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This publication complements and supports the National Operational Guidance: Incident command, providing the detail required for assertive, effective and safe incident command to be practised and applied.

The content aims to support fire and rescue services when establishing a robust emergency response for incident command. It is an essential guide for the safe systems of work required at incidents and provides essential reading for all commanders, operational personnel and fire control personnel.

Fire and rescue services should have simple and straightforward policies and procedures that identify legal considerations in place. They should also have systems and processes in place to prepare commanders at all levels to understand, interpret and apply the incident command system appropriately to every incident.

The incident command system provides commanders with a clear framework to structure, organise and manage an incident. It can be adapted to all sizes and types of incident and will help them deploy and use resources in an efficient and safe way. The incident command system allows commanders to use health and safety arrangements, including operational procedures, tailored to the characteristics of an emergency. This helps commanders to achieve an appropriate balance between the benefit of undertaking planned actions, and the risks associated with them.

Operational response is hazardous and varied. Some incidents may need only simple actions and procedures to deal with them effectively and safely, as risks are low. Others are more challenging and may quickly increase in size or complexity, or become protracted.

The incident command system should commence from when the first call is received about an incident and remain in place until the last appliance leaves an incident. During that time, it is used to:

  • Identify tasks and hazards
  • Assess risk
  • Manage and review control measures

Usually the last activity at the incident ground is to hand over responsibility for health and safety to the appropriate person or agency.

Commanding operational incidents is different to managing controlled and defined situations or workplace scenarios. Commanders need a range of qualities, together with command skills, to deal with the wide-ranging nature of emergencies.

Assertive and effective commanders:

  • Are confident and self aware
  • Are well trained and competent
  • Have sound situational awareness
  • Are able to lead, direct and instruct others
  • Can communicate effectively
  • Are able to plan and implement
  • Can apply sound judgement and effective decision-making
  • Are able to adapt to changing situations
  • Are calm and controlled

Fire and rescue services have a responsibility to apply selection processes to ensure that personnel who are responsible for performing command functions are capable of doing so. Commanders should be able to demonstrate clear potential to deal with stressful situations where there is sustained pressure. Once appointed they should periodically be required to demonstrate competence in their role.

Fire and rescue services must appropriately train and assess their commanders. They should continually ensure that relevant personnel understand and have sufficient time and facilities to practise the skills they need for command. Training should provide commanders with the operational knowledge and understanding needed to resolve the full range of reasonably foreseeable incidents and enable them to adapt to those that are not.

A framework of competence for commanders should aim to equip them with:

  • Appropriate behaviours
  • Command skills
  • Knowledge of policies and procedures
  • An understanding of their responsibilities for the health, safety and welfare of others
  • Familiarity with relevant legislation

The firefighter safety maxim

There is a balance between ensuring firefighter safety and carrying out the role of the fire and rescue service. This is known as the firefighter safety maxim, and is as follows:

At every incident the greater the potential benefit of fire and rescue actions, the greater the risk that is accepted by commanders and firefighters. Activities that present a high risk to safety are limited to those that have the potential to save life or to prevent rapid and significant escalation of the incident.’

The maxim acknowledges that firefighters operate in hazardous environments while recognising the legal duty to ensure, as far as is reasonably practicable, the safety of everyone our operations may affect and the professional dilemma of maintaining safety and taking action to effect a rescue or mitigate an emergency.

This maxim will apply at every incident. It describes how a commander will consider the benefits of our activities and the risks to those involved. This should not necessarily be seen as a balance of one against the other, but more as an assessment of whether the benefit is worth the risk; for example, where lives are in danger, the benefit of saving life is high, then a higher risk to firefighters may be accepted.

Where the incident has high risk but with low benefit, commanders should only tolerate a limited risk to firefighters. Activities in the hazard area are unlikely to take place until the risk is reduced. An example might be a property where fire is confirmed with no persons missing and the fire has not ventilated. In this situation personnel are unlikely to enter the building until ventilation has been carried out and the risk of backdraught reduced. There is still benefit to be gained in saving the building once the higher risks have been reduced.

At some apparent high risk, low benefit incidents, additional information may emerge, which means the benefit increases. An example of this would be where people are later reported to be missing in a fire.