What is Intentional Command?

Managing stress, staying mindful & other strategies for leadership

By Billy Schmidt
Published at FirefighterNation on Sunday, August 11, 2013

Intentional Commanders influence others with a purpose. Photo by Artie Werkle

Intentional Commanders influence others with a purpose. Photo by Artie Werkle

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.

Command Process
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.

The Intentional Commander is caring, trustworthy and self-confident. Photo by Artie Werkle

The Intentional Commander is caring, trustworthy and self-confident. Photo by Artie Werkle

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.

How do you influence your firefighters in complex situations? How have you established your position as a credible, reliable commander?

I'm teaching Controlling Chaos at The Great Florida Fire School

  • Date: November 7, 2012
  • Time: 8am to 12pm
  • Event: The Great Florida Fire School 2012
  • Topic: Controlling Chaos: Making Critical Life and Death Decisions
  • Where: Treasure Coast Public Safety Training Complex at Indian River State College
  • Location: Ft. Pierce, Florida
  • Registration: Click here to register.
  • More info: Click here for more info.

Chaos is complete disorder and confusion, creating unpredictable behavior that typically leads to undesirable outcomes.  This course will address how firefighters should control the flow and change of complex and dangerous situations.  The firefighter needs an acute sense of awareness, the ability to adapt to changing situations and the skill and timing to make critical decisions fast.  This course explores how the mind and body linked together performs under stress and delivers practical, actionable advice for controlling and surviving complicated and chaotic events.

Using case studies and dramatic video of real emergencies, this course will challenge you with thought exercises and tactical decision games.  You will learn fast, effective tools to help transform unproductive disorder into controllable and manageable events at the emergency scene.  This program is relevant to all operational positions.

Controlling Chaos Page

Accelerating the OODA Loop

The speed must come from a deep intuitive understanding of one’s relation to the rapidly changing environment.

Robert Coram from Boyd: The Fighter Pilot Who Changed The Art of War.

Are We Training Enough on Command and Control?

cfd-alexander-2-olkIn a National Fire Academy Alumni blog, John Bierling asks, “Is command failure an acceptable incident outcome?” He continues with this:

Nearly every NIOSH Firefighter LOOD investigation report states that one of the contributing factors is the failure to adequately “Command and Control” the incident. How is this possible? Fire Chiefs across the country will say, “We establish Command at every incident and the fire service is good at ICS.” If that’s true, why the consistent command failure when the incident goes bad? Does the incident go bad because of “command failure” or do we fail to adequately command when the pressure is on and the need is greatest?

My question is, “Are we dedicating enough time to practicing ICS for incidents that stretch our span of control? I don’t believe we are. Recent studies of command and control (C/C) during rapid intervention operations in my area found that there is little hands-on, realistic training on C/C of single and multi-alarm incidents, or as part of a RIC or Rapid Intervention Group deployment. That’s unacceptable!

At our fire department, we just completed a Command and Control Decision Making course to begin to address this issue. The program, based on the NFA command and control curriculum,  was designed for our new district chiefs. The course focused on identifying problems (5 boxes), making decisions, and span of control (again 5) for one and two-alarm fires. Using a variety of real-fire videos (including sound) to create a certain level of stress, students role-played command positions ranging from incident command, command aide, safety, and division and group supervisors. The outcome for the students was better situational awareness, decision making, communication, and teamwork.

Command is about situational awareness and decision making, and control requires practice. Anyone expected to play the “command” role must continuously study command operations and practice realistic command scenarios. Command and control must have the same amount of training focus and attention as firefighter tactics and tasks. After all, without command and control can we really accomplish the tactics?

How much time do you dedicate to practicing ICS for incidents that stretch your command and control? What type of training do you use?

Our Brain Matters

Brains need exercise too!

Our brain is powerful and mysterious. It performs simple, routine tasks everyday. It can create entertaining music and art, construct compelling stories, and solve intricate problems and equations. Weighing in at approximately 3 pounds, our brain is our most important asset.

Here’s some “thought-provoking” points about the brain from Laura Helmuth in the July/August 2012 Smithsonian Magazine. In it you’ll discover that your brain can store more than computers, that it doesn’t require a lot energy to work, that chewing gum messes with your recall, and that chimpanzees can remember more than most people.

I like nonsense; it wakes up the brain cells.  ~Dr. Seuss

GRAY MATTERS

Somehow, the brain is greater than the sum of its parts

100: Number, in billions, of neurons in a human brain

100: Estimated number, in terabytes, of information it can store

1: Estimated number, in terabytes, of information a typical desktop computer can store

2: Percentage of the body’s weight represented by the brain

20: Percentage of the body’s energy used by the brain

95: Number of diagnoses in the 1952 DSM-I, the first edition of psychiatry’s manual for diagnosing mental illnesses

283: Number of diagnoses in the 2011 DSM-IV-TR, the most recent edition

303: Highest number of random digits memorized at the 2012 USA Memory Championship

10: Approximate percentage drop, in one study, in the accurate recall of random letters as a result of chewing gum

50: Percentage of times that human volunteers successfully recalled a sequence of five numbers presented briefly on a computer screen

80: Percentage of times that a chimpanzee named Ayumu succeeded at the same task

What does this all mean? It appears to me that we carry around in our heads a very powerful, yet little-used tool. Maybe we should exercise and work our brains more. Call it mental workouts. We should be smart and manage our brains better – it’s our most important asset!

Here’s a few sources to help you with your brain workout:

Creative Thinking Exercises with Michael Michalko

120 Ways to Boost Your Brain Power

Optimizing Brain Fitness: Free Video Lecture on How Your Brain Works

How’s your brain working these days? How do you exercise your brain?

Historical Stories: Another Way to Learn Better Decision-Making

My recent article published at FIREFIGHTERNATION.

Lessons from history help us make decisions in the present and be ready for the future

By Billy Schmidt
Published Saturday, May 12, 2012

“We like to hear good stories retold. What is more interesting is our need to tell stories, again and again and again. Each telling helps us understand more about the lessons embedded in the story.”             Gary Klein- Sources of Power: How People Make Decisions

What are the qualities of a good leader? What combination of experience and personal characteristics enable leaders to make rapid decisions during critical events? What processes do they use to make decisions with little information under extreme pressure?

Work on the fireground, like soldiering on the battlefield, demands an acute awareness of what’s happening, the ability to adapt to the changing situation, and the skill and will to be deliberate, decisive and fast. History provides timeless lessons from leaders who successfully made fast decisions under stress—decisions that made a difference.

Numerous books, articles and personal letters have been written detailing the complex and confusing aspects of both military battles and fireground incidents and examining the ways critical decisions were made. There are hundreds of movies and documentaries that depict these events, providing another medium through which to learn better decision-making.

Storytelling can be an effective learning tool that passes along wisdom and experience that others have obtained as part of a historical event. The stories allow the audience to experience a moment in history and can give them a sense of “being there when it happened.”

This FF-360 column is not just another article that simply tells a story. This column is the first of several in which we’ll take an imaginary “staff ride.” Staff rides, originally used by the 19th century Prussian Army and widely used by today’s military and wildfire professionals, are case studies conducted on the ground where the event happened. But in place of actually being there, we will experience historical events first-hand through stories delivered to stimulate our imagination. These historical stories, ranging from military events to fire incidents, will focus on decision-making lessons so that we can learn how to better lead during chaotic and stressful situations.

The story shared here features a Civil War battle and a pivotal decision made by a leader in the heat of the conflict that very likely changed the outcome of the Battle at Gettysburg.

Colonel Joshua Chamberlain and the Battle at Little Round Top
It’s July 2, 1863, and you’re near a little town in Pennsylvania called Gettysburg. It’s a hot, humid day and you find yourself witness to probably one of the greatest conflicts fought on American soil. On the first day of the three day battle at Gettysburg, only parts of the Union and Confederate Armies were engaged. But today, those armies will face difficult and deadly battles in the Peach Orchard and on the Round Tops. The decisions made by both sides will dramatically affect each army’s ability and motivation to continue. (See image 1)

Little Round Top - Library of Congress

Little Round Top – Library of Congress

You sit on the slopes of Little Round Top watching the Union Army’s 20th Maine, commanded by Colonel Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain, prepare for battle. Chamberlain was a professor of rhetoric from Bowdoin College but today he is a Union colonel. Colonel Chamberlain and his comrades are about to face a fight where his decisions will shape both their lives and the outcome of the battle.

Chamberlain and the 20th Maine are in a dangerous, and what appears to be losing, situation. Positioned on a 500′ rocky hill, they are the end of the Union line and are to hold that position against a Confederate flank attack. From your vantage point, you hear the thunder of cannon balls crashing around you. You smell trees burning and you hear the screams of injured and dying soldiers. Through the thick smoke, you see groups of soldiers, dressed in gray, pushing upward toward the 20th Maine’s left flank. The Confederate Army is quickly making its move and Chamberlain needs to rapidly make a decision. (See image 2)

453px-Little_Round_Top2.svgYou watch Colonel Chamberlain survey the situation: (1) more than half of his regiment is dead, (2) many of his remaining soldiers are wounded, (3) and almost all of their ammunition is gone. He stands quietly, taking everything in, and then you hear him give the order, “Fix bayonets!” You can see his men are surprised by the order. You then hear Chamberlain quickly yell, “Fix bayonets and charge!” Suddenly, you watch as his men scramble to their feet and move together down the hill, following their leader and changing the course of the battle for Little Round Top.

Within minutes, you witness the exhausted group of men under Chamberlain’s command capture hundreds of surprised soldiers in gray. And it all happened because of one leader’s ability to make a split-second decision in a critical situation.
Watch a video of Chamberlain’s story here.

Footnote on Chamberlain: Colonel Chamberlain was professional, tactically proficient and understood human nature. He had the ability to quickly understand what was happening, adapt to the changing situation and make a critical decision. Later in the war, Chamberlain was chosen by Ulysses S. Grant to command the special honor division of veteran brigades formed to receive the surrender of arms and colors of General Lee’s army at Appomattox.

Thoughts, Questions and an Exercise for Learning
Questions
What insights into leadership and decision-making can we gain from this compelling story? Here are some questions to consider:

  • How did Colonel Chamberlain make the right call amid confusing and rapidly changing conditions, under extreme pressure and with incomplete information?
  • What are the intricacies of decision-making in a large organization, the Union Army, and a large group, the 20th Maine Regiment, and how did culture affect what was possible?
  • How, and when, did Colonel Chamberlain share his vision for success and reduce the possibility for misinterpretation?
  • What process did Colonel Chamberlain use to make the decision to “Fix bayonets and charge?”
  • Are there lessons from Chamberlain’s story you can apply to your own life or organization?

Here are some personal questions you should ask yourself?

  • How do you make your decisions? Do you use a specific decision model?
  • When you make decisions, do you consciously develop and compare possible courses of action to come up with your plan?
  • How do you evaluate your decisions?
  • Does your organization provide training on decision-making?

Thought Exercise
Think about a recent decision that you made, or perhaps that someone else made, in a dangerous and stressful situation. How did you/they go about the decision-making process? Was it deliberate or did it appear to be arbitrary? What factors were considered? What courses of action were considered? How was the decision communicated? How was it implemented? What were the outcomes?

Some Thoughts on Future Lessons from History
It’s no small thing to say that history is an excellent self-help guide. It remains true that history repeats itself because we refuse to learn from it. So we should study history not just to acquire facts but also to get better at everything we do.

I have always been intrigued by history—especially the military events connected by strategy, tactics and human behavior—and how it applies to the fire ground. The sheer impact of so many historical events, along with the courage of the people involved, makes these truly amazing stories. After many years of personal reading and reflection, I invite you to read and learn with me as we study history, leadership and how to perform better on the fireground.

Until next time, get prepared, be ready and stay safe!

Recommended Reading:
Bayonet! Forward: My Civil War Reminiscences. Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain. Stan Clark Military Books. Gettysburg, PA. 1994.
The Gettysburg Campaign: A Study in Command. Edwin B. Coddington. Touchstone. New York, NY. 1968.
The Power of Intuition. Gary Klein. Doubleday. New York, NY. 2003.

What lessons from history have helped you make better decisions?

Certain to Win: The Strategy of John Boyd, Applied to Business [Book Review]

USAF Colonel John Boyd was constant explorer, thinker, and doer (some say he was a rogue, but he did get things done). He influenced the tactical thought and critical decision making process of fighter pilots to “outmaneuver the enemy” during air combat operations. Boyd’s ideas can apply to everything from routine fire department productivity to high-risk, complex fire ground operations. Can his body of ideas be used for everything? Never. But they can be applied to most complex and rapidly changing situations.

Chet Richards was a close associate of the late Colonel Boyd and a lecturer at the Air War College and the Army’s Command and General Staff College. In Certain to Win, he introduces Boyd’s philosophy of conflict by examining how it works in the military arena as well as the business world. He puts forward that organizations, including fire departments, work best when they have clear visions, well-practiced skills, and implicit trust. Richards uses examples from military minds of Sun Zu, Musashi, von Clausewitz, Rommel, Patton, and Boyd seasoned with the organizational accomplishments of Toyota and Southwest Airlines to show how commonly held goals allow each unit of the organization to make decisions that continuously moves them toward the goal.

Why the title, Certain to Win? Sun Zu answers that here: If a general who heeds my strategy is employed, he is certain to win.

This is an excellent read for anyone looking to expand their knowledge on situational awareness, communication, decision making, teamwork, or leadership.

Rapid Intervention Roundtable at HEAT Conference 2012

Photo by Tim Olk

2012 South Florida HEAT Conference

Hosted by the Fire Training Officers of the Palm Beaches

Rapid Intervention Realities Roundtable

The sound of “Mayday, Mayday” heard over the radio will bring a sense of uneasiness and urgency to everyone on the fire ground. One of our own is in trouble. Is your fire department ready to manage an incident where firefighters transmit a Mayday?

Where does your fire department stand with rapid intervention team (RIT) operations? Many changes have taken place since RIT was first introduced, but how has your fire department RIT operation changed? Do you have RIT policies and procedures that are accepted and used? Do you provide realistic training for firefighter assist and survival? Do you have adequate staffing and resources, and relationships with other response agencies that will assist you with your RIT operations? Is your command staff ready to manage the risk and make the decisions to successfully control a Mayday incident?

District Chief Billy Schmidt (PBCFR) will host a roundtable chat on rapid intervention realities across Palm Beach County. Members of the Rapid Intervention Group will discuss RIT policies and procedures, practices, staffing and resources, and command and control. The Group will share its mission and intent to help fire departments in Palm Beach County raise the awareness of prevention, heighten the state of readiness, and strengthen the level of rapid intervention response.

Come and listen as they discuss their research into the following:

  • The impact of NFPA 1407
  • How to prevent unsafe conditions that may cause firefighters to become lost, trapped or injured on the fire ground
  • How to build knowledgeable, well-trained Rapid Intervention Teams
  • How to get Command and RIT working on the same page
  • How to get a fire department ready to respond to the unthinkable: A Mayday

The Rapid Intervention Group includes members from most Palm Beach County Fire Departments and is working to develop a fully comprehensive rapid intervention program through a collaborative partnership and a solution-centered approach that focuses on “fire-ground firefighter safety” as the highest priority.

Streetlights and Shadows: 10 claims about how we think.

How do people think in shadowy conditions where ambiguity rises and situations change rapidly? Klein believes that many of us have set beliefs on how to perform is these situations. Beliefs that may not be accurate. He has identified 10 claims that may mislead us into believing that we are thinking more effectively.

Following are the 10 claims that Klein uses to build his book. What are your opinions to each claim? You may be surprised with his answers.

1. Teaching people procedures helps them perform tasks more skillfully.
2. Decision biases distort our thinking.
2a. Successful decision makers rely on logic and statistics instead of intuition.
3. To make a decision, generate several options and compare them to pick the best one.
4. we can reduce uncertainty by gathering more information.
5. It’s bad to jump to conclusions – wait to see all the evidence.
6. To get people to learn, give them feedback on the consequences of their actions.
7. To make sense of a situation, we draw inferences from the data.
8. The starting point for any project is to get a clear description of the goal.
9. Our plans will succeed more often if we ID the biggest risks and find ways to eliminate them.
10. Leaders can create common ground by assigning roles and setting ground rules in advance.

What I'm Reading Right Now – Streetlights and Shadows

Photo by Tim Olk

I am researching decision making to prepare for my next Firefighter-360 columns. I have read other books and several articles by Gary Klein about how people make decisions and cognitive task analysis. I find it interesting, and maybe the most important area for improvement in the fire service. We need to get better at “bringing thinking to action.”

Do we make decisions with our gut or should we analyze every option? It depends! Klein offers realistic ideas about real-life situations.

The book begins with this story:

A policeman saw a drunk searching for something under a streetlight. “What have you lost, my friend?” the policeman asked. “My keys,” said the drunk. The policeman then helped the drunk look  and finally asked him: “Where exactly did you drop them?” “Over there, ” responded the drunk, pointing toward a dark alley. The policeman then asked: “Why are you looking here?” The drunk immediately replied, “Because the light is so much brighter here.”