The three cons principle of "Commander's Intent"

Many years ago, British Admiral Horatio Nelson understood that his fleet’s chances of victory were greatly improved in battle if each of his captains understood his underlying goals and battle strategies. If communication was broken or if elements were lost, the remainder of the forces could still fight toward his goals even without his direct supervision. This concept was new at that time, and this principle became known as “Commander's Intent.”

Today, it is an essential element to any successful military operation.

Police1 recently posted my article in which I encouraged officers to “Take Command” on hectic scenes by simply stating “I’m in command.” This simple statement establishes the foundation of the Incident Command System by clearly identifying leadership, coordinating resources and establishing a central point of communication. But what is the next step? When you step out on a limb and say the magic words, “I’m in command.” Now what? What are your initial goals? What do you need to do to stabilize the scene until a formal transfer of command can be accomplished to the next ranking officer? What is your initial “Commanders Intent” when you have taken control of the scene?

To answer this question, I use a simple method of remembering the first three priorities known as the “three Cons” to help initially set and achieve goals on a hectic scene. If you can achieve these three steps you are well on your way to establishing basic control over any police or medical problem.

1. CONTACT — Contact the problem: The absolute first priority upon arrival in any chaotic environment is to locate and contact the initial heart of the problem. Regardless of the problem, whether it is a traffic accident, an active shooter, a street fight, a fire, a Hazmat situation; the first priority must be to identify the type and location of the problem.

Remember that multiple calls may come through radio and each call may contain small pieces of the larger puzzle. These disjointed pieces of information can sometimes cause as much confusion as clarity based on their source. But once the first officer arrives, he is often in the best position to actually determine what the problem truly is and where it is. Once the problem is located, the on-scene officer can cut through the radio confusion and give specific directions to his back-up regarding the location of the problem. Sometimes the source of the problem is not readily identifiable, perhaps because the suspects fled the scene. In these cases, efforts should be made to contact a reporting party or witness to clarify where, when and what occurred as soon as possible.

2. CONTAIN — Contain the problem: Once the problem is located, your next major goal is to contain or isolate the problem so that further people are not endangered. In a traffic accident, this may simply mean blocking access with your car. In a fire it may mean keeping others from entering the problem. In an active shooter situation, it may mean seeking out the shooter and keeping him pinned down in a room or in a specific area with small team tactical movement. Regardless of the circumstance, your goal is the same; keep the problem from spreading out of control and isolate it from innocent people. Form a barrier to protect people from the scene and protect the scene from people.

3. CONTROL — Control the problem: This priority may be difficult or even impossible if you have not established Contact and Containment. Control refers to the three-part process of stopping any active threats, evacuating innocent people and protecting the scene for the investigation.

A. Stop the threat. The first step in Control must be to stop any active threat to life. In some circumstances, this will be accomplished during containment, but in some situations such as an active shooter, the containment of the shooter may not be enough to prevent him from continuing to endanger life.

B. Evacuate the innocent. Evacuation is a broad term for removing people from the problem so that you can deal with the problem at hand. Once again it doesn’t matter what the situation is; once you have isolated the problem now begin evacuating those involved.

Your two primary priorities are:

1. Evacuate those who are potentially in the line of fire
2. Evacuate those who are wounded within the scene

C. Protect the scene. After the threat has been stopped and the endangered removed, the scene must be protected for the coming investigation.

To illustrate the control priorities, imagine a scene where an active shooter has shot several people in a grocery store. You have located him and have him pinned in a back freezer (you have accomplished Contact and Contain). The subject is armed and has barricaded himself in the freezer. If he remains in the freezer, and you can keep him from harming others, you can maintain security with an immediate action team, and you can begin evacuation. If he chooses to press the fight, evacuation will have to wait while you end the threat by whatever reasonable means.

Once you have the problem isolated or ended, the next priority is the protection of the lives of the injured or endangered. So long as we can maintain the isolation, we should start working on removing those who may be endangered or have already been wounded. When you are ready to evacuate, consider that Fire and Paramedic personnel will generally not enter into a Hot Zone (inside the store) until you have made it entirely safe for them. Those innocent people who are able to walk need to be directed where to go for greater safety and debriefing. Those that cannot move due to injuries must be removed by police if possible. This may mean that you may have to evacuate wounded personnel out of the immediate danger area to a Warm Zone just outside of the store or maybe even a Cold Zone, several yards away from the store. What tools would you use to move these people out of the area? You could use small teams, patrol cars, shopping baskets, etc. Once all persons are removed and the scene is safe, then consider the protection of physical evidence and identifying witnesses, and victims.

The “three cons” principle can be applied to almost all life-threatening problems we face.

In fact, if you think about it, you are already using it at accidents, fires, and other calls where there are injured persons. If we all understand the initial priorities and goals, it is much easier for you — “The Commander” — to direct your resources to a point where you can establish a central command post and begin working through to the tactical resolution or your investigation.

Another way of stating the same principle for easy memory is the “LIE Principle.” Locate the problem, Isolate the problem from spreading and Evacuate the innocent and protect the scene from harm or contamination.

So now back to our initial question. You just announced you are in command of the hectic scene. What is your Commander's Intent?
1. (Contact) — Locate the problem
2. (Contain) — Isolate the problem
3. (Control) — End the threat, evacuate the innocent, and protect the scene

Next time you have a few extra minutes in roll call or briefing; discuss with your team-mates how this principle would apply to different hectic calls you have been on. Compare the principle to how you handled the situation. Did your actions reflect the principle? How might you handle that situation differently if it occurred tomorrow? Once you are all on the same sheet of music, the “Commanders Intent” will be known when you take command.

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