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From ‘span of control’ and ‘chain of command’ to ‘span of information’ and ‘chain of communication’

Applying new concepts to accepted communication models could heighten fireground efficiency and effectiveness

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“Imagine measurable data spread equally among your team members. This develops a unified understanding. Those who don’t quite comprehend the data are helped by those who do. This sense of equality creates buy-in and promotes greater participation at all levels,” writes Spell.

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We all are familiar with the concepts of span of control and chain of command. These concepts came out of the Incident Command System (ICS) and are included in every leadership class. The idea of controlling the amount of responsibility and the sequence of authority in any given situation makes perfect sense, especially for the fire service.

Experience shows that there are good and measurable reasons for these concepts. There are limits to the number of people, groups, divisions and equipment that can be logistically managed effectively. Hence the two models.

Given the effectiveness of the span of control and chain of command models, let’s apply them to a different set of circumstances and see if they are applicable and, most importantly, effective in creating a more streamlined fireground experience.

Span of information

Let’s call the first new model “span of information.” Imagine measurable data spread equally among your team members. This develops a unified understanding. Those who don’t quite comprehend the data are helped by those who do. This sense of equality creates buy-in and promotes greater participation at all levels. The collective consciousness reflects equally throughout the team, generating the same approach to every action item. Unity of purpose follows, as will an increase in continuity and efficiency. The breadth of information shared by teammates solidifies tasks and reduces ineffective behavior.

The bottom line: Span of information depends on the amount of material and the number of individuals dealing with it. Sound familiar?

For any amount of information to be effective within a group, there cannot be too much stress on either side of the equation – in other words, the amount of material relative to the number of people. Failure to heed this axiom within our newly formed span of information principle results in conclusions that can be inaccurate. Conversely, success in such a process allows for the increased opportunity to make dependable assessments and better judgments.

An effective span of information ensures continuity of performance with minimal feedback. This, in turn, promotes more precise and timely decisions higher up, such as at the command level. The increased probability of task completion supports advancing team tactics and the overall command strategy.

Chain of communication

This brings us to our second new model: “chain of communication.” This model suggests that for a message to be effectively interpreted, it must be sequential and continuous, both up and down the chain of command. The link-to-link process minimizes miscommunication of meaning because there is less distance between cultural and political links and the message to be communicated. During a high-stress incident, the validity of the message is enhanced by the immediacy of the information being disseminated and by the familiarity of the messenger regardless of media.

Like any chain, the chain of communications is at risk of too much information all at once. This pile of communications overwhelms and eventually eliminates any system of verifying arrangement or structure. Without a sequential configuration of communicating, defined by some approved criteria (in our case, rank), the power and authority of any message, let alone the courier delivering it, will be called into question. Further, any distance created by not having a direct source of authentication will be cause for suspicion and delay.

The expansion of information and its processes away from a linear formula and into a lump sum by sheer volume encourages a lack of confidence, a delay in decision-making, an abdication of responsibility and, ultimately, a greater likelihood of unsubstantiated answers to unverifiable questions. The fireground is going in the wrong direction.

While the big ball of spatial thinking may work in a creative context, a lack of sequence in fireground commands or deployment of resources can put personnel and equipment in danger. New officers sometimes forget the time it takes to implement a good idea.

There’s always a reason

Firefighters must be deployed with the right equipment. While we may argue the merits of time spent contemplating concepts like span of information or chain of communication, we intuitively understand the importance of sequencing both the messenger and the message while providing for the correct amount of material at the appropriate time (i.e., tasks assigned in a linear fashion to ensure accountability and measurable progress).

By keeping things in line, a hint of deviation can be met with a rapid response, such as changing tactical directives or modifying strategic directions. This sequential decision-making process, the result of good information timely communicated, is a serious path toward saving lives.

Jim Spell spent 33 years as a professional firefighter with Vail (Colorado) Fire & Emergency Services, the last 20 years as a captain. He helped create the first student/resident fire science program west of the continental divide, formed the first countywide hazmat response unit and was on the original Colorado Governor’s Safety Committee. As founder of HAZPRO Consulting, LLC, Spell advised businesses on subjects ranging from hazard analysis and safety response to personnel development and organization. His writing won six IAFF Media Awards. Many of Spell’s articles are available by podcast at Fairreachforum.com. His last book was titled “Boot Basics: A Firefighter’s Guide to the Service.” Spell passed away in April 2024 after a short battle with cancer. His last four articles detailed his cancer journey.