important, firefighters might reply, “So everyone will do things the same way.” But there’s much more to them than standardization.

Operational procedures provide firefighters with time-tested, consistent, safe methods of accomplishing many normal and abnormal tasks. They help firefighters avoid the surprises that might occur if there were no prescribed methods for handling the event.

Lastly, adherence to the department’s operational procedures help keep firefighters prepared and ready to react to unexpected events, which might include a low air bottle alarm, a lost firefighter, or an incident that escalates rapidly in size or complexity. These challenging events can be anticipated and practiced. Department operational procedures provide firefighters with a set process for dealing with such events, and excellent firefighters embrace their use.

Are You Observing?

The lesson learned by observing excellent firefighters is clear. The excellent firefighter has a passion for the profession, understands the dangers of the job, is aware of their surroundings, responds conservatively to challenging events and accepts and uses operational procedures.

How do your firefighters measure up against these critical success factors? Do they continually study their profession and practice the responsibilities of their position? Do they take seriously, the potential dangers that come with their job and prepare for them? And do they review, accept, and practice the department’s operational procedures in order to perform safely and effectively?

The three critical success factors can be a company officer’s checklist for safe and effective fireground operations, and a long and successful fire service career. So ask yourself honestly: If someone was observing you, would you rate as an excellent firefighter?

This was from an article written for Fire Rescue Magazine that was published in February 2007.

What’s Working? What’s Not?

Photo by Kim Fitzsimmons

Photo by Kim Fitzsimmons

Start, Stop, Continue is a well-known method for feedback that many organizations and teams use to gauge effectiveness. You simply ask:

  • What can we start doing that will make us more effective?
  • What can we stop doing that makes us less effective?
  • What can we continue to do that’s providing value to us?

Another, less formal feedback technique that is similar is called WWWN. It stands for What’s working? What’s not? It’s a simple, effective communication tool that can illuminate critical issues or operations for improvement while creating a learning culture of openness.

Give them a try. Which one works better for you?

Why Vision Matters

+Fire+lookout+volunteer+trainer+Brad+Vision is the lifeblood of a any fire department. It is what keeps it moving forward. It transported the fire service from bucket brigades to rapid intervention crews. It provides meaning to the everyday challenges that make up the complexity of delivering emergency services. It reminds fire department members why they are there.

Fire departments are connected to the economy. And in a down economy things can get very tactical. Many fire departments are just trying to survive. What worked in the past does not work today. What works today may not work tomorrow. Decisions become very pragmatic; they tend to become reactionary.

After a while, this begins to take a toll on the members on the front lines: the firefighters, officers, dispatchers, and support personnel doing the real work on the streets. They begin to wonder why their efforts matter. They have trouble connecting their actions to the larger story. Their work becomes just a matter of going through the motions; running the calls, repairing the trucks, and delivering the supplies.

The clarity of your vision, along with your ability to cast that vision, will determine what you’re able to accomplish in leadership.

This is where great leadership in the fire service makes all the difference. Leadership is about more than influence, it’s about fire department leaders, at every level, reminding their members of what it is they are trying to do – and why it matters. It is about painting a better picture of the future, and articulating that vision to everyone, everyday and everywhere.


Take a few minutes to think about these questions which may help you begin to examine your fire department’s vision.

DO YOUR DAILY ACTIVITIES align with your fire department’s long-range vision?
DOES YOUR FIRE DEPARTMENT’S VISION inspire commitment from your members (remember, members include all personnel, not just firefighters)?
HOW REGULARLY DO YOU COMMUNICATE the vision to those you lead?
HAS YOUR FIRE DEPARTMENT’S VISION been adopted by your members?


TODAY, THINK about what may be preventing your members from believing in and living your fire department’s vision. What is it?

Thinking FAST and SLOW Influences Our Decision Making

Our brains process information in two very distinct ways: One way is FAST thinking which acts automatically based on our experience or what we see, and the other is SLOW thinking where our body speeds up (our muscles tense, our pupils dilate, and our heart rate increases) but our brain slows down. Both FAST and SLOW thinking influence our reactions and drive our decision making.

Depending on the complexity of the situation and the risk involved, firefighters must be able to use either FAST or SLOW thinking.

Watch this short video from AsapSCIENCE for important information about how we make decisions.

How do you practice decision making in complex situations?

Want more information on decision making? Read Daniel Kahneman’s Thinking Fast and Slow which describes in detail, with several examples, how our brains have two systems, or speeds to help us make decisions. Also a must read is Gary Klein’s Streetlights and Shadows which sums up his take on rapid prime decision making in complex situations.

Getting Your People to Change Starts With You

Old_firefightersGetting your people to change starts with you.

Actions speak louder than words, and we hear it all the time, “It’s hard to change people with deeply embedded traditional behaviors!”

To be innovative and keep up with the rapidly changing complexities in our world, WE must be willing to change our behaviors and beliefs. And leaders must go first and set the pace and ideal behaviors for the rest of the organization. 

Here’s a way WE can begin to change:

  • WE need to be brutally honest about the behaviors that we must change.
  • WE must be willing to move away from what we all know as the business of yesterday.
  • WE have to build speed through trust. As trust goes up, work and time to results go down.

How do you get yourself motivated to make the change in the first place? When should you take massive action verses practicing incremental change?