Blog by Dr. Richard B. Gasaway, PhD, EFO, CFO
Retired Fire Chief and Web Master for Situational Awareness Matters
There is a lot of emphasis these days on the need for strong incident management. In fact, when things go wrong one of the contributing factors often cited is the lack of command presence or issues with the quality of command. This is critical because the inccident commander is the “big picture” person – the person charged with developing and maintaining strong situational awareness for the entire incident (versus at a company level).
What does it take for a person to effectively command an incident? This is a question I get asked often, and the answer may be easier than you think. Based upon my experience in firefighter safety, coupled with my education in neuroscience, here are the criteria I would recommend. The person who is going to serve as the incident commander should:
Training: Receive training in how to command an incident. This goes beyond training on how to perform line tasks. The skill set required to command is very different than front-line skills. To be effective, commander training is essential.
Experience: Gain experience through commanding training incidents and having a mentor while at real incidents. Build the skill set at a pace that allows confidence to build.
Hands Off: The cognitive capacity (i.e., brain power) needed to command an incident with multiple companies working is huge. In fact, I’d go as far as to say it requires the cognitive horsepower of at least two people. It takes a lot of brain energy (and attention) to process and understand all the information coming into a commander’s eyes and ears. If the commander is hands-on (i.e., performing firefighting duties), there simply isn’t enough capacity to effectively do both jobs. The hands-on task of firefighting will override the cognitive task of commanding.
Big Picture: To be effective, the commander must be in a position to capture, process, comprehend and recall critical clues and cues on the macro (big picture) level. The closer the commander is to the action, the harder it is to see and hear the critical clues and cues.
Working Command
In some agencies, the first arriving officer establishes a working (or mobile) command and joins the firefighting crew. It is not for me to judge if, or when, this may be an appropriate action as there are so many factors that could influence this decision. However, it is indisputable that the officer who chooses to go hands-on and focus at the task-level (versus the big picture) cannot effectively develop, or maintain, big picture situational awareness. It’s equivalent to being on an airplane where the pilots set the automated flight management system and then come off the flight deck to serve drinks and snacks to the passengers. When no one is flying the plane, bad things can happen. When no one is commanding at the big-picture level, bad things can happen. Do whatever you think is best under the circumstances you face. Just understand the risks involved to both yourself and others when no one is serving as the big-picture, hands-off commander.
About the Author

Dr. Gasaway is widely considered to be one of the nation’s leading authorities on situational awareness and decision making processes used by first responders. In addition to more than 30 years in the fire service, including 22 years as a fire chief, Dr. Gasaway has a second passion: Uncovering and applying research in brain science for the benefit of first responders. His website, Situational Awareness Matters (www.SAMatters.com), has enjoyed more than 1 million visits since its launch in October of 2011.