I recently received an email from a firefighter asking for my opinion as to whether or not the administrative chief officers in his department should respond to reported structure fires. My initial response was: “Well, Duh! Yes!”
But then I got to thinking about it more. How and when administrative chief officers respond to fires may help or may hinder situational awareness and incident safety. That reflection caused me to take pause. The answer isn’t so cut and dried.
So I revised answer is “It depends.” Let me explain why I recanted.
Framing the Problem
The member with the question is from a combination (“Composite” for my Canadian friends) fire department with 2 career administrative chief officers working during weekday, daytime hours. The department also has several part-time/volunteer operational chief officers who respond predominately during evenings and weekends. There are no chief officers on-duty after normal weekday office hours.
The weekday, daytime response staffing is limited also – both for on-duty personnel and for callback personnel.
The essence of the reader’s inquiry was to garner my opinion as to whether the daytime on-duty administrative chief officers should respond to reported structure fires to provide additional staffing and to support the incident command system.
An effective response system should have a pre-established design with certain expectations spelled out in advance for all responders. One of those expectations should be whether or not the administrative chief officers are going to integrate in the response system. If the design is for the administrative chiefs to respond, then the chiefs should respond (when they are able). If the design is for the administrative chiefs not to respond, then the chiefs should not respond (even when they are available).
The fundamental situational awareness premise for this stance is simple: No surprises. If the chiefs are supposed to respond… then respond. If the chiefs are not supposed to respond… then don’t respond. Being able to develop and maintain situational awareness during structure fires is stressful enough without having curve balls thrown at the responders.
The number of personnel needed for a structure fire should be discussed and established in advance. The number most often shared with me is 15-18 responders. This seems reasonable when you consider the number of tasks that need to be performed concurrently at a structure fire (e.g., command, safety, ops, attack, back-up, search, vent, RIT, water supply, utilities). Where staffing levels are limited, administrative chief officers can become an integral component of the emergency response and incident management.
Competency of the Administrative Chiefs
If the administrative chief officers are not competent incident commanders their response may hinder the operations and adversely impact situational awareness of personnel operating at the emergency scene. When the member who contacted me lamented about his administrative chiefs not responding to structure fires, I thought to myself… “Be careful what you wish for.” If administrative chiefs are well-trained and competent incident managers they can be a tremendous asset during a structure fire. If they aren’t well-trained and incompetent, they can be a tremendous liability.
Integration into Training
If administrative chief officers are going to respond to structure fires they need to participate in training evolutions with the front-line responders. It is a well-established best practice that front-line operational personnel practice structural firefighting skills on a regular basis. Among the many benefits of practicing skills is improved communications and incident coordination. If the administrative chiefs do not regularly participate in the training, there is a risk they will be a liability because their communications skills and coordination skills may be under-developed.
Equally as bad, when administrative chiefs do not participate in the training sessions they may not understand the abilities (and inabilities) of the front-line personnel they will be supervising. This can adversely impact situational awareness. The highest level of situational awareness comes from being able to accurately predict future events.
When administrative chiefs are unfamiliar with crew abilities they cannot effectively predict the performance of the crews. Thus, they cannot accurately predict the future outcomes of that performance and Level 3 Situational Awareness is flawed.
Chief Gasaway’s Advice
2. Set and communicate expectations, in advance, for what types of calls the administrative chief officers will respond to and what role they will play when they arrive.
3. If the administrative chiefs officers are going to be active responders, integrate them into operational training evolutions so they get to know the capabilities of personnel and they get to practice their roles in advance of emergency responses.
1. Discuss the qualifications for competent commanders. Evaluate all potential commanders to determine if they meet the qualifications. Help those whose training or skills are deficient to achieve the minimums.
2. Discuss, in advance of an incident, the types of incidents administrative chief officers will respond to and what role they will play at the incident scene when they do respond.
3. Discuss how to integrate administrative chief officer participation into company level training to ensure the chiefs understand the abilities (and inabilities) of personnel and they are skilled at incident communications and coordination.
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