Incident Command System: Watch the Baton?

We’ve used a lot of analogies in the past to try to help people understand and appreciate how sound emergency planning and the Incident Command System should work. Sports analogies have always been popular. We’ve even borrowed from experts in surgical practice to provide an incisive point or two.

As it turns out, a recent study of how symphony orchestras work yields some unexpected lessons that emergency planners might appreciate. And it’s all thanks to a professor of Advanced Computer Studies at the University of Maryland.

Dr. Yiannis Aloimos wanted to see if the movements of a symphony orchestra’s conductor had a technologically traceable effect on the aesthetics of concert performance. To test his hypothesis, Dr. Aloimos – apparently a bit of a geek – and several of his colleagues installed a tiny infrared light at the tip of a conductor’s baton, and similar lights on the bows of the violinists in an orchestra.

When the conductor waved his baton and the violinists moved their bows, the moving lights created patterns in space, which were captured by cameras. Computers analyzed the infrared patterns as signals. Using mathematical techniques originally designed by Nobel-Prize winning economist Clive Granger, the scientists analyzed whether the movements of the conductor were linked to those of the violinists.

To the surprise of no one who has ever been in a high school concert band, there is now infrared and mathematical proof that the body language of the leader of a musical ensemble has a direct and positive effect on a musical group’s rhythmic synchronization.

And that’s not all. Aloimos ran the test using an experienced conductor known for his iron grip over the violinists, and again using an amateur conductor. Music experts listened to the performances and could easily tell the differences between conductors. Heck, we listened to the comparisons ourselves on National Public Radio, and even we could tell that the veteran conductor produced greater sonic uniformity to say nothing of superior dynamics.

So what can we learn about emergency preparedness planning and execution from symphony orchestras?

  • Each and every member of a symphony orchestra is a highly trained virtuoso who knows exactly what his or her role is. Effective incident command leaders make sure they have people with the right skill sets for their roles. And they take pains to see that backup and second shift players are just as proficient as the first team.
  • Each musician follows sheet music they have marked up to make sure they can handle the most difficult passages. The checklists, org charts and SOPs in an emergency preparedness plan are like a musician’s sheet music. Marking up the plan from time to time keeps it updated, relevant, practical and instructive.
  • Orchestra members practice their own parts by themselves before rehearsals. You can’t wait till a storm or emergency drill comes along to find out what you are supposed to do. Storm team members need to crack open the plan once in a while just to stay sharp.
  • As a group, you are drilled first by a rehearsal master, then later by your conductor. Ninety percent of an orchestra’s real work is done in rehearsal. Drills are the only way to test your own skills and knowledge and to find out if you know how to work harmoniously with other sections of your team. Drills relieve the stress that comes with the real emergency, allowing team members to concentrate on incident command and execution.
  • Despite rigorous preparation, an orchestra still needs a conductor to coordinate things, making sure each section does its job. And experienced conductors get the best results. Good Incident Commanders are great communicators who know how to get the best out of their teams. And they make sure their backups get enough practice and experience so they can be relieved when necessary.

So now all you need is that infrared baton…

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