Have You Seen These

Syncing Command and Collaboration

Commander or collaborator? In the realm of managing emergency incidents both functions have to happen to make emergency incidents safely go away. Yet, we always assign an “incident commander”, someone responsible – organizationally and legally – for the emergency response. We also fill a bunch of other boxes as needed. In 99% of emergency incidents, this approach works well. What about the remaining 1%? I say not so much. A great commander is not necessarily a great collaborator.

There is no question that the incident command system, born out of abysmal management of wildfires in the late 60’s – early 70’s made a huge positive impact on response effectiveness and safety on emergency incidents. When I was hired in 1983, my department had just adopted ICS. I quickly realized that many of the “Old Guard” wanted nothing to do with it. “Too complicated, Mumbo Jumbo, Nothing but jargon, Too many chiefs and not enough Indians”, they said. Eventually, these old farts (of which I am now proudly a member) moved on, leaving an open playing field for those of us raised in the world of Brunacini’s Fire Command and the Firescope Incident Command System. As I progressed in my career I had lots of opportunities to apply the academic principles of ICS, later expanded and called NIMS, in the real world of dirty, fluid and sometimes freakish incidents. Some of them were really big deals. So what did I learn about collaboration during my time in the Command saddle?

• You won’t do it unless you practice it.
• It is easier when you know the players. But, you don’t have time to be suspect of strangers. You are all in it together.
• Learn to get along. If you can’t, either you or the other person is the problem. One of you has to go.
• If someone walks up to you and says; “Hi, I’m the liaison from XYZ agency”, you better point them in the direction of your liaison…or appoint one quickly.
• Ego is hard to hide in crisis.
• Emergency response is a team sport. But difficult command decisions are often made alone. Fall back on your experience, intuition and values.
• The best leaders ALWAYS question if they made the right call. It helps make it easier in making the call next time.
• The most courageous decisions are often when you decide NOT to do something.
• The best incident commanders I knew were collaborators, not just commanders. They compromised, communicated, empathized and supported the objectives of each agency. In other words, they were nice people focused on getting the job done irrespective of turf.
• If you don’t have official authority, by virtue of statute or delegation of authority agreement, you really are not in charge. You just think you are. Unless something goes wrong…then you will be blamed as being in charge.

Life for incident commanders isn’t as simple as it used to be in 1969,1989 or 2002. Yet we continue to rely on concepts and curricula born in 1970 and revamped in 2004. It’s time to retool ICS/IMS, at least at the strategic level. Planners and consultants need to focus on the new reality of collaboration, in sync with the old school concepts of span of control and unity of command. As an old school command outsider, this effort can’t happen soon enough.


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.
  • Great post, Bill. You’re right on the money with the push for collaboration with incident command. I’ve been an ICS convert since the 90s, and there were a few federal agencies for awhile there that were doing great things with the Unified Command concept. Seems like there’s been a step back from those successes in the last few years, for those same agencies. There was a Unified Command for the Deepwater Horizon oil spill response, but it seemed to be more so in name, than in practice. Now I’m going to have to poll my EM friends at the state/local levels to ask how collaboration is holding up there! Thanks for the great content.

    • Thanks Brandon! I suspect true “Unified Command” is a rare occurrence. We’ll see if anyone else weighs in.

  • So much of it is personality based. You are spot on with what needs to happen but changes to doctrine won’t alter personalities, ego, etc. I think all we can do is to keep pushing for it and hope that it is a beneficial outcome of our continued evolution in the practice.

    Perhaps our biggest challenge is that there are so many ‘type A’ personalities in the field (myself being one of them). There are many congruent personality traits along these lines that often times don’t work so well with ‘collaboration’. We like to take charge. That said, I’m sure there is still hope.

    I’ve seen many incidents managed under a true unified command. Some good, some needing a lot of improvement, some that start out rocky but improve over time (especially with the realization that not every agency showing up needs to be a part of the unified command). I’ve witnessed several times a strong Planning Section Chief make a big difference. They are often looked at as the ICS expert and have access to the IC that many others don’t get.

    As with all things – time, patience, and perseverance will get us there.

    • I agree with everything you said Tim, especially the comments about the PSC! Thanks for the comments and real-life perspective.