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


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: