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The New C4I

August 19, 2009

In military doctrine, C4I is shorthand for the core elements and capabilities of combat decision-support systems: command, control, communications, computers (cyber-infrastructure), and intelligence. This conceptual framework, particularly the first three Cs, have become part of the core doctrine of emergency management, particularly during the response phase of operations.

The decision-makers responsible for managing a single incident or complex of incidents with similar objectives may need to think in these terms to implement tactical decisions.  But the notions of command and control have far less salience at a strategic level, especially when it comes to managing events that spawn several incidents of diverse scope and scale spread over a large geographic area.

Events like this produce effects that exceed the capabilities of the immediately available resources and create competing or conflicting demands on decision-makers.  These sorts of situations are characterized by ambiguity more than uncertainty, and often have no single correct or best answer.  In such situations, leaders must ensure not only that problems get solved, but also that those people responsible for solving them are engaged in the process of identifying, defining, and prioritizing problems not just selecting or implementing solutions.

Engaging people in this way not only requires them to make sense of the situation, but helps them make meaning through their collective response.  Creative and constructive collective problem solving requires an openness to new information and continuous adaptation and improvement upon previous decisions.

This context requires a reconcepualization of the role of emergency managers during the operational response phase of incidents away from the military model that has predominated to one that recognizes individual responsibility and promotes collective accountability.  In this model C4I is better characterized as a leadership process that involves:

  • Continuity
  • Coordination
  • Collaboration
  • Communication
  • Intelligence

As in the tactical model of decision support, communication and intelligence remain critical elements of a strategic approach.  But these elements become more focused on the external environment.  Instead of worrying about interoperability, data collection, and analysis, the strategic decision-maker is concerned with synthesizing a comprehensive and coherent operational assessment so the right information gets packaged in the right way for delivery to the right target audience at the right time.

As such, intelligence activities shift from trying to make sense of the situation to figuring out what it means, what should be done about it, and whether those activities are achieving their expected and intended results.  Meanwhile, communication becomes more focused on listening than giving direction.  Questions and their answers become more important than statements, directions, or instructions.

Continuity reflects the importance of planning for contingencies and preparing for uninterrupted performance of essential functions.  An effective response depends upon effective continuity of operations planning, which includes mitigation of vulnerabilities that could impair key response capabilities.  Here again, the human element is a chief concern.  Ensuring people are prepared, plays to strengths and allows responders to build on familiar roles and routines even if they have to adapt or improvise due to conditions.

Coordination describes the process by which the allocation and deployment of limited resources are prioritized and managed to meet operational goals.  But it is about more than “sharing toys.”   Coordination assumes and implies that some decisions and actions should occur in a particular order that does not necessarily reflect tactical priorities.  For example, saving lives may be the top tactical priority following an earthquake, but using heavy equipment for this purpose is contingent upon its priority deployment to clearing or repairing roads so specialized rescue crews can reach collapse sites.

Strategic success in crisis situations depends most upon collaboration, which in turn depends upon the other four strategic elements.  Collaboration places emergency managers on a par both with those to whom they are ultimately responsible — the community — and those upon which they become dependent for resources.  Rather than seeing this as a situation in which “beggars cannot be choosers,” emergency managers should embrace collaboration as a means of leveraging their capabilities and resources.  This in turn requires emergency managers to see disaster survivors as the true first responders rather than victims, which places the restoration of a sense of community at the fore of all response and recovery efforts.

Emergency management is not about managing emergencies, but rather ensuring that emergencies do not manage us.  For that to happen, we need to adopt a new strategic model of crisis leadership consistent with the principle of resilience.

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