I have written before about the importance and benefits of utilizing pre-determined fireground assignments. It seems that too often we operate under systems which are completely reactive instead of proactive. I’ll use the ever present sports analogy to express my point: what would happen if the quarter back hiked the ball but never called a play, or spontaneously called an audible? Does an image of young football players crowding around the ball come to mind? Why doesn’t this system work?
We all know how dynamic and intense the fireground can be. Even bread and butter fires come with a certain level of anxiety and stress. We also know that our brains can only take in so much input at one time. In fact, all of our cognitive abilities are violently assaulted on the fireground. Yet we continue to use systems which rely on the first arriving officers or chiefs to orchestrate the entire operation from scratch. Does this allow us to keep our focus on the bigger picture?
Most people hear fireground assignments and instantly think of big city fire departments with endless resources. While some departments are lucky enough to have an assignment for the 7th in engine, most of us operate with close to a bare minimum of resources and personnel. Does this mean we can’t incorporate assignments? Absolutely not.
In my opinion the easiest way for smaller to mid-sized departments to utilize assignments is to build a list of fireground priorities, and the order in which they are typically performed. Even though every fire presents with its own unique challenges, many of them unfold in a similar manner. This allows us to use the building blocks of firefighting tactics to put together our priority list. The reason for building the priority list is that as apparatus arrive they simply plug themselves into the priority list, thus assuming a fireground assignment without even having to be told.
The reason this system works well is the built in flexibility while still allowing incoming crews to know their role. If the typical first in engine is delayed, the second in now becomes the first in and knows what they will be doing. Not only do they know what they will be doing, but all of the other responding apparatus know as well. Can you imagine pulling up to a scene and already knowing what you and everyone else will be assigned to? Think about the implications on accountability and overall control of the scene.
Obviously there will be situations which dictate altering the list of priorities. No assignment system should ever preclude officers or chiefs from redirecting crews to more pressing tasks. Obviously this will require some solid fireground communication, but that should already be the norm. Many times it is argued that using assignments will take away decision making abilities. This is a completely false impression. Having pre-determined assignments means the first arriving chiefs and officers can turn their attention to sizing up the situation instead of figuring out who goes where. By allowing these key personnel to take in the big picture we put them in a better situation from which to make decisions. If the first five minutes of the incident are spent figuring out where to put everyone, is that not more crippling than having assignments?
Every department has different needs and resources which will dictate what kind of system is used for fireground assignments. Pay attention to what other departments have used and how well it works for them. Talk to your crews and find out what would work best on their end. The more input you are able to get the better the system will turn out. The ones with their boots on the ground will probably benefit the most from the assignments, so make sure they have some ownership in the process. Don’t overlook this fairly simple way to organize your fireground and get incidents started on a good note. As always, stay smart, and stay combat ready!