Leadership Spotlight

Effective Time-Outs During Crises

A stock image of a police officer talking on a cell phone.

When the game is on the line in any major sport, a head coach may call a time-out. This may be done for several reasons. For instance, the coach can receive timely assessments from players and other coaches, develop and communicate a strategy, implement a play, or change the game’s momentum.

Similarly, during critical incidents, such as those involving hostages, barricaded criminals, or suicidal subjects, the on-scene commander (OSC) — or another crisis manager — may want to consider this same technique.

The OSC should not try to manage such incidents in isolation but rather develop strategies that incorporate input from other stakeholders in a holistic approach. This holds especially true when there is an opportunity to solicit guidance and suggestions from subject matter experts during a time-out.

An effective, precise time-out is the OSC’s responsibility. In many incidents, there are time constraints that require efficient decisions. However, before deciding on or implementing a course of action, a productive time-out may be the difference between success and failure.

Critical events can be fluid and dynamic, so timing is important. In many incidents, there is a natural break, and a time-out can be easily managed. Other times, it may be desirable if the time-out occurs before implementing a significant change in law enforcement strategy.

Since many decisions are time sensitive, the OSC may benefit from a structured time-out. The method for gaining input from others needs to be simple, adaptable, and flexible. Advice should come from on-site subject matter experts, such as tactical, intelligence, and negotiation leaders.

The acronym PANE simplifies time-outs and assists the OSC. It symbolizes looking through a window to see a future course of action. This general format can be adjusted to the type of incident.

1) Prioritize

A) What needs to be done now?
B) Who needs to do it?

2) Assess

A) What type of incident are we dealing with?
B) What is and is not working?
C) How can we improve our position?

3) Network

A) What are the assessments from the crisis management team (tactical, intelligence, negotiators, and others)?
B) Who else can assist us?

4) Evaluate Risk

A) Where are the greatest risks, and to whom?
B) How can we lower risk?
C) Is risk increasing, decreasing, or staying the same?

The OSC needs to be proactive, organizing time-outs well in advance of an incident, not during a crisis when emotions are intense. Having a standard, structured process for running a time-out and practicing with subject matter experts will maximize effectiveness. Crisis leaders should know what is expected of them during a time-out and anticipate the request for input.

Vince A. Dalfonzo, instructor in the Leadership Education Unit at the FBI Academy and retired supervisory special agent, prepared this Leadership Spotlight. He can be reached at vadalfonzo@fbi.gov.

“[A] productive time-out may be the difference between success and failure.”