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Make Sure Your Incident Command Vehicle Meets Your Needs

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Editor’s Note: This article first appeared on EDM Digest.

By Dr. Randall Hanifen, Faculty Member, Emergency & Disaster Management at American Military University

In almost all National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) reports, command or an issue with command is cited as an area in need of improvement in the event of a fire or other disaster. But we seem to be transitioning away from more formal command vehicles. The overall resources of an organization and its standard operating procedures commonly dictate a vehicle’s design.

[Related: Improve Response by Improving Operational Information Flow]

I recently saw a large fire department showing off its new command vehicle in which rescue ropes and various hand tools were packed into the compartments of a pickup truck’s cargo bed. I have also seen a few command vehicles that do not have the traditional command board, which has been a common sight for years.

The IC’s Job Is Complicated

The Incident Commander’s job is to coordinate the activities at a fire or emergency scene and improve overall safety by implementing an incident action plan (IAP). The IAP can be as simple as remembering that the first engine to arrive at a car fire should extinguish the blaze. The plan may also be more complicated, involving an area command organizational structure that encompasses a community disaster.

[Related: How Implementing Command Structure Improves EMS Response]

Obviously, the IC knows the first IAP. Often, there is no need for a more complicated IAP that will utilize many Incident Command System (ICS) 200 series forms.

Ninety-nine percent of the events that the typical IC responds to are never written down in a formal IAP. But anyone who has ever been the first operational IC at a major event knows that the earlier an IAP is tracked and written out, the quicker the chaos is brought under control. Any ICs who have encountered hours of chaos from an escalating disaster without a formal IAP will tell you that their comfort level with the IAP process and the ICS 200 series forms was deficient, due to the lack of regular use.

The second part of the IC’s job is to track the units from a command vehicle. While Type 1, 2 or 3 incident management teams (IMTs) easily process hundreds of units at an event, the first IC to arrive is often alone or has an aide who is trying to organize and process the other arrivals while also creating early tasks for multiple units as more information at the scene is gathered.

Depending on the alarm card and dispatch system, tracking units could be as easy as moving units on a computer screen to the proper place in the organizational chart in the ICS 207 or 203. On the other end of the spectrum, the IC could be trying to figure out who and what subsequent alarms require and requesting individual units.

Hopefully, first responder organizations have spent time in the planning phase and created standardized alarm cards. Even if alarm cards are created, most ICs still must ask the dispatcher what units were dispatched, and then move them through staging and into assigned areas. Beyond the second alarm, it is hoped that by then a staging officer has been assigned to process and track new units’ arrivals.

Additional Command Resources

The first vehicle to arrive on scene must have the speed, apparatus and equipment that can be deployed quickly. If the third alarm summons a command vehicle large enough to carry all of the section chiefs and command staff, a battalion vehicle equipped with 40 square feet of whiteboard may be overkill.

However, if you rely on a regional command unit that requires you to call in responder personnel, get to the command vehicle’s location and drive it to the incident scene, you may need better provisions for your operations than just a small, pocket-size command board.

While it is understood that IMTs work from established facilities and have many resources, there is the initial operational period when the first IC to respond must create a smooth transition to a formal command team. Research in disaster response has shown that if a disaster is organized from the start, management of the event is far superior to one that is poorly or insufficiently managed.

Types of Command Vehicles

It appears that we are heading toward the use of non-command vehicles in many areas. Some responder organizations are designing trucks that haul ropes, personal flotation devices, water cans and air packs. While battalion commanders have various duties, their vehicles must have adequate command space.

Several types of vehicles — cars, SUVs, trucks and vans — are commonly used as command vehicles for battalion chiefs or shift captains.

Each vehicle has advantages and disadvantages. So it is important to understand each vehicle type to ensure proper use of resources.


For many years, sedans were the only vehicle used as command cars. Most of the equipment had to be stored in the trunk.

Today’s cars are often Ford Focus models or other mid-size cars. But vehicles with large trunk space no longer exist because auto manufacturers have abandoned them in favor of SUVs.

Today’s vehicles have very little space to carry equipment and informational products, such as pre-incident plans. Command boards are small in order to fit into the trunks of these vehicles. If other gear is carried, the logistics of keeping potentially contaminated gear away from passengers is compromised.

If a car is used as a command vehicle, it’s useful to keep a clipboard in the front seat or use it on the lid of the trunk. Space is limited when the IC stays in the car, so only a clipboard can be used. As a result, information beyond the first alarm will be difficult to track and write down. If the trunk lid is used, any inclement weather will hamper operations.


Trucks come in many versions, with features such as a work bed attachment, a cab with a slide-out tray or sometimes four doors. While the work bed attachment seems more suited to a miniature rescue truck, it could permit multiple command personnel workstations around the vehicle if it is designed correctly.

A slide-out tray in the command vehicle provides a useful surface for several responders to work with plenty of space.

When the IC stays in the cab, there is more workspace than in a car. But space is still restricted to about a two-foot square area, because radios and computers are mounted in the middle of the cab’s front and limit the available work area. This small workspace could mean tracking not much more than a first alarm or possibly a second alarm.


Full-size SUVs allow for extensive command modules in the rear with mobile radios. They also can include storage drawers for plans and other paperwork.

One of the biggest limiting factors of the SUV is the lack of a slide-out tray that would allow several people to work jointly. Smaller SUVs have very little room for command box and communication equipment.


A van has much more workspace. Vans with windows are a very good work space for multiple commanders. Full-size desks, computer monitors and other equipment can be built into this type of vehicle.

A van is ideal for use as a commander’s vehicle in a large city, because its arrival at a disaster scene often indicates multiple alarms. The biggest drawback is the cost. A fully equipped van runs into the $150,000 to $200,000 range. Most departments would think that is too much to spend considering how often large-scale events happen in their area.

The most important aspect of choosing an incident command vehicle is to remember your limitations. Don’t expect to run a four-alarm fire and defensive planning from the front seat of a small car, unless you can process operations, planning and logistics simultaneously.

Some organizations often get in the mindset that they only have small events, then they often experience difficulty working larger events with their setup. Be sure that the command vehicle you choose will be good enough to meet your growing needs.

command vehicleAbout the Author: Dr. Randall W. Hanifen is a Shift Captain for the West Chester Fire Department in Ohio and a fire service consultant. He is also a faculty member at American Military University, teaching courses in its Emergency & Disaster Management program. He has a B.S. in Fire Administration, a M.S. in Fire Service Executive Leadership, and a Ph.D. in Executive Management of Homeland Security. He is the associate author of Disaster Planning and Control. Randall serves as the Executive Chairperson of a County Technical Rescue Team, a Taskforce Leader for FEMA’s Ohio Task Force 1 US&R team, and is the Vice-Chair of IAFC Company Officers Section. He serves as a member of NFPA 1021 Fire Officer and NFPA 1026 Incident Management committees He is credentialed as a Fire Officer by the Center for Public Safety Excellence and has been accepted as a Fellow to the Institute of Fire Engineers. Randall has provided presentations and trainings for the Ohio Fire Chief’s Association, Fire Rescue International, Emergency Management Institute, and the IAFC Board of Directors. To contact the author, send an email to For more articles featuring insight from industry experts, subscribe to In Public Safety’s bi-monthly newsletter.

Dr. Hanifen serves as a shift commander at a medium-sized suburban fire department in the northern part of the Cincinnati area. Randall is the CEO/principal consultant of an emergency services consulting firm, providing analysis and solutions related to organizational structuring of fire and EMS organizations. He is the chairperson and operations manager for a county technical rescue team. from a state and national perspective, he serves as a taskforce leader for one of FEMA's urban search and rescue teams, which responds to presidential declared disasters. From an academic standpoint, Randall has a bachelor’s degree in fire administration, a master’s degree in executive fire service leadership, and a doctoral degree in business administration with a specialization in homeland security. He is the associate author of “Disaster Planning and Control” (Penwell, 2009), which provides first responders with guidance through all types of disasters.

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