The Importance of Span of Control

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There are people in this world who seem to be able to recall information with ease and for that, I am very envious. The importance of span of control whether in business or on the fire ground can not be emphasised enough here. Lets move on. In other articles, I have spoken about how complex a business can be or become. This now leads me to a discussion on the ‘span of control‘. I could discuss how there has been research carried out by people far more qualified than me. Probably with far greater knowledge on the subject. What I want to do is try and put in writing some of my observations and experiences.

Importance of Span of Control and Stretch my skills to the limit:

Recently during an event that was escalating rapidly. I was asked to pull together an Incident Management Team (IMT) and with the best of intentions, off I went. As I arrived at the Control Center it was evident that not much had been done and the task I was given was going to stretch my skills to the limit. The event was a little out of my comfort zone and wasn’t the normal fire or other emergencies a firefighter may deal with.

Even though my role was to put the IMT together there were some challenges that weren’t quite so evident, and unknown to me, would limit my ability to do what was asked. With rescues and other operational factors coming in consistently I soon found that I couldn’t deal with every given situation. Thus there was a need to set priorities until I had assistance to help command the situation.

In the end, other members of the team started arriving and I was able to delegate some other functional area’s and get others to assist with planning, operations and logistics just to name a few functional areas.

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Why use a ratio of 1:5:

This is an extreme example of how one person can only carry out a limited number of given tasks before he or she becomes overwhelmed. We use a ratio of 1:5. That is any given person should only have five other resources, physical or human under there command, to be able to effectively perform to a standard that is achievable and measurable.

Of cause, this is dependent on the complexity. I.e. If there are 25 fire trucks in the field then they would be broken down into five groups with a commander in charge of each.

Then above them would be a division commander in charge of the five commanders for each group. Each truck would have a crew of five and in charge of that crew would be a crew leader who would answer to the commander.

People like taking on extra responsibility:

The above example isn’t used just because of people like being in charge. There is a lot of research and testing that has gone into this ratio.

I would like to clarify here that for other business related tasks that don’t have a great deal of complexity. It may be sufficient to have one manager to cover of at a ratio of 1:7.

On the other hand, it may be appropriate for those who manage difficult tasks to use a ratio of 1:3. This would need to be analysed and adjusted, where required, by the Business Controller (Manager).

Make Hard Decisions:

There may be other factors that influence these span of control ratios, but please be objective when analysing. Don’t let negative external factors skew your decisions i.e. industrial issues, hard to deal with staff. As a manager sometimes we have to make the hard decisions. As long as its the right decision then you have done a good job.

Just the last few comments. When management courses and text’s mention empowering employees. It not just because it’s the in phrase for management courses, its a fact. Too often leaders in organisations let their personalities override their ability to effectively empower others in the organisation.

I hear you say, “what’s this got to do with a span of control”.  Well, importance of span of control is critical to most operations in business and on the fire ground. It’s just something that needs to be part of every decision you make. The span of control is very important in relation to your business management skills and when used effectively will limit the stress and welfare of those at every level it has been analysed and used. Good luck.

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