Combative Command: 5 Musts When No Help is Coming

By Michael Dozier
12 March 2022

Every company’s operational reality is not the same.

More so now than ever, the American fire service has a need for competent command presence on our incident scenes. Our fires are burning hotter and faster than ever before and that, compounded with ever changing construction standards, has created a situation where we have to be extremely efficient to have successful outcomes. Our biggest, most visible departments have unlimited resources and seemingly a chief officer around every corner. This allows them to operate with SOP driven strategy and tactics. Outside of a few initial decisions their company officers are able to go to work without the need to direct incoming companies and making command decisions. This is simply not the operational reality for a great deal of the American fire service. 

My department is one of the more resource rich in the area I serve and it is still not out of the ordinary for a first in crew to operate on a working scene for 20 or more minutes prior to a chief officer arriving. In some areas that initial chief officer may even need to operate in a forward tactical role in order to get the job done. This does not diminish the fact that sound decisions must be made and someone has to provide a command presence if we want successful outcomes. The reality is that the first several company officers to arrive may have to serve in tactical roles that do not allow them to set up a traditional command post. 

Company officers around the country have been using Combative Command for as long as the fire service has existed. Some call it mobile command, offensive command, fast attack, or just “going to work”. Regardless of verbiage, first-in CO’s have been bypassing traditional command structures to get the job done for longer than ICS has been around. In departments that run SOP pre-arrival assignments, there are limited directions to be given in the first few minutes of the fire scene. The incoming companies know there roles and more often than not the scene runs smoothly within the system. Unfortunately, most departments do not have that luxury.

Pre-arrival assignments are absolutely a preferred method of responding to fires. It simplifies our processes and ensures our tactical objectives are accomplished. It just simply does not fit the operational model that most fire departments are tasked to work within on a daily basis. In many firehouses, the direction you pull out of the firehouse dictates if your second due apparatus is a four-man engine or a one-man suicide engine. They also may or may not have a dedicated truck company on the assignment or anywhere within 50 miles of them. Pre-arrival assignments are limited in their effectiveness when there is a vast difference in capabilities coming on the alarm stream. This only amplifies the decisions we are going to ask of our company officers in the first 5 to 20 minutes on the scene.

It has been my experience that a solid command presence can still be provided even when that “Incident Commander” is operating in a forward offensive position they can make sound strategic decisions in addition to serving in a tactical role such as on a handling or performing a search. I believe there are “5 Musts” than can be done to ensure a successful outcome both for the citizen in need and for our crews.

Must #1: Pre-Planning and Pre-Arrival Communication

We have already established that SOP driven pre-arrival assignments may not work for every department. This does not mean that a great deal of decisions cannot be made prior to the first-in rig arriving. The first piece to this puzzle is pre-planning. Most departments complete pre-planning of target hazards to meet ISO requirements and these plans can be a great help when responding to incidents in these locations. How much pre-planning are your companies doing for the areas that are not target hazards?

Know Your Buildings

It is of the utmost importance that our crews are getting out into their districts and learning the nuances of their first due. We cannot depend on technology alone to know where we are going and the types of buildings we may run fires in. No matter how simple or rural your first due is, there are more than likely several curve balls out there in regards to construction. Having an idea of where and what these curveballs are will allow for better decisions in the event of an emergency at that building. Do not solely rely on dispatch information or what has been passed on by senior members. Get out and see these buildings with your own eyes. There should rarely be an instance where you are running a fire in your first due in a building that you have never laid eyes on before.

Where is the Water?

Water supply is another decision that must be made prior to arrival. We cannot simply wing it once we arrive. Regardless of if your department SOPs require the first due to initiate a water supply, the decision should be made and communicated to incoming units before you turn the block on the address. Having a functional knowledge of your water supply system will assist in a sound decision being made. While it is great to know every hydrant or water point in your district there is a minimum knowledge that is necessary. The company officer should at least know what areas have hydrants and which areas are going to be problems. It should never be a surprise when you open the map book and see that a rural shuttle or relay pumping scenario is presenting itself. It is also a great idea to know where your secondary sources are prior to getting out of the rig. You may be doing a search and an incoming crew ask about a secondary hydrant or water point. If you make a point to note it while en route you will be able to give it to them quickly while not hampering the task you are completing. Area familiarization saves a crucial seconds while en route. 

Who is Coming?

Hopefully you department is at a minimum operating on a tactical radio channel separate from your main dispatch channel for routine incidents. One of the first pieces of information for the first in crew is who is coming to help. This simple information will allow for direct communication to these incoming rigs with their assignment. Unless absolutely unknown, try to at least identify who you second use rig will be. Most companies are busier than ever before so there is probably a good chance that your second due piece may be on another run. Figure it out and talk directly to that rig instead of broadly announcing for the “second due to finish our water supply on arrival”. The actual second due rig may not realize that they are going to be so early in the arrival sequence until it is too late. Instead say “Engine 2, finish our water supply at the corner of Broad and Main and then get a backup line in service”. If there is a rural water supply scenario in play that will tie up radio traffic then do your best to ensure that traffic moves to a secondary radio channel.

The other issue that many companies face is the differing capabilities of incoming crews. It is pivotal to know that a one-man engine company is arriving second rather than a four-man truck. Tailor your decisions to fit who you have coming in. The four-man crew may be able to accomplish multiple tasks quickly while the one- or even two-man company is going to be much more limited. You do not want to realize this after you have given them their assignment. Having all responding crews mark up on the tactical channel with their manpower will go a long ways to ensuring this mistake does not happen. 

Must #2: Do a Good 360

So you have some idea of building construction and layout because of your pre-planning and area familiarization. A good 360 is the next crucial step towards success. If the situation is requiring a combative command the 360 becomes even more important. The initial company officer will be committing themselves to an offensive position and it may be a good deal of time before a command officer arrives and does their own. Try to get a look at all six sides of the structure.

Locate the Fire

During the 360, the Combative Commander should be able to get a good working idea of where the fire is located in the building. Take your TIC with you but do not rely on it totally. Look at the windows to see which are darkened down and take note on the condition of the blinds. Where is the smoke venting from and where it is the heaviest. You should also be able to determine if you are dealing with a basement fire or if it has extended into the attic space. All of this information is crucial when making decisions for assigning your next arriving crews. If it appears to be a room and contents fire or even a few rooms burning then do not be afraid to take a few steps in the door ahead of the line in order to confirm location before committing to the push. In low manpower situations, having an idea of size and location of fire will make the push much more efficient. In the event of uncertainty in fire location, consider notifying incoming crews prior to committing interior.  

Soften the Building

Softening the building refers to forcing entry on any potential egress points around the structure. This is usually left to the rapid intervention team or the outside vent role. More than likely in a scenario requiring combative command there could be a significant delay in those roles being filled. A great deal of the success in these situations requires stacking the odds in our favor. Taking a few seconds to force a charlie side door on a house fire during the 360 ensures an extra egress point is readily available prior to entry. It also allows for a quick search just inside and behind the door for victims in a location where there is a high likelihood of them being. As with most tasks on the fireground there is a time component to be accounted for. If softening the building delays water on the fire then consider other means. For example if you come across a fortified rear door; make note of it and consider informing all on the fireground of the hazard. When possible, if the trust and experience is in place, the initial engine chauffeur can be very helpful in softening the building. 

Locate Searchable Space 

The absolute most important part of the 360 is locating searchable space. After all saving lives is what we are there for. In the event of heavy fire on arrival, look for windows or doors with space that can be searched with the capabilities we bring to the table. Do not fall into the trap of whether or not the area is survivable. If it can be searched then it has to be searched. That is a commitment that the public expects from us. Find these areas and focus efforts from that point forward to protecting that area of the building until the searches can be completed. We do not decide survivability. We only decide if we can perform a search. We have all heard multiple stories from around the country of citizens surviving fires that on arrival it appeared there was no chance. We are their chance. 

“Size-up is about what you can and cannot do. Survivability Profiling is about what you will and won’t do”.

Fire Chief Dave LeBlanc, Harwich (MA) Fire Department

Must #3: Clear On Scene Communication

Once you have arrived and done a good 360, it is imperative to clearly announce your command intent to all incoming units. Every crew that is responding needs to know that you are combative and will not be setting up a traditional command post or location. This not only lets them know that you are going to work but will hopefully also limit unnecessary radio traffic from that point forward. While en route to a scene with a combative commander, incoming crews should not ask any information from them that they can find on their own such as running routes or which direction to approach. It is a team effort and not only will the combative command be asked to make decisions. 

Location and Task

Although you may not be setting up a traditional command post, incoming crews still need to know where you are going to be. This needs to be clearly communicated and can be as simple as “All incoming crews, Engine 1 officer will have combative command and will be on the attack line making entry on the alpha side”. This not only gives them your location but also the actual task you are committing yourself to. It does not have to be a long, drawn out dissertation but it much more efficient if it is short and to the point. Take a second and think about exactly what you need to communicate before keying up your mic. 

When you arrive first in and have multiple buildings involved with fire your 360 is going to take a little longer than normal. You may even find yourself quickly checking exposures for involvement and to expedite evacuations. If you find yourself alone for more than a few moments it is imperative that somebody knows your location. You do no have to provide constant moment by moment commentary but the occasional update will suffice. 


In a combative command situation, personnel accountability is often forgotten or placed on the back burner. It is very easy to get tunnel vision and forget such a crucial part of our response system. It is especially important in situations such as these because there is no incident commander in the yard to keep track of where everyone is at. It would be naïve at best to not admit that some of our processes will not run at optimal capacity during these situation. Accountability will likely be one of these processes that may not be perfect when we are committed to a forward offensive posture. The accountability process during these instances must be communicated and even better be built into our structure fire SOPs. At a minimum our passports or pass tags need to be left in a staging location so that when a more traditional command structure is put in place they can more readily bring in the reigns and find out where everyone is and what they are doing. I am personally a fan or a small accountability board being stored on each apparatus that allows for incoming crews to place there tags on a Velcro spot under whatever their initial assignment is. At least then when a command officer arrives they can see that Engine 1 is assigned fire attack and Truck 3 is doing a search. It is not perfect but it serves its purpose when needed.

Must #4: Have Realistic Expectations

We have to accept that every company’s operational reality is not the same. We are riding with different staffing, different capabilities, and different SOPs. We have to be completely honest with ourselves about what we can accomplish when we arrive on scene with help delayed and the additional task of holding command for an extended amount of time. We have to decide what we can do with our resources in order to, at a minimum, stabilize the incident until we have the pieces in place to finish the job.

The Clock is Ticking

This is not an article on fire behavior. We will keep it as simple as having our internal clock working in relation to how fast the fire is growing. We know that fast water is essential and this is amplified even further when we have limited manpower on scene. Everything gets better once we have water on the fire and we need to tailor our weapon selection to make it happen as quickly as possible. This may mean hitting the fire through a window or some other means of defensive position to slow it down until we can make a push to knock it out completely. 

Our choice of initial line size and length is one of the bigger decisions that will play a major role in the outcome of our incident. We must find the happy median between flow and mobility because of our limited manpower. I have grown into a huge advocate for a midsize long preconnected line such as a 300’ or 400’ 2” line. The benefits of such a line include the ability to stretch quickly while maintaining a mobility that may not be possible with a 2-1/2” line and our limited manpower. The line also provides a flow of much more than our traditional 1-1/2” or 1-3/4” lines. I have found it to be a great choice when we are unsure of needed flow while also allowing for fast water. It is also much easier to handle for 1 member while the others are getting off the line to complete searches, a tactic that is often necessary in low manpower situations.

Manpower Limitations and Capabilities

We touched on crew capabilities earlier and we will dive a little deeper now. I cannot understate how important it is to be realistic about incoming crew’s capabilities and that of your own crew. Assigning a task or multiple tasks to a crew that is incapable of accomplishing it efficiently may be more detrimental than assigning the task to a later arriving crew. For example, if your second in crew is a two-man engine and you need water supply completed, search, and outside vent completed; you may be better off assigning them water supply and outside vent rather than water supply and search. The search can be somewhat accomplished early on by the attack crew. Water supply can be done by the driver while the officer can perform outside vent and provide eyes on the outside. Obviously this is a crude example and all situations will differ. It is all about making assignments based on what can be done the most efficiently with limited resources. 

Must #5: Have Some Moxie

We have established that the Combative Command process has a lot of moving pieces that are necessary to ensure success. Now we will touch on an intangible trait that the Combative Commander must possess in order to thrive in situations when the first-in officer finds themselves in command for an extended time while also being needed in tactics level roles. 

Moxie can be defined as force of nature, determination, or nerve. It can also be described as cool-headed, fortitude, or strength of character. It is the trait that you cannot quite put your finger on that all great fireground commanders seem to possess. The fact is that a lot is asked of a company officer that assumes a Combative Command position during a working incident. It is not an easy role to fill and will not go well if the person serving does not have some moxie about them. 

As the First Line Goes…

There is an age old fire service saying that “As the first line goes, so goes the fire”. This is absolutely the truth but I believe the same can be said in relation to the Combative Commander. We have all responded to working scenes when the demeanor and excitement level of the initial incident commander has set the tone for the incident. A cool, calm presence in those first crucial moments of a fire can set they scene on the path to success or on the path to failure. Some call it command presence. Some call it leadership. I like to call it moxie. Some have it naturally and some have to work at it but it is absolutely necessary for a smooth operation when the odds are stacked against us. 

Some people use the saying that “failure is not an option”. That is a noble thought but unfortunately I believe failure is always the most readily available option. We have to fight tooth and nail to win in a battle in which we are sometimes outgunned in the beginning. Preparation is the only way to gain the advantage. Combative Command is never going to be our ideal situation but that does not change the fact that victory is necessary. Be realistic with yourself and your company’s capabilities. Stack the odds in your favor as much as possible and get the job done. 

“Unfortunately, there seems to be far more opportunity out there than ability…. We should remember that good fortune often happens when opportunity meets with preparation.”

Thomas A. Edison

Photographs courtesy of author.

Michael Dozier is a Career Captain with Horry County Fire Rescue. Formerly a member of Loris Volunteer Fire Department, he has been in the fire service since 2006. He is currently serving as House Captain on Squad 1 in Socastee. His firehouse responds to 7,000+ incidents per year. He holds a Bachelor’s Degree in Fire Administration and a Master’s Degree in Public Administration from Columbia Southern University. He runs the social media blog The Company Officer and is passionate about Company Officer Leadership and Firehouse Culture. 

Published by Data Not Drama

Data Not Drama is writings that provide a point of critical thought about firefighter fatality data and education, line of duty deaths, and risk. The main focus is to encourage less risk aversion and better knowledge on the subject of firefighter fatalities in firefighters, fire departments, and fire service organizations.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: