News & Media

Fresh approach: Mission Command

By: Euan Ferguson

  10.00 AM 19 January, 2011

Views: 9083

When I started with CFA in November, I said I'd try to get around and meet as many volunteers as possible. My travels continue. In the meantime I just want to acknowledge the passion and commitment that I have witnessed in CFA volunteers, staff and supporters everywhere that I go. It is hard not to be infected by the enthusiasm that I see around me.

A philosophy I have is that the most important person in the organisation is the newest, youngest person who is at the ‘front line' - the end of the hose, or the rake-hoe or on the stop go bat or at the community meeting or in our schools.

CEO Mick Bourke and I have discussed redrawing CFA organisational structure to reflect firefighters and community educators at the top of our hierarchy. The remainder of the hierarchy is below the front line, supporting and providing resources and offering guidance.

If I am doing my job right the person at the front line should feel well trained, well equipped and well led.


I have been canvassing an option to pursue a fresh approach to command and control in CFA - an approach termed ‘Mission Command'.
So what are the key aspects of Mission Command? The concept is based on a commander issuing a carefully worded ‘Commander's Intent' that focuses on describing the outcome that the Commander envisages, and the purpose.

The concept assumes that crews are well trained and a trust exists between commander and crews. It also assumes there is good information flow. Implemented well, the Mission Command concept results in less detailed and less prescriptive orders.

A focus on the Commander's Intent results in a focus on the outcome. It leaves crews more freedom to achieve the outcome in the best way they choose, rather than having this dictated.

The concept can also allow a subordinate to ‘seize the initiative' when an unforeseen opportunity arises that may not be seen by a Commander. The Commander's role then becomes one of procuring and providing the resources and authority for crews to achieve the intent. This does not absolve the Commander of the role of supervision - observing, engaging, monitoring and overseeing by Commanders is a vital part of Mission Command.


There are some risks and challenges in implementing Mission Command in CFA. We need to be up front in saying that highly complex and dangerous tasks (say, dealing with a Hazmat incident) will continue to need to have rigorous procedures associated with response.

However, well implemented, many other procedures can become less prescriptive, based more on principles and behaviours. In the conversation we have been having around the state it has been proposed that two sets of guidance be considered in introducing Mission Command.

The first is to establish a set of Individual Behaviours". This would be a short series of statements about how we all will be expected to behave as individual members of a great team. Examples could be: We will: ‘Act with Safety First'; ‘Encourage Leadership and Initiative'; ‘Continuously Seek Self-improvement'.

The second guidance would be to establish a set of Operations Principles. In fact the set of principles of operations in the Red Book, with some renewal and rewording, are almost all still relevant today. So what would be proposed is a review of the principles to include new ones like: ‘Priority is given to the protection of life'; ‘Actions are scaled to risk and result'.

Mission Command in CFA also needs consideration of a decision making process. It could be said that the AIIMS system of incident management, whilst it is essentially about decision making, does not in itself, clearly articulate a decision making process. This process needs to be based on simplicity and be able to be incorporated into the AIIMS planning process and the SMEACS briefing process.

In summary then, if we move to adopt the Mission Command philosophy in CFA, along with implementing the concept of ‘Commander's Intent' we need to consider developing a set of individual behaviours and renewing principles of operations.

These would then be integrated into a simple dynamic decision making process. I would hope that by adopting the Mission Command philosophy decision making can be pushed down to the lowest appropriate level in the organisation, whilst information flows to the highest appropriate level.


During the Victorian Bushfires Royal Commission evidence was tabled by two experts in crisis management: Professor Paul ‘t Hart (ANU) and Professor "Dutch" Leonard (Kennedy School of Management). Both the written submissions and oral
evidence provided by these two gentlemen is well worth a read (they can be sourced from the Royal Commission website).

There is insufficient room here to do either submission justice. However, a few selected quotes are relevant to the proposal to pursue a path of Mission Command in CFA:

"Dutch" Leonard:

•We need to "... dedicate ourselves to the task of making decentralisation work more effectively rather than to the task of reducing or overcoming it."

• In extreme events "...the defining characteristic is the necessity for improvisation".

Paul ‘t Hart:

• "Effective responses in such extreme circumstances are necessarily improvised, flexible and networked (rather than planned, standardised and centrally led)."

• "They are driven by the initiative of operational leaders and the strength of the pre-existing ties between teams..."

• " is more helpful to identify a select set of administrative principles that have served policy- makers well in organising and managing a crisis response network."


To take up where I started. The next 6 to 8 weeks I will continue to converse with you about Mission Command and whether it is right for CFA. We will also provide a number of web based references on the concept for those who want to read more about it. At this stage the reaction has been quite positive. I envisage that we will set up a number of small groups to focus on various aspects of the system that are planned for CFA. Obviously, we will engage with VFBV and UFU through the process.

In the funding provided by government for the Bushfires Program there is specific funding set aside for implementing command and control doctrine. This should suffice for the first few stages of implementation over the next 18 months, should we travel this path. In my view, Mission Command is a good philosophy. It is especially appropriate in an organisation that is decentralised with a delegated command authority.

CFA is ripe for Mission Command and we are ready to embrace a fresh approach that empowers decision making at the lowest appropriate level within the guidance of a Commander's Intent.

Last Updated: 10 December 2015