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.

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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.”

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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.

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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.

Row House Fire: Philadelphia

Video by: phillyfirenews. Video info: Row Home Fire in West Philadelphia on Friday, Jan. 17, 2014. The fire was located on the 1600 block of N. 60th Street. Video provided to PhillyFireNews.com by Fox29

Apply Intentional Command to efficiently synchronize resources and effectively attack rapidly evolving, complex and severe problems.

Full Speed Size Up

  1. What is the occupancy?
  2. What is the life hazard?
  3. Where are the occupants?
  4. Where is the fire?
  5. What is the fire doing to the building and where is it going?
  6. What is the ventilation situation?

What problems are created, and what tactical and Command solutions (strategies)  must be applied?

Midtown Manhattan High Rise Fire

Over 200 FDNY firefighters battled a fire on the 20th floor of a 40 story apartment fire yesterday.

One person was killed and another critically hurt after a large fire broke out in a midtown Manhattan high-rise Sunday morning, officials say.

More than 200 firefighters worked to put out the three-alarm blaze, which began on the 20th floor of the 40-story building at 500 West 43rd St., on 10th Avenue., according to the FDNY.

Crews were able to get to the scene quickly, within 5 minutes, but it took some time for firefighters to get to the upper floors, according to authorities.

Fighting a fire in a high-rise building requires a tremendous commitment of both personnel and supervision. Command must coordinate the operation into various divisions and groups as quickly as possible. Search and rescue operations have to be well-planned and strategically coordinated with handlines. Operational reaction time at a high-rise fire is much greater than for any other type of structure. Expect up to a 20 minute delay, even with a quick on scene time. Focused command coordination combined with preassigned tactical operations are required to safely and effectively control a high-rise fire.

Are you ready for a high-rise fire? Is your command staff trained and prepared to coordinate a high-rise fire operation? Do you have a tactical plan ready to battle the fireground factors involved with a high-rise fire?

My Recent Presentation: Arrival, Now What?

GFFSLast Friday, I had the privilege of speaking at the the Great Florida Fire School in Ft. Pierce, Florida. Hundreds of firefighters attended the week-long conference that included both lecture and practical programs ranging from live fire to classroom classes. A few of my friends delivered the following classes: Applications of Positive Pressure (Captain John Flynn), The Courage Within (Driver/Operator Ric Jorge), and Gauges Don’t Lie (Doug Watson).

My program was a compilation of a few of my previous lectures on crew resource management that address stress, situation awareness, decision making, and intentional command all rolled into one. I called it Arrival, Now What: The First Fifteen are the Most Important! Why are the first 15 minutes the most important? It’s simple, that’s where more things happen than we have time and resources to handle. This highly compressed time frame increases chaos that forces us to play catch up, and we have to be more aware of it and have a better approach to handle it. Following are some takeaways from my presentation, just to get you thinking.

Numerous “fireground frictions” impact impact the first fifteen minutes of an incident. Frictions are “uncertainties that complicate performance” and they include, but are not limited to, disorientation, extreme fire behavior, loss of situation awareness, task saturation, and command confusion. Watch the video below for information about how new materials and technologies that are making fire-related risks much greater and our challenges for more difficult.

How do we transform unproductive confusion and disorder into controllable challenges? We study the predictability and performance of buildings and today’s fireground, and we improve the skill of controlling chaos. New scientific studies are showing us (seeing can be believing) how our tactics sometimes help or hinder the situation. The video below shows how controlling the door can seriously impact a fire event, and can help us control the fire (watch the temperatures change).

To stay ready, we have to practice sensible approaches that improve situation awareness, reduce task saturation, and improve decision making in those highly compressed time frames. Here are some of the sources I used to make my point:

What other problems (frictions) can you identify in the first fifteen minutes of an incident? How do you transform unproductive confusion and disorder into controllable challenges? What are you doing to stay ready?

Are We Training Enough on Command and Control?

cfd-alexander-2-olkIn a National Fire Academy Alumni blog, John Bierling asks, “Is command failure an acceptable incident outcome?” He continues with this:

Nearly every NIOSH Firefighter LOOD investigation report states that one of the contributing factors is the failure to adequately “Command and Control” the incident. How is this possible? Fire Chiefs across the country will say, “We establish Command at every incident and the fire service is good at ICS.” If that’s true, why the consistent command failure when the incident goes bad? Does the incident go bad because of “command failure” or do we fail to adequately command when the pressure is on and the need is greatest?

My question is, “Are we dedicating enough time to practicing ICS for incidents that stretch our span of control? I don’t believe we are. Recent studies of command and control (C/C) during rapid intervention operations in my area found that there is little hands-on, realistic training on C/C of single and multi-alarm incidents, or as part of a RIC or Rapid Intervention Group deployment. That’s unacceptable!

At our fire department, we just completed a Command and Control Decision Making course to begin to address this issue. The program, based on the NFA command and control curriculum,  was designed for our new district chiefs. The course focused on identifying problems (5 boxes), making decisions, and span of control (again 5) for one and two-alarm fires. Using a variety of real-fire videos (including sound) to create a certain level of stress, students role-played command positions ranging from incident command, command aide, safety, and division and group supervisors. The outcome for the students was better situational awareness, decision making, communication, and teamwork.

Command is about situational awareness and decision making, and control requires practice. Anyone expected to play the “command” role must continuously study command operations and practice realistic command scenarios. Command and control must have the same amount of training focus and attention as firefighter tactics and tasks. After all, without command and control can we really accomplish the tactics?

How much time do you dedicate to practicing ICS for incidents that stretch your command and control? What type of training do you use?

When Should Command Be Expanded – Before or After the Mayday is Called?

Photo by Tim Olk

My article for the Firefighter/EMT Safety, Health & Survival Section of  the May 2012 issue of IAFC On Scene: Expanding Command Ahead of Demand.

If a mayday operation requires rapid, concise decisions and actions to increase firefighter survivability, then when should command be expanded—before or after the mayday is called?

We know that our work on the fireground is complex, dangerous and chaotic. We know that building and maintaining effective command and control is essential for successful and safe operations. We also know that fireground operations demand that we have a heightened sense of awareness, the ability to adapt to rapidly changing conditions and the skill and will to make critical decisions, and do so fast.

But how do we accomplish that, especially during a mayday situation, with limited or no command staff?

Read the entire article here.

Do you have adequate staffing and resources to handle a Mayday operation? Is your command staff ready to manage the risk and make the decisions to successfully control a Mayday incident?