Who does what in a major fire? Part 2

Who does what in a major fire? – Part 2

In our first part of this two-part series, I gave an overview of the firefighting structure under the National Operational Directive to Combat Rural Fires, the way the command was exercised as the number of operatives deployed increased, the work of the Bombeiros, GNR Emergency Protection and Relief Unit (UEPS), Special Civil Protection Force (FEPC) and the GNR and PSP regulars.

This feature covers the work of the command centre personnel, pilots, INEM and Red Cross, Army, Municipalities, Air Force and ICNF.


The civil protection operational structure comprises District Command and Control Centres (CDOS), which operate 24/7. They coordinate all the relief, emergency and assistance operations at the district level, guaranteeing the technical support and logistics necessary in situations considered emergency to the member organisations of the Integrated System of Protection and Relief Operations. They do not deal with crime incidents nor do they operate as public call centres.

They are under the command of Civil Protection, and personnel undertake various roles together with liaison officers from Bombeiros, INEM, GNR, PSP and other civil protection agents. When a fire/incident develops to a stage where it becomes more complex and/or additional resources from further afield are required, an incident command post is established on the ground. Here the incident commander will work with teams that support him/her in the decision making to combat the fire or indeed in any other major catastrophe.

Incident command post

Like the CDOS, which deals simultaneously with all incidents in the district, the incident command post comprises personnel from the same entities, who maintain regular contact with their respective operational units on the ground.

The CDOS is there to support the incident command post, obtaining the resources it needs, as well as specific advice, specific risk analysis and technical information. They are in regular communication throughout the incident.

Others present at the incident command post include Civil Protection and other technicians. Their work ranges from analysis of technical data, keeping records, communication and preparing information for the incident commander and dealing with the media.

Role of local municipality

They play a vital role as, after all, it is their area!

The incident command post will also include representatives from the local municipality to advise on opportunities and threats in respect of firefighting operations, based on their local knowledge and logistically to support the mission. Such logistical support and input, for example, could include evacuations of both people and animals and provision of alternative accommodation, as well as other logistical support services that may be needed. As such, they play a vital role, and the mayor would be present at major events to provide close coordination.

Air support

The use of fixed-wing firefighting aircraft and helicopters play a major role in firefighting. The number of aircraft available at present is 60, comprising 19 fixed wing aircraft (16 for firefighting and three for coordination/reconnaissance) and 41 helicopters (26 light, 12 medium and three heavy).

The deployment of light and medium helicopters is by CDOS, but for heavy helicopters and all fixed-wing aircraft deployment needs the authorisation and deployment by the ANEPC headquarters. Air deployment coordination at the scene of an incident is by the incident commander through an air attack liaison officer.

The pilots of nearly all aircraft are civilian, some having previous Portuguese Air Force experience. Most aircraft are privately owned and the pilots engaged through public contracts managed by the Air Force.

In fires, the final decision to fly rests with the pilot as he/she has the responsibility for the safety of the aircraft, crew having assessed operating conditions. The exception is in the case of an Air Force reconnaissance aircraft which has been deployed.

In the initial attack on a fire when one or two helicopters may be deployed, the crew are from the GNR UEPS, who are flown to the scene and are often the first to arrive in areas of difficult access. After offloading, the helicopter will collect water to return to fight the fire. For observation helicopters, the crew are from the Special Civil Protection Force to provide information for data analysis.

In operations, wind is a factor in deployment and for fixed-wing aircraft that scoop water, the amount of water available in reservoirs is a factor, plus at sea the height of waves.

INEM and Red Cross

As fires develop beyond the initial attack phase, an ambulance is deployed to the fire scene. Their role is to provide immediate treatment to firefighters and the population who may become injured during the fire and, when not treatable at the scene, conveying them to hospital. In the most complex of fires, this may be under GNR escort. The Red Cross acts in support of this work. In very large fires, INEM can provide specialist psychological support services on the ground during the aftermath of fires.


In forest fires, ICNF forest engineers advise the incident commander on the type of vegetation, say for instance eucalyptus, that may be encountered during firefighting operations. This is important as this could have a bearing on the intensity of the fire, and how it is fought. This is coordinated by ICNF reporting to the incident commander.

Forest sappers

Apart from the maintenance and protection of forest, their role is surveillance, first intervention and support for fighting rural fires, support for aftermath operations and active post-aftermath surveillance.

The Army

For the much larger rural fires, the Army can be deployed depending on the need. Their main role would be provision of specialist vehicles such as large bulldozers. Much of their work would be in the consolidation and aftermath of fires rather than actual firefighting.

Land-clearing bulldozers

One of the firefighting tactics is the use of large land-clearing tractors to clear areas at fire perimeters to try and prevent the fire spreading and also to clear tracks to help fire vehicles gain access to the fire itself. This was used to effect in the Gambelas, Faro, fire in early July. Their deployment is coordinated by the incident commander. The ownership of these are private companies and the drivers are civilian. They are engaged through public contracts.


In this two-part feature, the work of 15 entities has been covered, to provide an overview of their work in major fires. When dealing with other major catastrophes, there will be other various specialists as well. Their work is diverse ranging from logistical support in the incident to evacuations, to those who fight the fires either on land or air. They all play a vital role acting as one coordinated team.

By David Thomas
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David Thomas is a former Assistant Commissioner of the Hong Kong Police, consultant to INTERPOL and the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime.
In 2011, he founded Safe Communities Algarve to help the authorities and the community prevent crime. It is now registered as Associação SCP Safe Communities Portugal, the first national association of its type in Portugal.
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