Coaching for Command Competency

By: Robert Avsec, Executive Fire Officer

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You can’t ever start too early to become a good Incident Commander.

Back in 2000 (Yikes, has it really been 11 years!) I had the good fortune to represent my department at FDIC in Indianapolis. It was my first time attending that fire service conference, and like thousands of others I was not disappointed. The vast array of educational presentations — not to mention the awesome number of vendor displays of the latest in emergency response technology — was overwhelming to say the least.

One of my most lasting “take-aways” from that trip was a session on conducting tactical simulations for company officers. Two instructors from the Albuquerque (N.M.) Fire Department delivered a great program on how to conduct low-cost tactical training for company officers (One of the outstanding instructors that day was Deputy Chief (now retired) Bobby Halton, currently the Editor-in-Chief for Fire Engineering Magazine). They created graphics with PowerPoint and photo-editing software that depicted fire situations for occupancies in their locality. The department created one scenario per month that all the chief officers then took to the field to use one-on-one with their junior officers. Each scenario had a written Incident Action Plan, in addition to the graphics on overhead transparencies — remember those? — so that training was conducted consistently.

The goal of their work was not to have a “testing” scenario that put the officer in the hot seat; rather, they sought to provide an opportunity for officers to work through an incident scenario that could Fire Simulation Classroom traininghappen any day. Then the officers could discuss how they handled the problem. The goal was to have a 30- to 40-minute coaching session, much like a head coach watching his football team run a play in practice before quickly discussing how well the play was executed and what needs to be improved before Sunday‘s game.

I know that I learned a great deal from everyone whom I facilitated, and my officers and their firefighters really looked forward to our short but productive sessions. They always said that they appreciated the time I spent with them because they learned how to be better initial incident commanders, and they learned what my expectations were for them at the emergency scene in that role.

Here are some common themes that we learned over the years doing these tactical simulations.

The 7 Fundamental Steps of Firefighting

In the absence of a “slide in your tray” of how you handled a similar type of fire, i.e. “R-Prime Recognition” decision-making, we all need to know these seven fundamental objectives for fire situation control and use them as our guide for decision-making:

  1. Size-up.
  2. Call for help.
  3. Rescue.
  4. Protect exposures.
  5. Locate and confine the fire.
  6. Extinguish the fire.
  7. Overhaul the fire.

(Salvage and ventilation anywhere these objectives are needed.)

Just like the ABCs of EMS — you can’t move to Breathing until you have a secure Airway — we shouldn’t move from a higher-priority objective until that primary objective has been accomplished. For example, protect exposures before committing resources to extinguishment.

The Importance of the On-Scene Report


Put in the work learning the plays at the station, and then take advantage of opportunities to put your knowledge to work (Training fire in donated SFD).

This first radio report, usually transmitted from the front seat by the first-arriving officer, should start to “paint the picture” for other responding resources. Those other fire companies should start to “see” the same building and fire conditions as that first-arriving officer.

A standard “On-Scene Report” should include:

  • Number of building stories
  • Type of construction (Example: wood-frame, ordinary, non-combustible, fire-resistant)
  • Type of occupancy (Example: single-family, multi-family, small commercial, strip shopping center, industrial)
  • Fire conditions observed (Example: “Fire showing from the second-floor window on “Alpha” side, heavy smoke issuing from eaves.”)
  • Name of the command (Example: Engine 14 has Sand Hills Command)

In addition to the basic information, identify for all companies which side of the structure is Side A for command lumber yardpurposes so that everyone is working from the same “map.” Many occupancies these days, especially apartment and office complexes, have really unusual layouts; everyone can have a different opinion regarding which side of the building is Side A depending on their direction of arrival. By orienting everyone to the building layout upfront, the incident commander can avoid communication issues later in the incident.

Continue to paint the picture for those other responding resources with your continuing communication. Include pertinent descriptive terminology such as “garden apartments” or “townhouse apartments” rather than just “multi-family dwelling.” Your on-scene report should sound something like this: “Engine 14 is on location with a two-story, wood-frame, single-family dwelling. I’ve got fire showing from the second-floor window on Side Alpha and heavy smoke issuing from eaves. Engine 14 has Sand Hills Command on Side Alpha.

KONICA MINOLTA DIGITAL CAMERACommunicate Incident Action Plan in Size-up Report

Your size-up report — the second radio report after you’ve left your unit and completed your size-up of the situation — is where you need to articulate what your initial Incident Action Plan is going to be. By articulating the IAP, the other arriving fire companies have a better idea of what tactical objective they might be given.

Your size-up report should include:

  • Existing fire conditions (“Fire showing from second-floor window on Charley side.”)
  • Status of incident priorities (“All occupants accounted for, preparing for fire attack with 1¾ line, awaiting rapid-intervention crew before making interior attack.”)
  • Tactical assignments for incoming resources

A good size-up report should sound something like this: “Sand Hills Command to all units. Fire also showing from second-floor window on Charley side. All occupants accounted for. Operating in offensive mode, preparing for interior fire attack with 1¾ line, awaiting RIC. Engine 1 take RIC and Truck 14 provide forcible entry for fire attack to Engine 14.”

Confirmed Communication

Orders received are not orders confirmed until the receiver repeats the message back to the sender. Example: “Truck 3 from Command, forcible entry support for fire attack on Floor 1 with Engine 11.” The order is confirmed when Truck 3’s officer communicates, “Command from Truck 3, copy forcible entry support for fire attack on Floor 1 with Engine 11.”

Sun City West FriePosition Ambulances to Leave Scene Prior to Firefighting

Ambulance crews need to ensure that they position their units so that, in the event of a civilian or firefighter casualty, the ambulance is in a position to be loaded and leave the scene without having to back up. The crew also needs to bring their stretcher to the scene and secure EMS equipment from one of the first-in fire units to have the total patient-care package in close proximity to the incident to ensure “seamless patient care” in the event of a firefighter or civilian injury or rescue. (Our ambulances were staffed with cross-trained firefighters of BLS or ALS certification. An ambulance is part of every first-alarm assignment, and the ambulance crew is a fire or EMS resource available to the IC.)

I think the coaching concepts of giving your company officers the “play,” letting them “run the play,” and then discussing their performance are still relevant today, even with the progression from using overhead transparencies to notebook computers with LCD projectors in the fire stations. Speaking of projectors, if you’re looking to purchase one for your home theater or business presentations, check out They offer a wide range of projectors to choose from, with options for every budget and need. By reading through their detailed product descriptions and customer reviews, you can make an informed decision before making your purchase.

My officers and I experienced many situations over the years where we responded to an incident, managed the emergency, and then afterwards the first-in officer came up to me and said, “Just like the one we “burned” [in a tactical simulation] a couple of months ago. Right, Chief?”


Battalion Chief (Ret.) Robert Avsec served for 26 years with the men and women of the Chesterfield County (VA) Fire & EMS Department.  Contact him at [email protected]

About Robert Avsec, Executive Fire Officer

Battalion Chief (Ret.) Robert Avsec served with the men and women of the Chesterfield County (VA) Fire and EMS Department for 26 years. He’s now using his acquired knowledge, skills, and experiences as a freelance writer for and as the “blogger in chief” for this blog. Chief Avsec makes his home in Cross Lanes, WV. Contact him via e-mail, [email protected].