davesloggettDr Dave Sloggett explores how a specific insight from history may help contemporary commanders in the emergency services take decisions in highly uncertain situations:

Political leaders love to fantasise. High up on their list of such delusions is that what they are doing is popular and resonates with the people. They believe their solution is the right one for the country and that somehow through a process of democracy they have the right to impose on the rest us whatever they set fit to develop from their bag of political idiosyncratic ideas.

In developing such a mind-set political leaders experience something known in psychology as cognitive dissonance. A situation where a person only wants to hear messages that confirm to their current view of the world. All other information, that which argues the current (blinkered) understanding of the world, is rejected as non-conformist and in some way biased or reflective of the wrong analysis irrespective of the merits of its arguments.

Such a narrow and blinkered view of the world can also happen outside politics. It is something that can happen in command teams – where the personality of a senior commander can set the tone for a group. An autocratic commander, not wishing to hear the views of their colleagues, can create an environment in which no-one wishes to speak against the prevailing view.

In today’s world that is full of wicked problems such an approach is dangerous and can lead to really unfortunate outcomes. As human being we naturally tend to stereotype situations. Within seconds of seeing a situation unfolding in front of us we make judgements. Often without fully consciously realising the assumptions that the process of stereotyping has imposed upon our decision making and the decision trajectory upon which we have embarked.

Instinctively carrying assumptions forward and ignoring evidence that suggests the situation that is evolving is actually different is an example of cognitive dissonance. The blinkers are strapped onto the side of the commander and their ability to think outside the box and accept possible new ways of viewing the situation disappears.

These insights into the issues that can plague command decision making are important as fire and rescue services and their colleagues in other parts of the emergency services grapple with the implications of the latest command guidance on how to deal with major incidents, such as a terrorist attack.

'Command inertia'

The shift from giving fixed procedures to offering some operational discretion in which to act and make a judgement as a situation unfolds is to be welcomed. Fixed command process is never going to provide a happy outcome in situations that are often fluid and can include elements that are designed to draw the emergency services into harm’s way.

The plan for a second follow-on attack in Paris that was being hatched by the leader of the group responsible for the death of 130 people on 13 November is now plainly visible in the reporting emerging from the investigations by the French police. If anyone was unsure of the point in the past this material shows clearly how the emergency services are now going to be targeted in future terrorist attacks.

In such a situation however the potential for what is known as ‘command inertia’ increases. If dangers exist around every corner how can commanders be expected to take decisions? Surely they will seek more and more information to assure themselves that their course of action is a correct one before acting? In a terrorist incident this is simply unacceptable. Decisions have to be taken and members of the emergency services have to be placed in harm’s way. It is what the public expect.

The solution to this dilemma can be found in a small piece of military history. Prior to the Battle of the Nile Admiral Lord Nelson spent many evenings dining with the commanders of his fleet on board HMS Victory, once the usual pleasantries were completed he turned his mind to the problem of how to confront the French fleet. Nelson’s instinct was to engage as soon as the enemy was sighted. Rather than allow the French time to prepare and perhaps gain an edge through delay and obfuscation his view was to prepare his commanders for all eventualities so that they would act immediately.

Every evening after dinner Nelson would set his commanders a scenario; a situation that would unfold where the French fleet was finally discovered. Each of these scenarios was then played out in a verbal war-game. As the evening progressed Nelson would allow his subordinates to argue amongst themselves over their strategy. By encouraging such debate amongst peers Nelson also skilfully avoided the issue of groupthink; where one person imposes their ideas on the rest of a team.

At the end of the evening Nelson would offer his own assessment, drawing in the lines of argument developed from his subordinates, developing one line of reasoning further or challenging another. Through this process he bound his command team together. They all felt they had played a part in developing the approach that would be taken.

As a result when the enemy was finally sighted at anchor each commander immediately knew the Admiral Nelson’s mind-set and what needed to be done. They then acted as one to deliver an amazing military victory against what appeared to be a superior enemy.

Dress rehearsal
Modern-day commanders in the emergency services would do well to heed this approach as they contemplate engaging their own modern-day form of enemy, the well planned group of terrorists that have death and carnage in mind.

It is a simple but clear point that Admiral Nelson understood. Human beings are much more resilient in managing situations where they have dress rehearsed what they are about to go through. While this might also lead to the danger of stereotyping but operating collectively and allowing, as Nelson did in those after dinner debates, challenges and ideas to be voiced, those in command to offer their ideas and concerns over the evolving strategy a group viewpoint emerges that is more coherently developed.

The time to do this of course, as Admiral nelson realised, was not in the course of the battle when the enemy was engaged and the ‘fog of war’ had descended over the situation but when it was possible to think out ideas and mentally prepare oneself in the comfort of the ‘Great Cabin’ on board HMS Victory.

With groups like the so-called Islamic State threatening to being violence and mayhem to the streets of the United Kingdom at any point playing the kind of what-if games that Admiral Nelson engaged with offers the opportunity for commanders to mentally increase their capacity to deal with situations and avoid command inertia and stereotyping.

To implement such an approach requires careful planning of both desk-top and real world exercises to draw upon the kind of command dilemmas that emergency service’s commanders would experience. Only through the kind of careful scenario development and execution that Admiral Nelson played can real personal resilience be built into commanders and the dangers of command inertia be avoided.