RC #22 To Lead (Part 5)- Another voice of experience, Chief Ranger Dorn, VCFD

The “To Lead” series of articles suggests that leadership requirements for response to events characterized as hyper complex, Black Swans, unconventional crisis or worst case have unique and multi-faceted requirements. These needs do overlap with aspects necessary for business, political and particularly combat operations, but they also – we submit –  require some distinctly different considerations. Part 3 provided a short “baseline” of leadership theories and began discussion of distinct areas of interest. As in Part 4, this post provides another discussion from someone with extensive “on scene” experience – Battalion Chief Ranger Dorn, Ventura California Fire Department. He currently serves on a Type 1 National Incident Management Team with direct support for the 2004 and 2005 Hurricanes, and the 2006 massive California Day Fire,  instructs nation wide on the National Incident Management System (NIMS), and serves as an incident command SME for the National Sheriffs’ Association.

         After reading your post (Part 3), I offer the following observations from experience on major fires and hurricane responses. First, as you have noted many local officials admit that they have never experienced anything close to what they are dealing with. Those that I see having success are the ones that acknowledge this and move ahead in uncharted territory seeking assistance. Those that fail, in my opinion, are the ones who put up walls or defenses and attempt to handle the event without advice or assistance. Keeping to traditional roles and use of positional power have been observed in dysfunctional responses. A multi-agency, multi-jurisdiction incident is the most difficult to manage in my opinion, but is the most critical to get right. Lack of familiarity, distrust and previous interactions are factors that have been observed before.

What works in my opinion, is a combination of openness to assistance and willingness to work together side by side. This in my opinion counts for as much as leadership styles. A marginal leader with good advice, good situational awareness and direct collaboration with other leaders involved in the response can be more successful than a great leader who does not have those items going for him. I could have all the skills and experience to be had and not be effective if I operate in a vacuum of knowledge and lack of interaction with other responding agencies.

With that said, a Team of Leaders is an obvious example of the best way to go. The problem I run in to is that the person in charge is whoever happened to be there that day. This may be the selected “Leader” or it may not be. If the incident impacts multiple communities, the leaders of each may be stuck at home and not be able to be part of the larger decisions or they will send whoever is available that day in their place. Some jurisdictions have chosen to create incident management teams of leaders and support staff from various agencies in a jurisdiction. They will then take over from the initial leaders as the incident moves into an extended operation. It is not exactly a Team of Leaders, but is a team with leadership and support from multiple agencies. Over time with support and with experience, they could become a Team of Leaders.

These are opinions of course and come from interactions on only two types of disasters with mainly fire, law enforcement, local government leadership, Federal agency leadership as well as various local public and private entities across the U.S. All of the outside influences that Ed noted are part of the process. No leader can escape them. A Governor’s or Presidential visit to your incident always impacts what you do. The good news is that for the most part, they always seem to arrive as the tempo is on the down turn. An interesting thing to note is that incident response basics are somewhat similar across the country given all of our regional attributes and agency cultures.

The differences always seem to be in the leadership.


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