I recently read, with great interest, a very long thread on Facebook about whether or not an incident commander should wear turnout gear at a fire scene. As my focus and passion is improving first responder situational awareness, I would like to address this issue from that perspective.
The feedback on Facebook was, as expected, all over the place with some participants saying the commander should be in turnout gear. Some said the commander should not be in turnout gear. And some displayed the typical (and expected) disdain for management and saying the chiefs should just stay in their offices. Editorial comments lacking maturity aside, the question of whether an incident commander should wear turnout gear is one I field often during my Fifty Ways to Kill a First Responder program so I thought I’d take the matter up here.
There are, essentially, two fundamental issues at hand:
- Should the incident commander be close enough to the hazards to require turnout gear?
- Should the incident commander set the example for others by wearing turnout gear?
The location of the commander and his or her proximity to the hazards should dictate the need for the structural firefighting protective ensemble. If the commander is going to be close enough to require gear for protection, then gear should be worn. That one seems simple.
But should the incident commander be that close to the action? That question perhaps gets more to the heart of the issue. Speaking from the perspective of brain science and situational awareness, there are some fundamental things to know before this can be debated:
- By definition, an incident commander must be far enough back from the action to be able to see the big picture incident in order to develop and maintain situational awareness.
- The cognitive demands (i.e., brain capacity) needed to command an emergency incident with multiple companies working are enormous. In many instances, these demands use all the commanders’ brain capacity.
- A commander who is close to the action may feel compelled to become ‘hands-on’ which can impact his or her ability to command. Being hands-on causes the commander to be task oriented, not big picture oriented. Being hands-on also requires some of the commander’s limited cognitive capacity (brain power) to perform the hands-on task. This can diminish the commander’s ability to process and comprehend important command-level information.
- Under stress, people become creatures of habit (see the earlier article entitled “Creatures of Habit“). If a commander has spent years serving as a hands-on firefighter (and let’s hope he or she has), under stress there may be a compelling urge to perform hands-on activities. Being close to the action and being donned in the protective gear may be enough to facilitate hands-on action. It’s a psychological thing.
In the seat or in the street?
I also get asked an awful lot about whether the commander should be situated in a vehicle or outside a vehicle. This is a hotly debated topic. Those who command from inside a vehicle (I’ll call them seat commanders) have a list of reasons why they prefer to be located there. Likewise, those who command from outside a vehicle (I’ll call them street commanders) also have a list of reasons why they prefer to be located in the street.
I am not the one to serve as the judge on where best to command from. First and foremost, I’d say command from where you are most comfortable… from the position that taps and uses your command abilities and intuition to their fullest. I will, however, make some observations based on my research and interviews with experienced commanders.
Seat Commander Advantages
- The commander will be in a physical position that will likely reduce distractions and interruptions which are significant barriers to situational awareness.
- The commander will be exposed to less noise which can improve the ability to hear radio traffic, improving situational awareness.
- The commander will not be in a position to become hands-on, which improves the dedication of cognitive resources to the act of commanding which improves situational awareness.
- The commander is in an environment of controlled light and temperature. Diminished environmental comforts can impact situational awareness.
- The commander is in an environment that improves access and use of technology such as mobile data computers, command boards and worksheets. Data management improves situational awareness.
Street Commander Advantages
- The commander is able to provide face-to-face instructions to scene personnel. This can reduce miscommunications and improve situational awareness.
- The commander is mobile and able to physically see more of the incident. Capturing more clues and cues can improve situational awareness.
- The commander is in a physical position to use more senses to prompt intuition which can improve situational awareness.
- The commander is in a position to directly observe the physical stress and fatigue of personnel which can improve situational awareness.
- The commander is in a position of increased stress which, to some degree, can heighten awareness and improve performance.
My Personal Experience
I have commanded from both positions (seat and street) and have experienced, first hand, the advantages, and disadvantages of each.
Early in my career, I was a street commander and there was nothing anyone could have said to convince me otherwise. There was no way I was ever going to go sit in a car during a structure fire. I would have been so out of my element that I would have gone crazy. My comfort was being in and among the action.
However, as time passed and I was introduced slowly to the concept of being a seat commander and the advantages it provided to my effectiveness. I saw a marked improvement in my ability to hear my radio, in the reduction of distractions, in my ability to keep track of my personnel and (very importantly) my inability to think ahead of the incident. As reluctant as I was at first, I developed comfort and preference for being a seat commander.
Notwithstanding the occasional chiding I took from firefighters who thought sitting in the comfortable car while they were out in the elements was wimpy, I think they appreciated how my location directly impacted their safety.
Dr. Gasaway’s Advice
If you are the incident commander, wear turnout gear at the right times and for the right reasons. This includes while working in an environment where your health and wellness might be adversely impacted if you were not in turnout gear.
Wearing turnout gear to set an example is not a good explanation for why an IC should don gear that can be hot and uncomfortable. Let a football coach be an example. The coach stays on the sidelines and coaches the team to success. The coach does not wear the uniform of the players. The coach does not need a helmet and shoulder pads to be effective. In fact, it might impede effectiveness.
Players who have the mindset that leaders set poor examples by not wearing gear are struggling with understanding the role of the commander. A commander who feels he or she must wear turnout gear to set a good example may be struggling to understand the role of the commander as well.
On a side note, many times when firefighters die in structure fires, the commander is performing hands-on activities… not commanding in a position to see the big picture.
1. Does your commander wear turnout gear while commanding an incident? If so, why? If not, why?
2. Have you ever observed an incident commander being hands-on during an incident? What impact did it have on their effectiveness? Did it have an impact on the safety of personnel?
3. What are some tips a department can use to help responders and commanders understand the importance of each role on an incident scene and the benefits for the commander to be out of the action and not in turnout gear?
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