Is it easy to be an Incident Commander?

Aviation Rescue Services

Is it straightforward? Can anybody do it? I think the answer to that is no.

The role of the Fire Service incident commander has changed dramatically over the last few years, as such they are expected to demonstrate new array of behavioural and subjective competences.

Professional Judgement. Incident commanders are expected to apply professional judgement. What does that look like? Traditionally professional judgement was directly aligned to experience, but how do you gain this experience at a time when incident numbers are dropping?

Assertive, effective and safe commanders. This is the utopia! A description of an effective commander. Fabulous qualities that all commanders should have, dynamic, reactive and balanced commanders, who are happy to make decisions and lead the incident.

Operational Discretion. What is operational discretion? It’s an unknown, and everyone has a slightly different explanation or interpretation of what it means. I believe it’s a state of professionalism, where individuals are asked to make a decision, which is outside of procedure, a decision which they know may also be outside the organisational risk philosophy.

Operational Accountability. All fire services are accountable for the actions of their personnel. In an era of litigation, the Fire Service needs to be comfortable and assured, that their personnel are qualified and confident in making decisions. How do train them to attend this confidence?

But what makes somebody an effective commander? How should you develop and nurture those skills? When should you start that development process? How should you measure this competence? Every fire service has got a different answer to these questions, yet they are all working to exactly the same role map and providing almost identical services.

I believe that an effective commander is someone who has ultimately been selected through section tests that focus on managerial qualities, experience, and aptitude, not just seniority. They also need to have the right technical knowledge and proficiencies. They need to know the organisational rulebook, policies & procedures, or framework and importantly they should know how to apply them. But at an incident they need to know which policies or procedures are applicable, they need to recognise when they need to use professional judgement and importantly be comfortable and confident with the level of operational discretion they have decided to take.

The Effective Command training and assessment methodology, launched in 2015 and developed by Dr Katherine Lamb (formerly Oxfordshire FRS) and Dr David Launder (South Australian Metropolitan Fire Service) focuses on developing thinking commanders. This training methodology has been integrated in many international projects and fire services as best practise. The methodology focuses on developing decision-making behaviours, through the use of dilemma-based training scenarios, utilising either simulation, real fire ground training or monitoring the performance of a commander at an incident. It is supported by a series of web-based assessment tools and apps, and the methodology has been pre-accredited by Skills for Fire Service Awards for their Incident Command qualifications at all command levels.

We believe that thinking commanders come from thinking firefighters. For example, if you train firefighters to think in a fire behaviour training, they will be able to read the fire. They will understand what they’re looking at and they’ll make a decision about what firefighting tactics to apply. They won’t just open the door and deal with the fire from a fixed procedural perspective, they will read and understand it.

Thinking firefighters, they become thinking commanders. Focus on decision making behaviours rather than specific procedural or role-based competencies. And if you apply that philosophy through the whole of the service, form the operation level right through the strategic management, you’ll end up with a cohesive, dynamic, and thinking service.

Individuals need to be given the opportunity to change the specific competences of knowledge, experience, and skill, acquired from training or operational exposure, into command competence. Let them take that two-dimensional information they’ve learnt and transpose it into a 3D model in their heads. Let them take that knowledge, experience, and skill, and landmark it, in such a way they remember it and importantly how it all fits together. That is an effective training methodology.

A cost-effective way of delivering this kind of learning experience is through the use of simulation. Simulation gives incident command trainers the opportunity to create a whole array of scenarios and allow people to make mistakes. We learn best by making mistakes and figuring out what we should do different next time.

I always abdicate that it must be a complex incident. Give somebody a dilemma. Give them a problem to solve. Rather than test the ability of an individual to resolve an incident by turning to the right page in the procedure manual and apply an organisational procedure by rote. Anybody can do that. Give them a scenario that requires them to make time-critical decisions. A scenario that allows you as the assessor or training officer to explore the decision-making rationale of the individual.

A reactive training environment helps them cement their learning. If they make appropriate decisions, there must be appropriate outcomes at the end. If a BA crew is given a good quality brief and appropriately equipped with hose and sufficient water, then the fire should go out. Conversely, if a poor brief is given and the fire continues to develop, then the commander needs to be given the opportunity to review their decisions and make tactical changes to the plan, based on the dynamically changing visual cues.

The Effective Command competence assessment always occurs in a structural debrief after a scenario. The commanders are asked to explain what they were doing, why, and what they were thinking. You cannot assess somebody’s competence at making a decision by standing at the back of the room with a clipboard. It doesn’t work. You need to get inside their head. It’s really important to understand the rationale behind their decisions and the actions they have chosen to take or avoid.

By training people in this way, you end up with assertive, effective, and safe commanders. Individuals who are confident and self-aware, who are well-trained and competent. They have good situational awareness and can lead their teams in a clear and cohesive way. You can trust them, and incident command decision making revolves around trust. By developing decision making skills in your commanders, you are equipping them to progress to the status of an ’All Hazards Commander’ a commander who has the confidence and competence to deal with the unexpected!


Dr Katherine Lamb MIFireE, MSc (Oxon), BSc (hons)

Dr Katherine Lamb is a respected authority on the Incident Command training and assessment. She worked as a research scientist before joining the Fire Service in 2004. For the last 6 years she specialised in Incident Command and crisis decision making. Effective Command is a charitable organization which develops the concept of the thinking commander, a commander who has the capacity to deal with the unexpected.

Katherine can be contacted via email to find out more about the Effective Command methodology or assessment tools.

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