In Charge or Responsible

By Bill Nichols

On a recent call out I realized something that had never really dawned on me before. I was on scene with several other agencies when the question came up, “Who’s in charge?” I’ve heard it a thousand times before but that day it struck me differently. My first thought was “what am I responsible for here?” I wear many hats but that day I was the dive team leader.

Several disciplines were assigned to the scene, Law Enforcement, Fire, EMS, a Wildland Search team and Emergency Management. I had responded with the dive team because the scene involved a water element.

As the scene continued to evolve, a staging area developed. Many of the agency’s leaders were at the staging area. As I had responded as a diver, and the dive element was eliminated early, my team and I were free to assist in another capacity. I advised the team I would find the incident commander and offer our assistance. When I arrived at the staging area I found up to thirty responders in the area. This was more than two hours into the incident. By this time there were easily one hundred to one hundred fifty responders on scene. The local road was choked with emergency vehicles and their passengers.

Who’s in charge?

When I asked who I should report to, I was directed to several different people. It was at that moment when I thought about being in charge and being responsible. I then recommended that the dive team members could break into smaller teams or groups and search nearby lake and river shorelines. I explained we responded as divers and were not prepared or trained to conduct other types of searches. This was quickly agreed and we documented who was going where and gave that information to the emergency management person.

Shortly after this, the missing person was located. And all personnel were released from scene. I attended a debriefing which opened the door to many good observations and ideas.

I went away from this incident realizing the importance of a few things. The most important thing I realized, was knowing what you are responsible for. In this case I was tasked with conducting water searches. There were several responders on scene each with unique talents, training, and equipment. There were various personalities on scene as normally come with public safety. Many of these people were “in charge,” but seemingly were attempting to handle more than they were trained and equipped for.

I have been in public safety for 25 years, as a police officer, a dive team leader, fire fighter, and an emergency medical technician. I have been “in charge” and it is a difficult undertaking. Thankfully I had several great people working with me and by the Grace of God, things worked out.


I cannot over-emphasize the importance of self-awareness for responders. Knowing their capabilities and limitations, equipment, and responsibility is vital. The other side of this coin is, knowing and understanding what is not your job. Restraining yourself and allowing others to do what they do best is critical for the overall success of any multi response operation. Our dive team is aware of the many things other disciplines do. Our responsibility is to know our job, equipment, and capabilities and let the others take care of theirs.

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