Blog by Dr. Richard B. Gasaway, PhD, EFO, CFO
Retired Fire Chief and Web Master for Situational Awareness Matters

Firefighters know the job is physically demanding. Pulling hose, setting ladders and searching for victims all require the physical capacity of more than one person. Firefighters work in teams of two, three or four so the heavy lifting can be shared among many. Firefighters also work in hazardous environments in teams. Just in case something goes wrong, there are other team members ready to help out.

Unfortunately, in many fire departments the concept of teamwork and sharing the heavy lifting hasn’t transcended to the command role, which is unfortunate. Because commanders are hands-off (hopefully), it is assumed their jobs are much easier and less demanding. This is a whopping fallacy. Commanders are doing just as much heavy lifting as any fire company in turnout gear. But commanders do their heavy lifting with their brains, not their brawn.

And just like firefighters who get overwhelmed with the physical demands of their tasks, commanders can also get overwhelmed with the mental demands of their tasks. In both cases, the solution is getting the overwhelmed person some help. For firefighters this means working in teams, deploying additional companies and calling mutual aid. The same concepts should be applied for command.

When the task is mentally challenging, the commander should assemble a command team. As the complexity of the incident increases, the commander should have additional personnel, perhaps companies of personnel, assigned to support command and help with the heavy mental lifting. For really complex incidents, the commander should be able to call mutual aid for command support.

Mutual aid for command? Fire departments in many regions are familiar with mutual aid for front-line operational personnel. The same concept can be applied for command. Mutual aid agreements and automatic aid agreements should be in place so commanders can call for assistance.

In many instances it is unrealistic for front-line operational personnel to be assigned to command support roles. There are two fundamental problems with a plan that includes assigning front-line personnel to command support roles. First, staffing levels may not support this. Second, front line personnel assigned to assist command may not have the proper training and experience to fill command support roles. When the former happens, front-line personnel assigned to command support roles may cause a staffing shortage for operational tasks. When the latter occurs, command can actually be hindered by the presence of support personnel who do not know how to perform command support tasks.

The solution is to plan for the need to support commanders in advance of ever having an emergency. Identify where command support personnel should come from and strive to ensure those personnel are properly trained to perform command support duties.

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 his 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 over a million visits since its launch in October 2011. He can be reached at Support@RichGasaway.com.