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.