Command vs control: Words matter
Background: I recently wrote a series of blogs, exploring the incident response differences I’ve observed between my 25 year career in IT, and my 17 years as a volunteer firefighter. Some excellent discussion ensued and this piece is about an interesting revelation that resulted.
So. I discussed New Zealand’s Coordinated Incident Management System (CIMS), specifically from my personal experience and training with Fire and Emergency New Zealand (FENZ). An interesting conversation ensued with a gentleman who’s been doing incident response for a fairly large IT outfit you’d recognize by name. He noted Laura Maguire’s talk on the cost of coordination from Qcon London 2020. Now, I had previously seen this, but it hadn’t really had a strong impact. With the specific note around the relation from an obviously highly knowledgable soure, I went back and watched it again. And I believe I now understand why it didn’t hit me the first time around.
As noted in the previous posts, CIMS is based on the ICS system developed in California in the early 70s, which was initially all about command of wildfires, and followed US Navy patterns (as a native San Diegan, this makes great sense, the Navy has a huge influence in Southern California, particularly San Diego in the 70s; you couldn’t swing a cat without hitting a swabbie or a jarhead, they’re part of our fabric and culture).
Now, in Laura’s talk, she noted that there can be a bottleneck as information transitions up to the Incident Commander, and directives transition back down. The graphics comparing the IC to Captain America gel this in. On reflection, I think I now understand why this did not resonate with me on the first reading, and it comes down to a single substitution of words. As an example of the ICS structure, here’s an image from Wikipedia’s ICS page:
And now, for comparison, here’s a model from CIMS:
And right there at the top of each graphic is a single word choice that I believe can radically alter the perception of the individuals involved. In ICS it’s Commander. In CIMS it’s Controller. The word Command itself implies an authoritarian top down approach, where actions are dictated and delegated. Whereas Control potentially implies a more managerial approach. Without contacting CIMS authors to verify their intent, I can make a pretty good guess that this was a very intentional act. Not in the least because interagency competition can definitely be a thing; I know of at least 3 agencies locally which offer a lines rescue capability, and naturally there can be some amount of jostling for top position when that sort of thing occurs. Some agencies can get a bit grumpy about being “commanded” around, and resistant to getting others involved (a not-invented-here-syndrome). CIMS sidesteps this; as a participating agency, you are still in full command of all your people and operations, and you’re logically working with the incident controller and their agency, rather than being commanded by them.
A top-down approach will quite clearly have the tendency to create the kind of problems Laura describes, where things slow down while waiting around for Captain America to do his thing. And, I’m going to call in a culture card here too. My Fellow Americans, we have a bit of a hero complex. It’s kinda hard wired into us, whether it be cowboy/individual fantasy heroes like the Lone Ranger, John Wayne characters, Wonder Woman, KITT/Michael Knight, or real life folks like Patton or MacArthur. We celebrate and sometimes revere the individual, occasionally quite enthusiastically, and I daresay that it will be part of the mindset which was prevalent when ICS formed. Meanwhile, my Kiwi pals are kind of the other way around. We have a thing we call Tall Poppy Syndrome (which we share with our Aussie cousins); quite often rather than celebrating the individual who sticks out, we may instead tend to cut them down. I’m not passing judgement here on either (personally, I think both sides could learn a bit from each other, and as a dual citizen, I am both, and both are me), just illustrating the difference which in turn I suspect helps enlighten why CIMS went for Controller, and why my personal experience didn’t gel with Laura’s description.
In a FENZ operation using the CIMS control model, at the top layer we’re actually fairly high level. We’ll be more focused on Aim/Strategy; we might talk a bit with the operations controller about tactics (and we might not), and the actual ops themselves we’ll be more or less separated from. We’re more about orchestration and resourcing than dictation to operations. There’s going to be a lot of autonomy, of course with good feedback.
Part of this is our training; every fire crew that arrives, whether I’ve ever met any of them or not, will have a common basic framework-this fits with Klein et. al., another piece referred to by many in the resilience engineering area, Common Ground and Coordination in Joint Activity. If I task the crew officer “I need a search and rescue for 2 persons reported, make entry from the front door”, that’s it. I don’t need to dictate a high or low pressure delivery (aka fire hose), order them to bring breaking in gear, wear breathing apparatus, search from left to right, establish an entry control point, task an emergency crew for backup, setup a medical triage point for any survivors found, etc etc. We all implicitly understand this from our shared training and procedures, so as incident controller this is all autonomous, and all the officer needs to do is keep me informed of status, changes, or any findings.
In addition to the common ground, there’s also that implicit meaning of control vs command. The officer I’ve delegated a task to isn’t going to be asking me about all those variables, and it’s not my problem to dictate them to him/her (unless of course they ask for it, possibly due to an unusual scenario or variable). As a result, we’re not going to be creating the bottleneck that Laura speaks of, and I think that’s why my initial reaction to it was quite different to the gentleman who was calling it to my attention. We’re actually operating in a fashion more closely aligned to Laura’s adaptive choreography:
We’re not completely autonomous, of course. Freelancing cowboys can be wildly dangerous-as an example say we have a heavily smoke logged interior, we’ve committed a crew on SAR, and then some joker pops a window. That added ventilation could let oxygen in, which might feed the fire and make things quite unpleasant for our crew inside. The extreme example of this is a backdraft, and it will make for a Very Bad Day if you’re in its path. Again, however, this is part of our common understanding, and as IC I’ll have a fair level of confidence that crews will engage with the operations controller for guidance if required, and that the OC will be informing me of anything significant that may require IC level attention.
This sort of approach isn’t new, by a long shot. Helmuth von Moltke, chief of Prussian General Staff from 1857–1888, is well known for the (english translated) phrase ‘No plan survives first contact with the enemy’. Some worthwhile notes from Wikipedia on this:
Moltke’s main thesis was that military strategy had to be understood as a system of options, since it was only possible to plan the beginning of a military operation. As a result, he considered the main task of military leaders to consist in the extensive preparation of all possible outcomes. His thesis can be summed up by two statements, one famous and one less so, translated into English as “No plan of operations extends with certainty beyond the first encounter with the enemy’s main strength” (or “no plan survives contact with the enemy”) and “Strategy is a system of expedients”.
Moltke also realized that the expansion in the size of armies since the 1820s made it essentially impossible to exercise detailed control over the entire force (as Napoleon or Wellington had done in battle). Subordinates would have to use initiative and independent judgment for the forces to be effective in battle. Therefore, overall campaign and battle plans should encourage and take advantage of the decentralization that would be necessary in any case. In this new concept, commanders of distant detachments were required to exercise initiative in their decision-making and von Moltke emphasized the benefits of developing officers who could do this within the limits of the senior commander’s intent.
This is perfectly in line with my perception of Laura’s adaptive choreography, and also the operational techniques of FENZ. The IC is expressing intent via Aim and Strategy, and the subordinate officers are exercising judgement and utilizing their training in support of achieving the goals of the IC, but importantly they’re not checking in with the IC on every step or decision. The training and the common ground make this unnecessary. Naturally, this results in less of a bottleneck, etc. And, because this is how we have operated during my entire time with NZFS/FENZ, it’s also why I had that “huh? whatchu talkin’ bout Willis” response on my first exposure to the costs of coordination talk.
And lastly, tying in with this I’ll mention again the communications channels which I first discussed in the Communications and Recovery blog post. The diagram below shows the different Incident Ground Communications (IGC) radio channels, and who is on which ones. Note that your IC is on an orange radio, and your OC is on both a yellow and an orange (yes, as OC you carry two radios, one for your crews putting the wet stuff on the red stuff, and one for your CIMS control structure):
Boom, right there we’ve dramatically reduced the firehose(sic) of information pummelling our IC, and it’s an operational example of a model closer to the adaptive choreography, or Helmuth’s methodologies. Finally, I shall again flog this expired equine mammal of which I am so fond, touting the idea of seperate Slack channels and sectorization of large scale IT incidents, specifically to combat IC overload.
So, that’s a whole lot of words to illustrate the difference between two words. And hopefully a step towards a model more akin to decentralized adaptive choreography. As before, if this strikes a chord, do feel free to hit me up for a yammer. ed at hintz dot org, or ehintz at pvfb dot org dot nz, and as always thanks for taking the time to read my scribbles.