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Meta-Leadership: Seeing Beyond Ourselves in Multidiscipline, Multijurisdictional Incidents

March 2010: a professor at the Naval Postgraduate School (NPS) in Monterey, Calif., discovered an unattended piece of luggage next to a building that bordered the school's fence line. The luggage had no identification other than a tag with Chinese characters inscribed on it. A regional bomb squad responded and an x-ray revealed an improvised explosive device (IED) inside the luggage. The bomb squad attempted to open the luggage with an explosive charge and the IED was lost following the explosion.

This began a three-day search for the device that ended safely, but revealed significant lapses in the coordination between multidiscipline, multijurisdictional partners in Monterey.

The challenge of responding to and mitigating significant events that cross jurisdictional boundaries requires leaders to think beyond their mission, discipline and training. The phrase meta-leadership refers to individuals who can see past their own expertise and understand the capabilities, limitations and organizational cultures of their first-responder partners to effectively manage both planned and unplanned incidents.

In this case, the missing pipe bomb was discovered on a military installation and there was the distinct possibility that it was blown over the fence line into a residential area of Monterey. The lines separating federal, county and city authority became blurry and none of the stakeholders had a clear understanding of each others' roles and authorities. Conflicting information and mission objectives contributed to the lack of coordination.

For example, the NPS police department's chain of command extended to San Diego, fire service was contracted to the city of Monterey, bomb disposal to the county sheriff and two dispatch centers had separate 911 responsibilities for the same area. Information pushed out via Department of Defense (DOD), Department of Homeland Security (DHS) and local jurisdictions was inaccurate and inconsistent.

Who was the lead agency? Who was responsible for public information? What was classified and who had proper security clearances? These were unanswered questions that added to the confusion of the event.

What was missing between these disparate organizations was one thing: relationships. Who you know will get past memorandums of understandings, security clearances and communication failures.

You can't wait until a crisis happens to reach out to your counterparts. The suitcase was found on a Sunday evening. Requests for local fire and police support went out, but nobody established a single point for incident command. Protocols were followed and chains of command notified, but since this was federal property, local responders were task-driven rather than ICS-driven. They did what was requested by DOD and DHS representatives.

There was no informal network between military and local first-response leadership to bridge the gaps of federal versus local procedures. We didn't know each other and so we found ourselves functioning in silos of service (some might call them cylinders of excellence!).

It's critically important to know and communicate with your counterparts throughout your region. The best way to do that is over a cup of coffee. Make a phone call and set up an appointment. We get so busy in our own organizations' meetings and tasks that we forget to look beyond our offices.

The second failure of managing this event was the rush to make decisions. We didn't follow the 10-Rule of Decision Making: The higher you go in an organization, the more time you should take to make a decision.

Think of it in the context of a law-enforcement chain of command. If police officers have 10 seconds to make a decision, then sergeants have 10 minutes, lieutenants have 10 hours and police chiefs have 10 days.

This idea is that the higher the rank, the more information you're privy to and thus the more time you need to think through what to do. In this case, leaders didn't wait for or verify the early information from the scene. The rush to push data up the chain of command resulted in misinformation and incomplete assessments.

As a result of this event, we now share information informally as well as train together on a regular basis. The take away: take your time and make friends. Time and relationships will make us heroes, not zeroes, when disasters and threats dynamically unfold.

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