Intention is a determination to act in a certain way—with resolve. Intentional commanders can efficiently synchronize resources and effectively attack rapidly evolving, complex and severe problems.
Every day, fire departments respond to dangerous situations with commanders who personally direct complex operations. Officers need a better understanding of how to command these highly dynamic and unpredictable environments where everyone engages in actions that place their physical and psychological wellbeing at risk. These unique leadership demands require that commanders prepare themselves and their teams for the psychological, social and organizational challenges they will face when operating in a dangerous and chaotic context.
My interest in becoming a more intentional commander originated from my experience with managing multiple resources in complex settings. This study into how command influences a situation has helped me to step back and take a larger look at the workings of the entire command process. It’s raised my awareness of the importance of the underlying behaviors and mechanics of a functioning command team and how its success determines the development of achievable strategies and the delivery of effective tactics.
After many years of commanding a variety of incidents, taking command courses and practicing the command process, I’ve discovered that most command literature and training lacks the essential elements of managing stress, staying mindful of purpose and building mutual trust between the commander and the team. My intent here is to address the unique challenges faced by commanders, while offering a better perspective of how they can influence their firefighters and the situation as a leader.
The Current State of Command
Plenty of today’s emergency scene problems are the natural consequence of command’s ineffective or misdirected influence on the behavior of the firefighting force. It’s ironic that when you ask some incident commanders (ICs) what constitutes command, you often get standard answers like strategies, tactics, span of control, accountability, communication and benchmarks. Usually, there’s no reference to the central task of a commander—influencing their firefighters and the situation as the leader.
Commanding dangerous events isn’t easy. Whether working a structure fire with a quick rescue that requires fast thinking or mitigating an escalating chemical emergency that demands a slow, methodical approach, there must be a clearly defined, well-organized and purposeful command. Command must be intentional and it must be in control at all times.
Many ICs operate in a status-quo mode where they do a radio “play-by-play” for dispatch and let the crews carry the burden of tactical execution without a defined strategy. Others micromanage each minute and every detail until the event outpaces them and everyone runs for cover. These approaches to command are ineffective, especially when faced with complex or severe problems, which nowadays are a common occurrence.
How do we establish a command that meets the unique psychological, social and organizational challenges that arise in highly dynamic and unpredictable situations? We become intentional commanders.
Defining Intentional Command
Much of commandership has to do with intention. As commanders, we don’t choose our situations, but we do get to determine how to respond to them. A good example of this comes from General Dwight Eisenhower. Eisenhower obviously didn’t make World War II happen, but he approached it with a steadfast goal to influence the war. As Supreme Commander of the Allied Forces, he planned and directed the invasion of Normandy, including the competing agendas of the commanders and politicians involved. Eisenhower was an intentional commander.
Intentional command is influencing others with purpose. A strong desire and motivation to command will help commanders perform at their best. The intentional commander is caring, trustworthy and self-confident. This establishes the image of competent commanders as credible and reliable decision-makers. As a commander, you’re here for one reason: to support the firefighters you are going to lead. You’re responsible for keeping them alive and accomplishing the mission. You owe them your bugles, because this isn’t about you.
A Vision of Intentional Command
More needs to be studied and said about what a commander is, should be and, more importantly, what they should do. Most fire officers have a clear sense about the responsibilities of command and they work hard at expanding the skills of situation assessment, developing strategies and prioritizing tactics. But many miss critical elements, including managing stress, staying mindful of their purpose, building strong teams, earning trust and leveraging their fire department’s culture to be ready to meet the challenges of operating in dangerous environments. Future columns will address the unique psychological, social and organizational skills that individuals and teams need to develop and practice their intentional command.
Until then, be safe and help people.