In last month's column, I gave a short review of an article by former FDNY Battalion Chief John Salka, which appeared in the spring issue of Sizeup, which is published by the New York State Association of Fire Chiefs. A second article on the same topic, Incident Command System, caught my attention. This article is titled, "Morphing the ICS." The author is Deputy Chief Mike Bryant, who is a 34-year veteran of the county of Los Angeles Fire Department, who retired in 2014.
In his article Chief Bryant compared knowledge versus real life experience for Incident Commanders. He rightfully states that a lack of fires combined with newly promoted people in command level positions and a reliance on book knowledge without supporting experience can be a recipe for disaster. He basically says that books are wonderful, but fire service leaders should not interpret what they learn in the classroom as cast in concrete. Flexibility or "morphing" as the Chief calls it, to suit the needs of your department's current conditions and the type of emergency you are dealing with, makes sense.
I do disagree with the Chief in his article where he makes statements like, "He wishes the fire service members would stop saying that Incident Command System is a tool box for Incident Commanders to access as they are required for tools to solve a particular situation." It appears that he voices his concern for that term because he fears that an inexperienced Incident Commander will not select the correct tool from the Incident Command System tool box for the appropriate situation at the right time, leading to disaster and an organizational mess.
This is where many fire service incident commanders incorrectly use the ICS toolbox: They assign divisions and/or group supervisor positions like they are giving out candy at Halloween (everyone gets one). Part of the reason is that the ICS books show incident organizational charts with many positions listed. However, there is little explanation of when, where, and how these positions should be assigned.
He gives a couple of examples such as:
This is another example of morphing ICS. You are the incident commander (IC) at a residential single family dwelling fire (1,500 square feet). You reach into your ICS toolbox and begin to assign single resources (engines/trucks) as division and/or group supervisor positions. Why do ICs do this? Well, geez, the ICS book says when I reach my span of control, I need to expand the incident organization.
Chief Bryant goes on to state:
How complex do you think this single family dwelling fire is going to get with six to eight resources at the scene? Is it going to burn down the entire neighborhood or adjacent exposures? Does this incident have entire neighborhood or adjacent exposures? Does this incident have the complexities of multiple stories, building size or type, with large life loss potential? Probably not!
Chief Bryant may have responded to thousands of structure fires and other complex emergencies in his long career in a busy department. However, many Chiefs do not get that magnitude of serious calls. In many small career, combination, or volunteer departments, they just do not get that many major incidents. And, in some cases, if you were not in service for the "big one," it might be a year or more for the next one to come in.
I believe that it makes sense for "quiet" departments to utilize and expand the Incident Command System for the 1,500 square foot ranch, as well as drills. By using various parts of their ICS, it increases their chances of running a good incident when they will be coordinating complex incidents involving large numbers of first responders and equipment.
We all learn and function well by going through the motions, practice, and mistakes.