A time to revise?

Recent high-profile terror attacks and the Grenfell Tower incident have received a great deal of commentary in mainstream media. Some of it entirely unjustified. Some of it not. It seems the desire of those that inhabit social media for someone to take the blame for what appears to be mistakes is alive and well. Many of those that comment so vociferously should take care. Would they honestly have done any better in the circumstances?

At the heart of these high-profile events is the subject of command and how it is exercised. The world in which we live in makes it hard for those who exercise command in complex situations. These inevitably attract a lot of social media commentary. Much of it negative in content and highly ill-informed.

Axiomatically, therefore, it is clear this is an area where the Fire and Rescue Service needs to conduct more training, in addition to what it regards as essential to maintain service proficiency levels. Training on breathing apparatus equipment is an essential element of the day-to-day rhythms of the Fire and Rescue Service.

But that should not stop all members of the Service, even first responders, not knowing how to command incidents. The age-old ideas that command can only be vested in those with operational experience should be challenged. In an uncertain world anyone should be equipped to take command of an incident. This should start in parallel to basic introductory training.

The ability to command is not something that can be developed or defined as a simple process. Intuition must play a role. First responders must also be encouraged to ask questions if they are unsure of a situation. The ability to challenge command is also important.

Beyond JESIP

The ideas that you can ‘follow these steps’ and be a good commander is simplistic in the extreme. The introduction of the Joint Emergency Services Interoperation Protocol (JESIP) provides a model on which decisions can be taken. But that does not make its practitioners good commanders. Just learning the decision cycle at the heart of JESIP is not enough. Some background context to decision making is also essential.

Arguably prima inter pares in this respect is an understanding of the basic problems human beings have in making any kind of decision. While those in business may find decision making easy, when the lives of people you know are literally at stake, the risk assessment process is very different. Dynamic risk assessment when a situation is changing rapidly is hard.

With the kind of incidents being faced by the Fire and Rescue Service likely to become more complex over time, the ability to provide an agile response is vital. Climate change, terrorism, the threat of pandemics and all other manner of possible new ways fires might occur that were not likely to have happened in the past, make flexibility a critical aspect of command.

While those that drafted the JESIP decision model knew of other forms of command models, one specific aspect did not appear in the initial thinking. The ability to outline the solution required while leaving the exact means of achieving that solution to the people on the ground at the incident.

In military circles this is called ‘mission command’. The General in an army fighting on the ground does not care too much how a specific objective is achieved. What matters is that it is achieved and when it is achieved.



“We need to have the imagination to envisage the future and the challenges it can pose and what attributes we need of commanders to deal with them”


Military-style Mission Command

There is a famous anecdote told by those who fought alongside General Sir Rupert Smith, the commander of the Desert Rats in the First Gulf War, involving a subordinate telling him over a mobile communications network that his formation would be a few minutes late at an objective. General Sir Rupert’s reply, “that would be disappointing”, provided all the necessary motivation for the subordinate commander to speed up his processes. He did not disappoint the Commander of the Desert Rats. The subordinate’s formation duly arrived on time.

While this anecdote highlights an aspect of military command and the need to maintain operational tempo, it does provide some insights into the contemporary world in which firefighters have to operate. Placing trust for complex decision making does have to be delegated to the lowest level of command, as that is where they can have the most impact when events are moving quickly. Sticking to ‘tried and tested’ approaches was never likely to provide an answer that would stand the test of time in a public inquiry with its intensive scrutiny on decision making.

It was therefore hardly helpful for leaders to point to the likelihood of Grenfell Tower occurring as highly unlikely. It is not difficult to imagine, in this highly interactive and complex world, that other highly unlikely events will occur. We should not anchor our responses in the past. We need to have the imagination to envisage the future and the challenges it can pose and what attributes we need of commanders to deal with them.

Whereas in the past decisions to deploy firefighters into situations where lives were at risk was often based on highly uncertain information, today social media, for example, provides other insights that can help that dynamic risk assessment. Preparing people to take command in such events and showing flexibility as one of its traits – moving away from the strictures of Standard Operating Procedures – into the world of ‘command discretion’ builds resilience into an organisation.

The Channel 4 Dispatches documentary on the response of London Fire Brigade to the Grenfell Tower incident was uncompromising in its implied criticism of the response as events unfolded. While it acknowledged the individual acts of heroism conducted by members of London Fire Brigade, its wider narrative of an incident whose response it believed was poorly managed was clear.

Of all the issues highlighted by the documentary the fact that the control centre staff continued to advise people to stay in their flats – the ‘stay put’ policy – when, manifestly, information showing the severity of the fire was available on social media, raises some of the most important lessons that can be learnt.

Is social media so untrustworthy a source as to make it irrelevant when disaster strikes?

It is arguable that changes to the way firefighters obtain information as a complex incident unfolds is an area that requires real introspection. Those trained in JESIP know that it is all about shared situational assessment.

It is the flow of information, often in the past noted under a broader heading of ‘communications failures’, that stand again as a major point to try and learn from such tragedies. Unless lessons are learnt then repeated tragedies are inevitable.

At the heart of that change needs to be a fundamental decision to allow firefighters to tap into social media coverage around an incident. The ethos of mission command needs to be adopted by the Fire and Rescue Service. Delegation of command (and trust) to those on the ground most intimately involved in an incident needs to occur. They are in the best position to make decisions. If a firefighter believes they can enter a building and evacuate a casualty they must be empowered to do that and backed up should their decision making come into question.



“The ethos of mission command
needs to be adopted by the Fire and Rescue Service”


Crowd Sourced Intelligence

JESIP was never going to be a total solution to the absence of a decision model. It was always going to be a start point. Now, in the wake of recent tragedies, is the time to undertake such a re-appraisal. At the heart of that review should be how first responders can make use of what can be termed ‘crowd sourced’ intelligence and how that should also be piped into control centres so they deal directly with the public and are ‘on the same page’ as the first responders who are in immediate danger.

Ways in which information flows through an organisation as events unfold also need to be critically examined and gamed through scenarios. That way resilience ‘weak spots’ will be identified. The curriculum for such training should also include insights to the 13 natural decision traps that are at the heart of human being’s ways of resolving problems. A basic grasp is essential if decisions are to be made in a timely way.

As the results of the recent series of tragedies demonstrate clearly, the recasting of command training needs to begin as a matter of urgency. Lives of members of the public and first responders literally depend upon it.

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