Commander Resilience Research: The next steps

Tony Zarola imageBy Tony Zarola, NARU Research & Evaluation Lead

Extreme environments and crisis situations create particularly unique challenges that have to be managed by those who undertake command roles.

Leadership is critical in all stages of emergency management within extreme contexts. Before events occur, foresight, planning, training and other preparedness efforts are necessary to ensure individuals and organisations are crisis prepared.

However, it is also known that when responding to events, principles of disaster preparation and actual crisis management are not always two sides of the same coin and as contexts change (e.g. pre-event to actual event) the demands on commanders and what constitutes effective leadership or command are likely to be different.

Recovering and learning from events also requires certain styles and orientation towards leadership to restore processes and systems, reconstitute personnel and other resources, as well as identify the various forms of support available to members.

CommandersOur research has demonstrated that resilience and capability in the face of extreme events is a critical capacity at both individual and collective levels. Both of these psychological resources have been found to enable ambulance personnel to operate effectively before, during and after events. However, there is a growing need to better understand the processes and factors that influence and impact on the resilience and capability of commanders. The way in which commanders prepare, respond, recover and learn from incidents will not only impact on their own effectiveness it will also impact on the resilience and capability of those that they lead as well as the organisations that they serve.

The first stage of the project was focussed on interviewing a range of commanders from across the ambulance service. The interviews were used to gather evidence on questions such as:

  • What are the workplace features that enable commanders to remain resilient?
  • What are the workplace features that challenge/damage commander resilience?
  • What are the personal qualities of resilient commanders?
  • What skills/behaviours are required of an effective commander?

The first stage of the project is now complete and has enabled us to gather a very rich source of evidence on these and many other questions.

We have now completed an intensive phase of content analysis and are in the process of developing a commander survey as well as a commander behaviour competency framework. A series of subject matter expert panels are currently being convened to help with this next stage of the project. These panels, primarily attended by ambulance service commanders, are being used to help inform the survey and to help review the draft behaviour framework that has been developed.

Once ready, the survey will be made available to all ambulance service commanders. The evidence gathered through the survey will be used to help us to develop a better understanding of the factors (e.g. personal, environmental) that influence commander resilience and performance. The findings from the survey will be published and made available through NARU.

Commanders_Similarly, and once ready, the behaviour framework will also be published. However, there is still some way to go with regards to validating the framework. Validating the framework requires us to confirm that the behaviours included are relevant and they have some form of positive or negative impact on the performance and resilience of commanders. The formal validation of the behavioural framework will be planned through the NARU training faculty and with some ambulance services. This will comprise using the framework during training, exercises and/or even as part of debriefing procedures to understand commander performance.

In line with NARU’s values, this research has to necessarily focus on making the outcomes useable for ambulance services and possibly the wider healthcare sector and emergency service community. At each stage we are continuously asking ourselves and those involved with this work questions such as:

  • How can the evidence base be used to inform interventions for commander resilience?
  • How can the evidence base be used to inform commander selection?
  • How can the evidence base be used to inform commander training?

We will keep asking these and other similar questions to ensure the outcomes of this research can be fully exploited and can be used to support commanders and leaders within the ambulance service and beyond.

We will issue further updates as the project progresses and we identify any key findings. If anyone is interested in participating in this work or would just like to find out more, please do not hesitate to contact Dr Tony Zarola at Zeal Solutions via



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