When a law enforcement agency and the fire department respond to the same emergency incident, which is in charge? Whichever gets there first? There are times this question is not as simple and straightforward as it appears. If the incident involves a crime, is it a law enforcement matter? And if it is a fire, is it a fire department matter? What if the fire is arson? Who's in charge then?
In order to create the most efficient and effective response to emergency incidents, it is very important that this question get resolved before the emergency incident and not at it.
In many parts of the country, the matter of who is in charge of an emergency incident is determined at the time of the incident, done on an incident-by-incident basis. This option is not the best method, but is the one used the most. In some locations it is determined by state law, or an emergency operations plan may predetermine it.
Deciding who is in charge on the fly is the method that has been around the longest and is the least effective. This method leaves too much to chance during an emergency and adds another level of confusion to the emergency. This is because too often, this turns out to be a clash of personalities, egos, or worse, a "battle of the badges." Few incidents give the public greater cause to question the professionalism of their local police and fire departments than when the media reports a verbal or physical altercation between responding agencies.
This type of conflict seems to arise most in locations where the police department performs functions other than traditional law enforcement activities. An example is when the police department and fire department both have their own underwater rescue team. When the request for a water rescue comes in, instead of both agencies working together under a unified command, they are each operating separately, often at odds with each other. At times it is a race to the scene, not to perform the rescue, but to see who arrives first to take command of and credit for the incident. This policy is not only unprofessional, but it jeopardizes the welfare of the victim, too.
The second method of determining who is in charge is by state law. Some states have defined in their laws that the fire chief is in charge of a fire scene. This law is clear when the fire is strictly a non-suspicious kitchen fire, but becomes less clear if the fire is of a suspicious nature, possibly set to cover up another crime. Conflict often arises if there is a motor vehicle accident and the fire department is called to the scene to assist. Does the fire department take charge because they were also called to the scene? What if they were called just to stand by, and there is no actual fire? There are many possible scenarios, but you can see it is very difficult to make a law that covers all events.
The last method is the one that has evolved from the problems presented by the other two. This method is one in which the primary responsibilities for the command of different incidents is predetermined, but also flexible enough to change as needed. This predetermination is spelled out in an Emergency Operations Plan (EOP). This document has separate sections or annexes for different disciplines. There is a Law Enforcement Annex, Fire Annex, etc. Each annex states which agency has the lead responsibility for that type of incident. For example in the Emergency Medical Annex, it states that EMS would be in charge of a mass casualty incident that was not criminal in nature, such as people passing out from the heat at an outdoor event during the summer. The chief officer of each of the agencies has to sign off on the plan, so everyone has to be aware of its content. This clearly defined lead authority is based on the Incident Command System (ICS) and National Incident Management System (NIMS), which spells out who is in command of an incident.