The False Confidence to Command

Blog by Dr. Richard B. Gasaway, PhD, EFO, CFO
Retired Fire Chief and Web Master for Situational Awareness Matters
Would it be possible for something to go wrong at a structure fire incident and one of the contributing factors identified be the incident commander was under-qualified? With the emphasis in recent years on incident command, including the requirement for department members to be trained in the National Incident Management System, it would be all of our hopes that all departments have developed qualified, competent and confident commanders.
In many departments, it is the standard – if not a policy – for the officer on the first-in apparatus to establish command. As such, most will. But regulating who is in command by policy or riding position on the apparatus does nothing to assure the officer is properly trained, adequately practiced and amply experienced to command. Thus, the confidence of the first-in officer may be a false confidence. This can be very dangerous.
About a year ago I was teaching a class on firefighter safety for a volunteer department and I asked the class if possible for the first-in apparatus to have four firefighters, all of whom have less than three years’ experience and none of them are officers. After a resounding response in the affirmative, I called on a young firefighter who had three years of experience and was not an officer. I asked how confident he would be if he had to serve as the initial incident commander on the first-in engine, at a working structure fire, with a crew of four, all with less than three years of experience. He said he’d be very confident commanding the incident.
This intrigued me. So I asked him if he had command training. He informed me that he had taken an online incident command class. OK. Then I asked him if he’d ever commanded a structure fire. No, he had not. Then I asked him if he had ever commanded a training fire before. No, he had not. Then I asked him how many actual structure fires he’d been on the attack line for. He estimated it to be five. Five this year? I asked with hopeful anticipation. No, five fires over his three years of service on the department.
So, here’s a firefighter who’s been on the department for three years, has taken an online incident command class, never commanded a structure fire, never commanded a training fire, had only been on the attack line for fives fires, and now commanding a crew all of whom have less than three years’ experience. And this firefighter stated he was very comfortable in his ability to serve as the incident commander. I was astounded. Where does this confidence (and I might go as far as to say arrogance) come from? I told him, and the class, if I were in command of a crew on a fire attack who all had three or less years of experience that I’d be scared to death for their safety.
This firefighter is suffering from unconscious incompetence. In other words, he doesn’t even know what he doesn’t know about commanding fires, let alone commanding such an inexperienced crew. Unless he’s acquired a competent command skillset by a means other than practice and experience, he’s dangerously over confident.
I thought perhaps this was an anomaly – a fluke occurrence of a young, overconfident firefighter. I was wrong. I have since taught this same class more than a dozen times. Each time, I’ve sought out that young firefighter to ask the same question. And every time, without exception, the response has been the same. Under experienced, under practiced, and over confident.
So here’ the challenge I want to put out to the command officers reading this article: Go back and pose the same question to the younger firefighters on your department you know lack the practice and experience to command. See what the response is. If they say they’re confident commanding (when you know they’re not ready), educate them on what it means to be ready and work with them to ensure they acquire the practice and experience (under the direction of a competent mentor).
Confidence in a commander is a good quality to have. Being over confident and having a false confidence is not only a poor quality to have, it can be deadly.
About the Author
Dr. Gasaway is widely considered to be one of the nation’s leading authorities on situational awareness and decision making processes used by first responders. In addition to more than 30 years in the fire service, including 22 years as a fire chief, Dr. Gasaway has a second passion: Uncovering and applying research in brain science for the benefit of first responders. His website, Situational Awareness Matters (, has enjoyed more than a million visits since its launch in October 2011.

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