Theoretical Foundations of Incident Command: Acting

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Course description

Prerequisite: Theoretical Foundations of Incident Command: Thinking

This second course introduces the more social and political aspect of incident command research, building on the psychological aspects developed in the first course. This course relies heavily on incident command research developed for forest fire command practices. Much of the research is international in scope, arising from Australia, the United Kingdom, Sweden and the United States. Key concepts include crew cohesion and leadership style.

Unit One: The Wildland Fire Service and the Group Assignment

This course on incident command theory moves beyond thinking to acting-acting resulting from the thinking. In Unit One we begin by introducing a different type of fire service that has embraced incident command theory for over a decade already. Consequently, the municipal fire service has much to learn from this different type of fire service, the wildland fire service.

The objective of this unit is:

  • Appreciate the value of the wildland fire service as a guide to developing incident command theory for the municipal fire service.
  • Begin application of incident command theory, originally developed for the wildland fire service, on some of the standards developed by the NFPA for the municipal fire service.

Unit Two: Situational Awareness

We can’t finish the thinking part of incident command so easily. The reason is that we need to understand how researchers who have contributed to the wildland fire service have thought about thinking.

There are none. This is because you are exposed to education, not training in this unit. If you must have an objective, it would be: appreciation for the value of psychological research on wildland fire incident command. Note: anytime you read the word, ‘appreciation’ little concrete is expected but much abstract is expected.

Unit Three: The Role of Group Cohesion

Finally we begin incident command acting theory by studying five crew cohesion.

Unit Four: The Role of Doctrine, Organizational Culture and Society

Although the story may be apocryphal, the Duke of Wellington was believed to have said: “The Battle of Waterloo was won on the playing fields of Eton.” That is, that Napoleon’s army was defeated by British officers who had learned the values and norms of teamwork as children playing games at the most famous public, (really private), school in Britain. Essentially that type of socialization process was not present among French officers and so Wellington was able to “buy time” in a defensive position, husbanding resources despite Napoleon’ s attacks until the Prussian army arrived to provide enough additional force to defeat Napoleon.

We start with this quotation to recognize that an “incident commander” like General Wellington relied not only on tactical genius, relied not only on logistical competence, but also relied on the distant, long past socialization of his officers to win the battle. Wellington had power; generals on the battlefield usually do. Yet even Wellington would recognize he had no control over the curriculum or the educational methods employed at Eton ten to twenty years before the battle; nevertheless, he admits to benefiting from this happenstance.

In an analogous fashion we argue that whereas an incident commander can control size-up and an incident commander can have significant, although not total, control over company dynamics, the incident commander has less control over larger issues of department practice such as SOGs or training. Nevertheless, some influence on SOG revision and training to SOGs is possible. The incident commander has even less control over the organizational culture within the fire service, or the occupational prestige that society assigns to firefighters. These factors can, however, affect the performance of incident commanders even when control is not possible. What the incident commander can do, however, is increase an appreciation for these larger factors, adjusting strategy and tactics accordingly.

Course author

John Benoit, Ph.D.
John Benoit has been an applied sociologist, employing social science research to fire service administration. He obtained his PhD in sociology from the Johns Hopkins University in 1975, writing a dissertation on the effect of information flow on risk taking. He had worked at Dalhousie for 24 years, spending the last 20 as Director, Fire Management Education. During this time he wrote and co-wrote several of the courses, editing others. His principal areas of expertise include fire department-municipal government relations, the volunteer fire service, some aspects of personnel management, and theoretical perspectives on emergency management. In addition to course development, he has conducted research and published in the areas of volunteer fire administration, and disaster management. John recently retired and is now examining the effect of rural volunteer fire departments on the local community, and the impact of courageous experience and social capital on local economic development.