The Operations Function (position) in the Incident Command System (ICS) has its hands full during the first few minutes of the fire. This position is the one responsible for deploying and managing companies until the arrival of successive chief officers, to fill in the gaps, and keep things going according to plan. It is also the job of the Ops Chief is to support or not support what the first few companies are doing, once he or she arrives. What’s more, once the balance of the first alarm assignment gets there, this person must start slowing down the pace of deployment to ensure that the initial companies are properly supported. In my place, I have four engines, two trucks, three chiefs and a rescue company that all want to do something when they get there, as they have pre-determined assignments based upon their order of arrival. With this, there can be such a problem as managing ‘adequate’ resources in some instances if they’re all getting there within five minutes and can overwhelm the chief if things are already going south. It is easy to get into a ‘Plug-n-Play’ deployment conundrum if you don’t get ahold of your companies before they ‘punch-in’ to the fire building. This refers to simply allowing companies to head into the building under the assumption that they know where they’re supposed to be going. Make sure that all of your companies are stopping into the Command Post (CP) and or say Hello to the Ops chief before heading in.
As a chief officer, if you have any decent-size fire upon arrival, you know that you will soon have at least two hoselines stretched, trucks and rescues poking around on every level and cops and bystanders looking to get info and accountability, all at the same time. This is why we like having companies say, “Hello” in person before deploying and have command boards at the CP to track and account for everyone enjoying themselves during the incident; however, there is one component of the CP that isn’t a box or item on a physical board or tracking system, won’t be found in any ICS class or policy, but can kill your command board and plan and cause all sorts of the above problems if it isn’t managed or tracked well: The Suggestion Box.
The Suggestion Box is simply the process of a later-arriving company(s) meandering over and standing next to the Ops chief at the CP, letting you know that they’re awaiting an assignment and what productive thing or two that they could be doing – if you let them…
The Suggestion Box is a place that everyone has likely been as a company officer, particularly at greater alarms. I also call this place the “Command Bored.” In full disclosure, I was one of the greatest violators and a frequent visitor as a boss, myself. This Box is not always a bad thing to have on the fireground, but you better know how to manage it, or you’ll find yourself with several more companies in the fire building than you remembered to keep track of, clogged stairwells, and no companies readily available to relieve companies when their bells start ringing and tell you that they’re coming out of the building.
Posit: You agree to let a company or two that’s been standing around for a bit to, “check for extension” in another wing of the building that you initially considered to be unaffected by fire or smoke. This is a harmless assignment and you add this company number(s) to a corner of your command board as they go walk stairs and hallways for a while, not radioing you so that they get to stay in the building, and forget to keep tabs, as initial, operating companies start sending a litany of updates and location change requests (head to floor above, et al) once the fire is knocked down*.
*Once the fire is knocked down, prepare for everyone to get on the radio, as this is the opportune time they have to do it and keep an eye on their people at the same time under less stressful conditions. Prior to the fire getting a good ‘knock’, expect most of your comms to be from deploying companies and other chiefs. Remember, let the initial companies get to work before hounding them on the radio. They’ll let you know what they need if there’re any immediate concerns. This is also the time that you may forget that a couple of companies got some special treatment from you and are still in the building. Remember to never cross out a company on the board unless they’re actually out of the building.
Now that you’ve let a couple of companies swindle you into hanging out in the fire building, do you think that they’re going to volunteer to come out? It’s a rhetorical question as you can bet your pension that they’ll meander closer to the fire floor/area, hoping you forgot about them, and radio that they’re available to help a company they just ran into that needs help pulling ceiling or moving hose. This one was in my old bag of tricks, which is why I look for it…
The main concern with regards to safety, sans accounting for their location when you forget about them, is what usually happens when more companies are deployed than need to be: Clogged stairwells. A lot of people spend every second of their careers trying to get out of the engine to cross the floor to the truck, but for some reason, everyone wants to be near the first line’s nozzle when there’s a fire. This means that companies will tend to flock to stairwells to get after the areas involved in the most fire, if their assignment is completed, a company requests more help checking for extension or they weren’t lucky to have been one of the first few companies to arrive. Although we can discuss stairwell management and keeping people off them until they need to be on them, the Suggestion Box is usually the thing that leads to an overly-clogged means of egress. Companies that have been sitting in the nosebleeds until they finally got the nod to head in will make sure that they get as close to the action as possible, and almost always spend time on the stairwells to get a piece.
Finally, the Suggestion Box is the number one reason you run out of companies later on in an incident. Although not as hectic, you still have to relieve companies once the fire is under control. It is a sinking feeling when you realize that you still need companies to do something, but have been swindled by the Suggestion Box and sent needed companies in to do whatever. Analogous to redeploying charged supply hoselines, consider the time to get these companies out of the building and or relocated in a timely fashion. Moreover, they may be running out of air, too, and will be a two-for-one loss of manpower to get stuff done. I know that you can always call for extra resources or additional alarms, but you’re a pro and don’t want to be known as a two alarm mattress fire chief.
It’s okay to beg for work. We all do, but that’s what radios are for while you’re out shopping for the meal or driving by another firehouse’s area when the alarm comes in. The Suggestion Box is okay if there’s something that was truly missed, or could be done. Chiefs don’t ever make mistakes, but we do make ‘oversights’ and sometimes need something brought up that we missed. The Suggestion Box just needs to be managed, accordingly. Succumbing to the gravitas of experienced or regarded officers and haphazardly letting people pick an assignment becomes the Mission Creep we sometimes have to make after-action reviews about, later. Always expect this “Sixth Function” of Command to rear its head at good fires and be ready to manage it. You’re the chief!