Mission Command, Fire Command, and Synchronization


Some professions in this world require extraordinary operational processes because of the extreme chaotic and hazardous situations in which the members work. The armed services and the fire service, not surprisingly, are two such professions, and there are very close parallels between them. Each uses a command structure and a process to manage its operations and to accomplish its objectives. Over the centuries, military fundamentals of full spectrum operations have been developed and embraced to ensure success on the battlefield. These fundamentals translate almost perfectly to the fire service.

Occasionally, mishaps occur in both services that lead to personal injury or line-of-duty deaths. The processes and principles of operations serve to mitigate the inherent risk of the hazardous conditions and promote a better chance of mission accomplishment with minimal loss. Ultimately, the breakdown that usually leads to mishaps is a lack of synchronization, which involves accountability, communication, and situational awareness. When synchronization is embraced together with four other operational tenets, an organization will be most formidable on the battlefield and on the fireground.

Figure 1. Full Spectrum Military Operations
The six elements at the base of the arrow (Intelligence, and so on) are war fighting functions (dependent on leadership and information) that together comprise Combat Power. The more combat power generated, the more achievable the objective is. The Principles of War listed on the ribbon (Objective, and so on) guide and instruct commanders as they combine to form the elements of combat power. The Tenets of Operations in the middle of the arrow (Initiative, and so on) are the substance and form of Full Spectrum Operations carried through an Operational Framework that relates the activities of forces in time, space, and purpose. Modes of Decisive Operations (Offense, and so on) are employed to directly accomplish the objectives assigned by Command.

Full Spectrum Military Operations

Figure 1 represents the fundamentals of full spectrum operations. Commanders and their staff keep these in mind throughout their planning process. Whereas all of these fundamentals are important to consider throughout the planning process, the tenets of operations are the most influential during the execution because of variances. Variances appear as either opportunities or threats and can disrupt synchronization. This, in turn, affects our plans and forces Command to make rapid decisions to continue or adjust order to execute Decisive Operations and accomplish the objective.

Table 1 illustrates the integration of the commander and staff throughout the entire operations process, which can only succeed if the necessary individuals are engaged.


During the execution phase, the military uses the rapid decision making and synchronization process (RDSP). Prior to execution during planning and preparation, the military decision making process (MDMP) systematically develops courses of action based on the commander’s vision and control measures. During the process, the staff develops, evaluates, and selects the best course of action to accomplish the mission and also considers the other courses of action as contingencies. If the MDMP is properly executed, the war fighting functions are synchronized and integrated to generate combat power.

Whereas MDMP seeks the optimal solution, RDSP seeks an acceptable solution. During MDMP, geospatial information is gathered and is continually considered throughout the process. This information, of course, is organized into mission, enemy, terrain and weather, troops available, time available, and civil considerations (METT-TC), which are factors that directly and indirectly impact the operation as planned. The running joke in the service is when someone asks a question and expects a textbook answer, the failsafe answer is, “Well, that’s METT-TC dependent!” These factors constantly change throughout the entire process and, during the execution phase, create variances to the plan.

Figure 2. Decisions in Execution
Opportunity variances give us the chance to accomplish the mission more effectively. Threat variances may affect mission accomplishment or force survivability. They require Adjustment Decisions that only Command can make to change the plan, unless they are specifically delegated. Although the Plan of Execution was derived from the best course of action during MDMP, other courses of action were noted as contingent on possible foreseen variances. They are Acceptable Variances and require Execution Decisions rather than Adjustment Decisions. Execution Decisions are covered in the plan and are implemented under certain circumstances identified in the order. Unlike Adjustment Decisions, the staff makes the Execution Decisions during MDMP. The Adjustment Decisions will either lead to mission accomplishment or failure.

Decisions in Execution

Figure 2 shows how variances-the difference between what was forecast during planning and the situation as it happens in reality-impact the mission.

Leadership (part of the art and science of command) ties together the war fighting functions to generate combat power. The commander must visualize, describe, direct, and lead to successfully guide staff and units through the operational process and accomplish the mission. The art of command rests on the leader’s ability to visualize the battlefield, recognize when he needs to adjust a course of action, visualize several courses of action, and quickly select the appropriate one while determining which actions are feasible in the time available. The science of command is using the operational process to describe and direct the visualization to the staff and units. This is followed up by the art of leading them through the process all the way to mission accomplishment. Leadership involves a balance of art and science to develop situational understanding throughout the organization and to inspire members to confidently execute the mission even in the most hazardous conditions.

Full Spectrum Fireground Operations

The military model in Figure 1 is adapted for the fire service in Figure 3. The differences are relatively small. The Combat Power elements (war fighting functions) terminology differs slightly, and the Principles of War omits Surprise since our enemy (fire) cannot think and, therefore, cannot be psychologically affected. Finally, our modes of Decisive Operations change slightly.

Synchronization Is Key to Success

Synchronization is the key to successful operations and reducing injury and death. It involves accountability, communication, and situational awareness-without synchronization, achieving and adhering to the remaining tenets is very difficult. The fire service has the operational framework in place with the same structure as the military’s hierarchical chain-of-command; training philosophy; and planning phase manifested in policies, procedures, and preplans. It allows us to perform our daily duties and make execution decisions based on our established guidelines. The hazards of our profession define our enemy’s makeup to an almost full extent. Current fire science studies continue to refine and increase our knowledge about our enemy’s behavior. But, unlike a human enemy, our enemy cannot think. The remainder of our enemy’s makeup is the unknown variable that constantly changes because of human influences such as modern construction/materials and firefighter freelancing and external influences such as weather.

In structural firefighting, our mission is to save life and property by defeating the fire. When dead, the enemy is no longer a threat to life and property, and we know how to kill it. This is our permanent mission, and our execution decisions are made from our planned courses of action. When the human and external influences affect our planned courses of action, we must make adjustment decisions to address the opportunities or threats. RDSP is a great technique and METT-TC is a great tool to quickly facilitate communication and to develop situational awareness.

Situational Awareness

To consider the elements of METT-TC, you must communicate with your units on the ground to understand their location and function, thereby developing your situational awareness. You must use the mechanisms that allow you to document and reference information to enhance your ability to recall and to track progress. If you cannot remember your developed situational awareness and understanding, you may lose the initiative and could make poor decisions.


Accountability in the fire service is not fully practiced and enforced. With accountability, Command knows the location and function of everyone involved in the operation. Our operational framework allows us to easily account for every individual because of his unit assignment and the unit’s assigned task and purpose. Some departments find it adequate to collect name tags and have them present on the scene, a dismissive practice that does not cover all of the bases and leads to mishaps. All crews should be tracked by assigned task/purpose, and Command should know down to the individual who is in each crew.

When crews are split to perform different tasks, your tracking mechanism must reflect this too. The crew’s officer should submit his accountability through a tracking mechanism at the beginning of the incident and then subsequently communicate a personnel accountability report and any further changes to the crew’s organization/members throughout the incident. Often, mishaps occur when individuals freelance or split off by themselves to perform tasks, without the incident commander’s awareness. In the military, as in the fire service, this is a serious violation. The military operates in buddy teams at the lowest level during operations and collective training, without exception. The fire service must do this, too.


Lack of communication is an important element often cited in National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health injury and line-of-duty death reports. Not surprisingly, this shows up in many military after-action reviews during training and operations. All organizations can improve on communications, no matter how well they think they are communicating. Concise and effective communication can literally mean the difference between life and death. It is key to facilitating good accountability and good situational awareness.

Key aspects of synchronization, when embraced, will foster a safer work environment and enable a robust platform for decisive operations. Better communication promotes better accountability and, subsequently, better situational awareness, thereby reducing the potential for mishaps. This reduction occurs because of better risk mitigation that results from better situational awareness that allows Command to rapidly make better adjustment decisions and to effectively communicate them to subordinate units, thereby achieving the tenet of synchronization. Combined with the other tenets of operations, when all are embraced and considered throughout an operation, mission accomplishment is favorable, risk is mitigated, and loss is usually reduced.


1. U. S. Army. (2008). Field Manual 3-0: Operations. FM 3-0. (Washington, DC: Government Printing Office) 4-6, Section 4-27. http://usacac.army.mil/cac2/Repository/Materials/Fm3-0%28FEB%202008%29.pdf.

MATTHEW OLDENBURG has a bachelor’s degree from the United States Military Academy, West Point, New York, and achieved the rank of captain in the United States Army Infantry. After his military service, he served as a volunteer firefighter. Oldenburg is zoning administrator and deputy city engineer with the city of Galena, Illinois, and cofounder and chief executive officer of Firesoft, LLC.

Full Spectrum Fire Operations

Figure 3 applies Figure 1 to the fire service. Combat Power is all efforts on the fireground combined to apply sufficient force and ensure success.

In Assessment, like Intelligence in Figure 1, we gather and use important information in planning and decision making. Use the METT-TC considerations to quickly assess the current situation if the incident site has not been preplanned.

Suppression, like Firepower, applies destructive force to the fire and hazards (enemy) using its water, extinguishing agents, ventilation, and so forth (weapons). It complements and combines with Movement and Maneuver to devastate the enemy.

Protection conserves the firefighters’ fighting potential so the commander can apply Combat Power at the decisive time and place.1 Our turnout gear and breathing apparatus physically protect us, as do our choice of tactics, command and control, and training. Safety officers play a critical role in protecting us during fireground operations. Sustainment relates to the tasks and systems that provide support and services to ensure freedom of action, extend operational reach, and prolong endurance. (1, 4-5, Section 4-20).

In the fire service, we use breathing apparatus, rehab, sustenance, hydration, rest, and physical conditioning to enable sustainment.

Movement and Maneuver relates to tasks and systems that move forces to achieve a position of advantage in relation to the enemy (1, 4-3, Section 4-14). Our planning and tactics provide direction that enhances our ability to provide overwhelming Combat Power and achieve control of the situation. Movement allows us to position our forces appropriately, whereas Maneuver allows Command to mass the effects of Combat Power and employ forces to achieve Initiative, Agility, and Depth.

Command and Control involves acquiring and managing relevant information and directing and leading subordinates. (1,4-6, Section 4-24) Our fire service currently has excellent methods of exercising Command and Control. Chief (Ret.) Alan Brunacini’s Fire Command and the eight command functions are a great example.

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