back of fire truck with incident command white boards

Recently, I read an article detailing the origin of the saying, “flying by the seat of your pants.”  During WWII, pilots didn’t have all the gauges and data inputs to assist in determining if one was moving up, down, to the left and so forth.  Instead, the inputs that their bodies felt helped them.  For example, when the pilot turned left, his body would move tight into the right side of the cockpit.  When the pilot nosed the aircraft down, he felt himself being pushed into the back of the seat.  So, one of the rudimentary, early techniques of flying was piloting by your butt – or the seat of your pants.

So, what does this have to do with incident command?  Think about it. Aren’t there times when you have to make a command decision based on incomplete information?  You try to gather as much information available at the time: size, smoke, sounds, smells, exposures, etcetera. You compare these inputs against the known outcomes of similar situations, trust your gut and decide the best choice to make.

Many years ago, the National Fire Academy introduced a simple, relatively quick method to help incident commanders make decisions.  I’ve covered this many times during my presentations and used it during my IC days.  The process is based on three questions: What do I have?  Where is it going? and What do I need?  You may chuckle at the absurdity of this method attempting to encapsulate the art and science of incident command into such a simple recipe.  Make no mistake, incident command is an art and science often managed during a complex, rapidly-changing set of conditions and situations.  The outcomes are often decided by experienced, laser-focused professionals making the best decision(s) from the information they have at the time.

Take a few moments to consider the last five or ten incidents you managed or experienced. Some or perhaps many of them when boiled down to the very essence of decision making used the three questions to guide the decisions and outcomes of the incidents.

What do I have?  This is fairly straightforward.  You start by developing the equation: size of the structure, construction, amount of involvement, exposures, victims, available resources, time of day or night and weather to nam

fire truck door with words Incident Command Chief

e a few. Go through your app listing of mnemonics: RECEO, IEAT, SLICERS, TRIPOD, LUNAR, WALLACEWASHOT.  If the incident is a vehicle event you would consider size or type of vehicle – especially regarding the amount fuel, number of injured and/or entrapments, roadway conditions that may impede operations or place responders in peril.  You get the picture.  These inputs will help frame the incident, or in other words answer the question: What do I have?

Where is it going? The last two questions are somewhat interconnected. As you begin to consider the above data and more, this will assist in determining what will happen if I, a) add more resources and effort or, b) do nothing.  In most cases the situation will get worse or deteriorate if you opt for “b”.  This may seem simplistic, but the IC must make sure this question is answered quickly and accurately to establish his or her game plan, communicate it to his or her troops and move to the last question. The goal: stabilize the situation by mitigating the threat.

What do I need?  Oftentimes incident commanders jump to this question before determining where the incident is going.  We are action-oriented.  We make decisions.  And, sometimes we make quick decisions without adequately considering outcomes because we haven’t considered options. In David Freedman’s book The 30 Management Principles of the U.S. Marines he states that one principle is making decisions based on 70% information.

Would IC’s like 100% data before deciding?  Absolutely! But, more often than not decisions will be made with whatever information and experience one can gather and use at the time.  Don’t discount simplicity.  In this era of iPhone®-driven decision making, the human hard drive (your brain) many times will be your best tool to help you work through the challenges and determine the best approach to managing your incidents.