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From the Chair: Chain-of-Command - It's All A Pyramid Scheme

Author: Paul D. Bagley

Copyright: 9-1-1 Magazine, Feature Content

Date: 2012-06-15
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Many people claim that emergency services – dispatch included – are “paramilitary” organizations.  I’m not completely certain that term applies since the prefix “para” is a shortened form of the word parachute in the military, and anyone whose job title begins with that prefix literally jumps voluntarily out of airplanes.  In the military a “paramedic” is someone trained in medical practices and who is also cross-trained to parachute into places where medical skills might well be required; like a hot combat zone.  Most civilian paramedics that I’ve met wouldn’t be caught dead jumping out of a perfectly good aircraft unless it was on fire or in eminent danger of crashing.  Time has a way of changing the American version of the English language, and the prefix “para” has evolved far beyond its original definition and now also means “closely resembling.”  That being the case, a “paramilitary organization” becomes something closely resembling the military… “That which we call a rose by any other name would smell as sweet.” 

The reason the term “paramilitary” strikes a somewhat discordant note is that while the objectives of emergency services and the military on the surface might seem similar, in reality they are diametrically opposite.  It’s sort of like the difference between civil engineers and military engineers; the former design and build things that the latter spend most of their time figuring out how to blow up.  What makes the military and emergency services seem similar is their reliance upon chain-of-command as a means of reporting up and down the table of organization.

Those who have spent time in military service don’t require a tutorial on chain-of-command; we lived and breathed it daily during our service careers.  For the benefit of those who haven’t enjoyed the honor of military service, it helps to visual a pyramid.  At the very top of the pyramid is the commander-in-chief of the military – the President of the United States.  All power, all discipline, and all actions by the military are initiated at the top and filter downward through the ranks toward the base of the pyramid structure.  All reporting begins at the lowest levels and moves upward.  While it’s okay for those above to address anyone below, those below must only address the individual directly above them when either reporting or complaining.  The reason is simple: this allows the person at the lowest possible echelon to address and/or correct problems without troubling those above.

Within the military there is also the time-honored requirement of not reporting or complaining to anyone who isn’t directly above you without first informing your immediate superior that you intend to do so.  Reporting to the sergeant and giving him/her the opportunity to resolve things keeps the matter “in house” so to speak.  But, if the problem isn’t resolved, the lower-ranked individual has the right to say, “I’m going to the lieutenant.”  While such a statement is tantamount to a formal declaration of war between the private and the sergeant, it is the appropriate method of redress under the Uniform Code of Military Justice (UCMJ).  When the lieutenant proves to be as useless as the sergeant at resolving the problem, the private then utters the words, “Permission to speak with the captain, sir?”

In theory that same private could eventually work their way up through the entire chain-of-command to an audience with the President of the United States.  However, before that lowly soldier ever reached the White House with their grievance they would surely have been long-retired from active duty military service, or transferred to some other assignment and out from under that particular sergeant, lieutenant or captain.  In the military, climbing the chain-of-command not only takes a modicum of courage, or stupidity, or both; it can take considerable time.

In the civilian world of emergency services there is no Uniform Code of Military Justice because the UCMJ was created to maintain discipline under the articles of war.  Theoretically, law enforcement, fire service, and emergency medical services aren’t engaged in prosecuting a war, although at times it might seem as though they are.  Bandage what’s bleeding, extinguish what’s burning, and put the bad guys in jail: these activities are a far cry from carrying out systematic destruction of property and personnel in order to acquire dominion over territory and other people.  The Posse Comitatus Act of 1878 prohibits the use of the federal military to enforce law domestically, which ensures that we, as citizens, and even as dispatchers, are entitled to all those unalienable rights articulated in the US Constitution.  This is a good thing, and we should celebrate it.  The problem is how do we impose and maintain a reporting discipline in a civilian environment where everyone has the rights of free speech and assembly?  Simple, we don’t!  Nor do we want to. 

9-1-1 shift supervisor, Reno PD, Nevada.  Photo: R D Larson

While it may be true that a reporting structure along the lines of the military chain-of-command makes good sense in keeping things orderly and efficient, absolute adherence to such a rigid policy could easily lead to a contemporary Auschwitz, where no one voluntarily assumes responsibility for their actions.  In a civilized society people aren’t permitted to hide behind blind obedience for inappropriate actions or inactions; they are expected to act civilly and in the best interests of their fellow man regardless of orders from above.  So, we are left with a conflict of sorts, but one that is resolvable. 

D. Edward Demming was an American industrialist who is credited with the rebuilding of the post-World War II Japanese economy through the implementation of what came to be known as “Total Quality Management.”  Although Demming hated buzz phrases like TQM, the concept went a long way toward streamlining Japanese industry and making it the world model for the latter half of the 20th and beginning of the 21st Centuries.  The concept is simple: empower the lowest possible echelon in the workplace to make critical decisions and act upon them.  That’s it!  That’s all there is to it.  The worker-bees on the assembly line were allowed to implement change when they could see a need for the change.  Middle management was reduced to a fraction of its previous size, and upper management was left alone to do the global master-minding that needed to be done.  Industry in Japan flourished.  Don’t believe it?  Look at the number of cars and consumer electronics imported from the Land of the Rising Sun to the United States each year since the early 1960s.

Demming also pioneered the theory of “internal” and “external” customers.  The core example he used to demonstrate TQM is a waitress in a restaurant.  She takes an order from an external customer for ham and eggs.  She writes the order down on a slip of paper and hands it to her internal customer, the short-order cook.  If her penmanship and spelling aren’t decipherable by the cook, the order gets messed up.  When he places a plate of food on the counter and yells, “Order Up!” the roles reverse; the waitress is now the internal customer of the cook.  She inspects the plates to make sure it conforms to the external customer’s order before she can serve it.  The waitress needs to present things to her internal customer in such a way that it will beget the desired results.  The cook, in turn, needs to prepare the meal in such a way that waitress can take pride in presenting it to their mutual external customer.  Dispatchers deal with both internal and external customers every day.  Once we’ve taken the order from the external customer – the public – we present it to the “short-order-cooks” in the field – our internal customers.

As dispatchers, through identification of our internal and external customers, we are better able to visualize where we need to adjust our communication techniques in order to beget the desired results.  While there are many agencies that continue to rely exclusively upon the military-style chain-of-command, that model only works proficiently for the military because of the inherent threat of court martial for failure to obey the principles.  I suppose termination of employment could be considered the same as court martial to many, but there is a distinction between the two actions that clearly separates them; the potential for imprisonment at Fort Leavenworth, Kansas under the UCMJ leaps to mind.

While The Chief may still believe that the chain-of-command is an actual chain with which he can beat underlings until they understand that he is clearly in command, it is often a difficult concept to enforce in our free society.  Still, having a clearly-identifiable method of reporting and a clearly-delineated table of organization is not only sensible, it is essential.  Chain-of-command is a pyramid scheme at its finest, and knowing where you stand in that scheme makes tolerating and operating within it easier and a lot more palatable.  Rather than thinking of chain-of-command as an unnecessary encumbrance, think of it merely as a way of conveying information to those who need it without wasting the time and energy of those who don’t.  Organizations that employ a hybrid combination of Demming’s TQM and the standard military chain-of-command model are the ones most likely to have the least problems, operationally speaking.

Where things get truly complex in a civilian environment is when dispatchers are expected to report upward through several chains-of-command simultaneously.  It’s true that an on-scene commander may be the honcho at that particular scene, but suppose there are several scenes.  A lone dispatcher working the overnight shift has a structure fire, a car accident, and a home illness involving cardiac arrest.  That dispatcher potentially has three separate and distinct chains-of-command to which he/she must report, not to mention a fourth through their own agency’s internal reporting structure.  Wow!  How do we do it?

And, as long as we’re talking about pyramids as a symbol of agency structure, it is important to know that real pyramids, like any building that stands the test of time, are built upon strong foundations.  Egypt’s Pyramids of Giza have a hard stone base that extends quite a distance below the sands.  These foundations have held those structures steadfastly in place for thousands of years.  The capstone at the peak of the pyramid represents the top, or chief, of the agency.  The stones in the middle represent the various ranks that report upward to that chief.  Guess which part represents the dispatcher.  You’ve got it: the part you can’t see because it is buried beneath the sand.  But it’s the part that holds up the whole organization; the foundation.  Those who dispatch are fundamental to all emergency activities making them the very foundation of emergency services.

While it might seem to some to be nothing more than a pyramid scheme, after all is said and done, the pyramid turns out to be a pretty good metaphor for chain-of-command, especially for those who sit in The Chair.  Now, if we can only get The Chief to stop wielding that chain!


Paul D. Bagley is a published author of both fiction and non-fiction books, a retired police officer and emergency dispatcher.  He is the past president of New Hampshire Emergency Dispatchers Association, and he is editor and publisher of the association’s monthly newsletter, “The NHEDA Broadcaster.”

"From the Chair" is produced for 9-1-1 Magazine by 911Lifeline, a national 501(c)(3) membership association providing services for 9-1-1 telecommunicators, assistance to the media, and public education programs.  For more information visit


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