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“Command and Control”… Really?

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The top down crisis management philosophy called “Command and Control” needs to go.  Yep, you read it right.  This statement is likely going to cause consternation among fellow Incident Commanders.  But, what the heck, I’m in the twilight of my fire service career anyway. So I might as well go out swinging.  Plus, most of them are old too.

I recently noted on Twitter -“Term ‘Command and Control’ shud be changed to ‘Coordinate and Collaborate’ when it comes to motivating and directing during disaster“.   I also noted – “Sense-making- the art of taking input and filtering it through previous experience & intuition. Critical to effective #crisis response.” These tweets were my reactions to reading two works; a 2006 paper by David Alberts and Richard Hayes called Understanding Command and Control, and IBM’s 2012 study on leadership. The Alberts/Hayes paper is a heavy read, analyzing the evolution of U.S. Department of Defense battlefield command philosophy from the Industrial Revolution to our current Information Revolution.  The IBM research summary is a much easier read.  Although six years apart, the researchers described similar dynamics influencing battlefields and the business world. The authors made it abundantly clear that times have changed as it pertains to managing crisis.

How so?  Both studies noted the speed and diversity of information that must be disseminated;

“Traditionally, the flow of information has been tightly coupled to the command relationships.  More recently, information flows have been freed from hierarchical and stove-piped patterns of distribution.” (Alberts and Hayes, 2006)

“This is now a continuous feedback kind of world, and we need the organizational nimbleness to respond.” (IBM, 2012)

“The time available to capture, interpret and act on information is getting shorter and shorter.” (IBM, 2012)

Regarding the notion of centralized “Command and Control”, both studies appear to reach strikingly similar conclusions;

“Information Age organizations, including militaries, are expected to have minimally centralized distributions of decisions rights.” (Alberts and Hayes, 2006)

“How do you unleash the innovative power of the people who deal with your customers every day?” (IBM, 2012)

Both studies highlight the need for decentralization of responsibility and decision making. So, should the Incident Command System (ICS) be modified to reflect this new approach? I think so, or at least take a long hard look at how we do business.  Distributive decision-making, data rich environments, and the public’s expectation of “I want to know now” make today’s Incident Commander’s job much more difficult.  ICS doctrine clearly centralizes responsibilities through concepts of “unity of command” and “span of control”,  yet seems like it supports the concept of distributive decision-making.  As a Type III IC, I was taught to stay out of Tactics Meetings, and focus on the “Big Picture”.  But, today the “Big Picture” is really a collage of rapidly changing perceptions scrambled together and globally distributed at the speed of light.

So, how should we be adapting to this  evolving climate?  First, we have to recognize and accept it is happening.  We don’t “command” the fireground (our battlefield).  As Alberts/Hayes note; Today’s commanders establish intent, assign roles, make rules, monitor progress, inspire, educate and provide the needed tools to get the job done.  We must also understand that it is not about the rules, it’s about results. If you are not flexible, you are rigid, and on our battleground that can get you or your teammates dead in a heartbeat.

Comments - Add Yours

  • http://www.TEAM-Solutions.US TEAM Solutions

    One of my observations in both large and small responses has been the tendency for some IC’s to try and “command and control” the incident when in fact (to your point) their job is really to command and control – and coordinate – the organization (Command and General Staff). The role of the adequately staffed organization is to manage the incident. Another good read Bill, keep up the good work.

  • Dave

    Bill, this is a really interesting concept. Do you have any plans to expand your ideas on this topic? I thought this post was a great conversation starter but would definetly be interested in practical examples of ways to modify ICS or EOC operations to fit this “new world.” Thanks

    • http://chiefb2.wordpress.com chiefb2

      Hi Dave, yes, I plan on writing more about it. I’m especially intrigued by the tension created by the notion that IC’s are directly and personally liable for actions and tactical decisions that they may not have direct control over. Makes it hard to embrace decentralized “control” when you can get your ass sued off. More to come!

  • http://twitter.com/greerjacob Jacob Greer (@greerjacob)

    Great work, this post is spot on.

    • http://chiefb2.wordpress.com chiefb2

      Thanks Jacob!

  • http://www.facebook.com/steve.fraidenburg Steve D. Fraidenburg

    Sounds to me like another near retirement, reinvent the wheel with some “new” quasi science b.s. so I can earn some extra duckets on the conference speaking circuit.

    • http://chiefb2.wordpress.com chiefb2

      Sorry to disappoint Steve. No interest in conference speaking tour. No quasi science or reinventing physics. Hoping all current and future firefighters, including my son, stay smart and safe.

About chiefb2

Retired fire chief,Type 3 AHIMT IC, PIO. Current industrial services safety professional, social media emergency management disciple (no, I'm not a "guru"). Crisis communications consultant. Dad with an open wallet.