Where should the Chief of Department be at a major, multi-jurisdictional event?
Yesterday we looked at the professional background of Steve Abraira, the first outsider appointed Chief of Department in Boston. Thirteen of the 14 deputy chiefs shared their frustration about Chief Abraira's command style with Mayor Menino (and the rest of the world).
Boston Fire Command Structure
There are 35 fire stations in the 47.3 square mile city. Organized into nine battalions and two divisions,
Each of the nine battalions, called "District" in Boston, is comprised of three to five fire stations. There is a District chief assigned to each battalion.
The District Chiefs respond to an average of 280 structure fires a month, a trend that has been rising for the last couple of years. December 2011 showed 416 structure fires, January 2012 had 407. (District 11 image courtesy publicservicevehicles.com )
The city is divided into two Divisions, supervising four or five Districts. A Deputy Fire Chief is assigned to each Division. The Deputy responds to second alarm incidents. Boston averages four multiple alarm fires a month, as many as nine (June 2010).
Traditionally, the Chief of Department responds to third alarm incidents. There were 11 events in 2012 that went beyond a second alarm, one going to a sixth alarm. In 2011 there were 16 events that went beyond a second alarm, two were fifth alarm fires.
Retired firefighter and photographer Bill Noonan, when discussing this issue on FaceBook, noted that the last Chief of Department was responding to second alarm events.
During Chief Abraira's time as the Dallas (Texas) Fire Chief, they averaged 150 structure fires a month.
NIMS does not require Chief of Department to be the Incident Commander
In a Boston Globe article by Travis Anderson about the issue:
“I think the big issue for them is, they think that because I’m not called the incident commander, I don’t have responsibility, and that’s not true,” said Abraira, who previously led the Dallas department and was an assistant chief with the Miami Fire Department. “I’ve reiterated that. . . . I’m still responsible for what goes on there.”
He said he polled 29 big city fire departments last year to see if their chiefs are required to take command of a scene, and only the New Haven department said it follows that policy.
The chief also denied an assertion in the deputy chiefs’ letter that he took a picture of himself at a six-alarm fire in East Boston on the roof of an adjacent building, to capture the blaze in the background, and that he was “worrying about his ‘scrapbook’ ” instead of fire safety. Abraira said he went to the roof to see what the roof of the other building looked like but called the notion that he took a photograph of himself “just crazy.”
Major event of national importance
The 2008 update of the National Response Framework removed the designation of "Incidents of National Importance" in order to create a more agile response. Still, events like the Boston Marathon generate tremendous attention and preparation by local, state, regional and federal resources. The role of the Chief of Department may be within the senior command of the Joint Field Office, interacting with all of the other senior agency representatives as they process real-time input and send resources to a dynamic, unfolding incident.
Big city fire departments rarely act alone when operating at major fire incidents, the role of the Chief of Department changes under the National Response Framework.
(update) "Stop dancing around the question – when should the CoD take command?"
For third alarm structure fires, the past practice was the Chief of Department would arrive, announce that he has command and the Deputy Chief commanding the incident would move in to command the most critical activity. This started long before NIMS and is a baked-in command practice. It works and makes sense.
Earlier Fire Chiefs have accumulated 20-30 years experience handling fires in Boston and intimately know the neighborhoods, built environment and fire history. The Chief of Department has worked with the command staff on thousands of incidents as the CoD went from Lieutenant to Captain to District Chief to Deputy Chief.
Chief Abraira does not have that experience database, going to the roof of an adjacent structure to determine construction details during a six-alarm fire is understandable. He has little experience with his subordinate commanders, no shared close-calls, no local history. No trust.
Learning-as-you-burn is not a good technique when you start with a third alarm event, I appreciate the deputy chief's lack of confidence in the fire chief as an incident commander. Chief of Department needs to be the commander of third alarm or higher events.
If the current or future Chief of Department wants to change the Boston model, will need to provide training and practice to implement.
Update 2: Demonstration of the Chief of Department activities at a major blaze
Tip of the digital helmet to Bill Carey, who posted this portion of a "48 hours" segment on the Boston Fire Department battling a 9-alarm blaze in 1989 on Firefighter Behavior:
Mike "FossilMedic" Ward