Improving command skills for fire and rescue service incident response

Research has produced a freely available assessment tool and training programme which helps to support the development of fire and rescue service command skills.

Fire and rescue service incident commanders are at the frontline of emergency response. Often working in hazardous conditions, they need to act quickly to devise and implement complex plans and coordinate operations on the ground.

The use of command skills complements their technical competence in rescues and firefighting and can have a significant impact on the safety of their teams and others involved in an emergency.

The essential command skills for incident commanders are:

  • assertive
  • effective and safe leadership
  • decision making and planning
  • interpersonal communication
  • personal resilience
  • situational awareness
  • teamwork

However, until now, the fire and rescue service has not had an evidence-based way to benchmark these important skills to guide the training to develop them.

With Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC) doctoral funding, Dr Philip Butler from the School of Psychology at Cardiff University developed and implemented THe INcident Command Skills (THINCS) assessment tool with a new training and support package, including an app that transforms how incident commanders are evaluated.

By providing a tool to assess command skills competence, THINCS has revolutionised the way fire and rescue services prepare incident commanders for their command roles. It has been incorporated into national guidance for fire and rescue services and influenced changes to national incident command qualifications. THINCS licences and training have been adopted by 13 of the 48 UK fire and rescue services, the Fire Service College, and other commercial and international organisations such as airport fire services.

About the project

Command skills are the social, cognitive and personal skills deemed essential for safe and effective command. Through his doctoral studentship funded by ESRC and an internship with the National Fire Chiefs Council funded by the Fire Service Research and Training Trust, Dr Butler developed a tool to evaluate these skills and provided new training materials for their development and use by THINCS assessors. He explains:

Unlike many high-reliability industries, such as aviation, the fire and rescue service did not have a behavioural marker system to measure the command skills associated with being effective in high-risk environments. As a former firefighter myself, I recognised the importance of being able to identify, evaluate and provide feedback on situations where safety is at risk. I also understood the range of psychological skills that are important for incident commanders to possess.

Dr Butler’s research was co-produced with the National Fire Chiefs Council and used a combination of approaches to gather the evidence that informed the development of THINCS. This included a national online survey on existing command skills training provision, as well as a series of workshops with experts in incident command, including psychologists and experienced commanders.

The workshops involved card-sorting and grid exercises to identify key command skills for fire and rescue service incident commanders. These insights helped create the THINCS behavioural marker system, as well as training and support materials that enable these ‘non-technical’ skills of the incident commanders to be observed, reviewed and rated. Video recordings of incident commander simulation exercises from Avon Fire and Rescue Service were then used to evaluate the effectiveness of THINCS.

With further ESRC funding, Dr Butler developed a THINCS app to make the system easier to operate in the field. With funding from the Fire Service Research and Training Trust he evaluated THINCS and its app over a seven-month period. He trained fire and rescue personnel in seven UK services as assessors to use the app to gather data, then followed this up with focus groups in each of the seven participating fire and rescue services, which confirmed that THINCS was a valid and reliable assessment tool.

Dr Butler also used THINCS as a research tool to investigate how incident commanders use ‘operational discretion’ to make decisions based solely on their professional judgement in extreme circumstances when standard operating procedures do not apply. “The conditions where incident commanders are permitted to use operational discretion tend to generate acute stress. Paradoxically, this can reduce the capacity for deliberative decision-making and increase reliance on rules. The THINCS system allows us to shine a light on commanders’ use of professional judgement in these circumstances.”

Impact of the project

THINCS is the first behavioural marker system to be developed for fire and rescue services. It allows those in the UK to benchmark the command skills of incident commanders. The new training programmes for the development of THINCS assessors enables the expertise to be retained within the fire and rescue service. THINCS has played a central role in shaping national policy around incident command and influenced incident commanders’ training and assessment. It is now referenced in National Operational Guidance for incident command for the UK fire and rescue service.

Shaping the training of incident commanders

THINCS training courses and materials such as the app have been made freely available to UK local authority fire and rescue services. THINCS licences and training have been taken up by 13 of the 48 UK fire and rescue services, and the Fire Service College.

The National Fire Chiefs Council has now taken over responsibility for THINCS, including licensing and training, and the system is now attracting international attention, in particular from Fire and Rescue Services in the US and South Korea.

Dr Sabrina Cohen-Hatton, National Fire Chiefs Council International Lead and Chief Fire Officer, West Sussex Fire and Rescue Service, says:

Dr Butler developed THINCS and supported its dissemination across the UK with the National Fire Chiefs Council. This has resulted in over 100 qualified THINCS assessors and 13 local authority Fire and Rescue Services using THINCS, as well as the Fire Service College, one commercial airport fire service, and an international fire and rescue service. He has also been actively engaged in promoting THINCS nationally and internationally, including the Illinois Occupational Safety and Health Administration.

Informed guidance on using operational discretion

Dr Butler’s research into how stress influences an incident commander’s decision to rely on a standard operating procedure or to use their professional judgement has contributed to UK fire and rescue service national guidance on the use of operational discretion.

Dr Cohen-Hatton adds:

Philip’s research into the use of operational discretion by incident commanders – decision-making in unique or rare situations beyond standard operating procedures – has influenced national policy around the use of operational discretion by them.

Find out more

Read more about the development of the THINCS behavioural marker system.

Top image:  Credit: Lawrey, iStock, Getty Images Plus via Getty Images

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