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Crisis Leadership Model: The First 15

The decisions you make and the actions you take in the first 15 minutes of an incident will determine the outcome.

Harkcon Academy is making our world safe, one workplace community at a time. History shows that it will take at least 5 minutes and maybe as many 15 for first responders to arrive on scene. Therefore, you must be prepared to do what you can to mitigate the impacts of an incident in your workplace. Your response must be confident, firm and immediate. The decisions you make and the actions you take in the first 15 minutes are critical to ensuring your success.

Are you and your organization ready? You have to start well in advance in building the skills, knowledge, and confidence of your people. You must embed certain foundational principles into your daily operations and management functions so that you can leverage them during an incident. Your people must be aware, observant, and proactive.

First 15TM is a dynamic and tailorable crisis leadership and management model that helps organizations of any size, type or location to stack the odds in their favor to the greatest extent prepare for, respond to, and recover from any threat, hazard or incident. The core of the model is the concept of the "First 15TM," meaning the indicators you and your employees should be actively looking for in the 15 days, 15 hours or 15 minutes before an incident occurs, and the actions and activities you execute during the first 15 mins, first 15 hours, and first 15 days afterwards dictate, to a large extent, the overall outcome of a crisis.

Figure 1. First-15 Crisis Leadership and Management Model

First 15TM emphasizes the importance of first establishing 15 leadership and management principles into the businesses' every-day decision making and daily operations. These 15 sentinel habits will be critical to developing a strong incident response system. The model consists of 4 phases, beginning with Preparation in which the organization establishes a deliberate planning process, tailored to the unique environment in which they operate. The other 3 phases are Assessment, Response, and Recovery. Finally, the model includes details on how to establish and employ an effective crisis communication strategy.

The First 15TM Incident Response System includes:

  • 15 Sentinel Habits

  • 4-Phase Model

  • Crisis Communication Strategy

First 15TM emphasizes what you do first matters. This means organizations provide training for people who are likely to first encounter threats on observable triggers and are outfitted and empowered to take action; make everyone in the organization an integral part of defending it. They are instructed and empowered to be aware of their environment and their initial actions are always intended, first, to prevent incidents from developing and second to mitigate the negative impacts of an incident.

First 15TM is an "all hazards" model in that the principles, methods, and ideas can guide responses to any and all crises. Many other approaches focus only on specific incidents such as cyber attacks or active shooters. We encourage organizations to create templated responses to some large-scale incidents and, in doing so, they will gain a much greater ability to respond to all other non-scripted responses.

First 15TM includes common sense leadership and management principles used every day that prepare organizations to respond. We believe on scene employees with the ability and authority to employ specific principles are vital to ensure appropriate responses. As such, we help organizations establish strong and effective procedures and policies for selecting, assigning, and managing personnel. It is important to support everyone in the organization; ensure they have the knowledge, skills, abilities and tools to perform as required; and that they have adequate opportunities to rehearse and exercise critical behaviors in realistic environments.

First 15TM is a process and not a specific solution to a particular incident. Every good idea will not work in every organization, in every environment, and for every incident. We help organizations to assess their unique environment, probable threats and the variables likely to impact their responses. We then present various principles that organizations have employed to successfully prepare for, respond to and recover from incidents. First 15TM does not prescribe what to do but how to think about what to do.

First 15TM is based on the Incident Command System (ICS) described in the National Incident Management System (NIMS). First 15TM is not intended to replace ICS; it includes descriptions of what ICS is and how ICS organizations are formed and managed. It describes certain constructs and terminology used by first responders and encourages organizations to use the same, where it makes sense to do so. It specifically highlights best practices for communicating and conducting handoffs with first responders to ensure seamless transitions.


About the authors:

Mark Ruckstuhl is part of the leadership team at Harkcon Academy. He is a 1989 graduate of the United States Coast Guard Academy and he served in the Coast Guard for 25 years, primarily in operational afloat positions but also in several leadership positions in the Coast Guard Training System and at Headquarters. Since retiring in 2010, he has been a consultant for Harkcon Inc., leading and conducting various high-profile human performance analyses for federal law enforcement agencies.

Denny Harkins worked in the Arizona Department of Corrections for over 26 years, including 18 years in the warden ranks running prisons of every size and custody level. During his tenure he oversaw a comprehensive staffing study for the ADOC and was part of a team that brought the incident command system to Arizona Prisons, after which he served as Incident Commander for three major inmate disturbances. Since retiring, he has been actively engaged in ministry, public speaking and as a consultant in crisis response for Harkcon Academy.

Harkcon Academy is a branch of Harkcon, Inc., an award-winning Service-Disabled, Veteran-Owned business committed to providing comprehensive organizational and workforce performance analysis, training development & delivery, and performance support solutions in both domestic and international environments. Harkcon Academy's speakers, instructors, and training specialists each have a deep and rich background in government, military, and private industry. Harkcon Academy brings a wealth of expertise to bear on every course, workshop, exercise, or consulting session in which they are involved.

For more information about this or any of the new initiatives at Harkcon Academy, visit or contact Mark directly at and Denny at


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