What Is Your Training About?

Learning happens and teams perform better when everyone knows and understands the theme of the training drill

One day, back when I was a district chief, I was talking to a crew of firefighters after they had returned to the station from department-wide training. They had participated in a drill that measured their time for performing as a rapid intervention crew (RIC). Obviously, one of the most important tactical skills performed on the fire ground and one that requires consistent training. But was this training (learning) or was it a test?


I asked them a simple question: “What was the training about?” Yes, I knew they were expected to complete a task (move through an obstacle course, find and remove the dummy) while competing against a stopwatch (and the other crews there), but I wanted to know what they really learned from the training? What was the theme?

Here’s what they answered: “It was like a race, and we didn’t win!” “It wasn’t realistic; we wouldn’t be able to do it by ourselves.” “We made lots of mistakes because we felt rushed.” “It was like a firefighter challenge race.”

Time to task is critical when completing any tactical assignment, especially one that rescues one of our own. And it’s specifically important for successfully achieving a strategic goal, like finding and removing a downed or injured firefighter.

A rapid intervention incident is a rescue event that requires the coordination between command and several tactical teams, all while the original operations continue. It’s not a race or a competition. It’s rare that it can be done with only one crew. The tactical component will not execute effectively without the strategic element of command. Both the command team and the tactical teams must be operating with the same strategy, or theme in mind: to remove a downed or injured firefighter to safety.

Learning happens and teams (command and tactical) perform better when everyone knows and understands the theme of the training drill.

Know what your training is about. Understand the theme.

Ask yourself, “What’s the message here?”

IAFC President Testifies Before Senate on Responding to New Terror Threats

February 3, 2016

As I wrote in a recent blog post on What’s next for the fire Service?, open-mindedness and a far-reaching vision will keep the fire service in the game.

After several unexpected, mass-civilian attacks on U.S. soil in 2015, the fire service will have to provide a more unified response to these new security threats. More use of a rescue task force approach combining law enforcement, fire, and EMS will be required. That means an even better relationship between those services and much more practice together to work out the kinks!

Read this article and watch the video testimony.

Gordan Graham And True Risk Management

The Status Quo is gone..... Continual improvement has got to be the rule of life

Gordan Graham just makes sense. He has a knack for opening our eyes and connecting us with true reality. What do we really see? What is actually happening? And what should we do about it?


Graham champions safety and effectiveness in the public safety world; a place filled with constant complexity and chaos. In a recent Firehouse blog, he speaks on the topic of risk management at the Fire Department Safety Officers Association (FDSOA) Symposium.

He reminds us of the simple message that if it’s predictable, it’s preventable:

If we can identify the cause of the tragedy, perhaps we can put together control measures to prevent similar tragedies from occurring.

He reveals that we are part of the problem:

The truth is we don’t know jack about risk management, he said of people who work for government public safety agencies. We get all worked up about the wrong things.

He explains that tragedies have multiple causes, including proximate cause, contributory cause, root causes and other problems lying in wait. Look at the root cause of the problem. Don’t just focus on the immediate or proximate cause. He said, “Everybody knows it was the iceberg that sank the Titanic, but was it the real cause?” We must look deeper.

Here are 7 rules of risk management that Graham suggests we follow:

  1. You must have a rising standard of quality over time and well beyond what is required by any minimum standard.
  2. People running complex systems should be highly capable.
  3. Supervisors have to face bad news when it comes and take problems to high level enough to fix those problems.
  4. You must have a healthy respect for the dangers and risk of your particular job.
  5. Training must be constant and rigorous.
  6. You must have a robust audit process to assure that what you say you are doing you are, in fact doing.
  7. The organization and members thereof must have the ability and willingness to learn from mistakes of the past.

Probably the most important areas in the fire service that we should put more focus on is the leader influence in dangerous contexts. As leaders, we must be adaptable and agile, able to balance high risk situations with low frequency operations. As Gordan Graham suggests, continual improvement by keeping our eyes on the real problems, then working together to solve them, is our rule of life.

Here are some Gordan Graham sources:

FIREHOUSE Blog by Ed Ballam: FDSOA Symposium: Graham Lectures on True Risk Managment

You Tube video featuring Gordan Graham on High Risk, Low Frequency Events

Looking Ahead To 2016: What’s Next For The Fire Service?

Open-mindedness and a far-reaching vision will keep the fire service in the game

From data-driven decisions to a rise in prevention, expanded duties, and increased threat response, the fire service will continue to change in the upcoming year. More rapidly than ever before.

Change is happening more rapidly than ever before.

Change is happening more rapidly than ever before.

Yes, “continue to change” is something the fire service, reluctantly, will do this year. And this change will begin to accelerate more because of the unique nature of our fast-changing and complex world. Keeping pace with technology and the increased demands and challenges in our communities will drive us even more to make this change. A “status quo” strategy will not work; open-mindedness and a far-reaching vision will keep the fire service in the game.

A far-reaching vision will keep the fire service

Open-mindedness and a far-reaching vision will keep the fire service in the game.

Revisioning The Fire Service

Threat Response

After several unexpected, mass-civilian attacks on U.S. soil in 2015, the fire service will have to provide a more unified response to these new security threats. More use of a rescue task force approach combining law enforcement, fire, and EMS will be required. That means an even better relationship between those services and much more practice together to work out the kinks!

A Rise In Fire Prevention

The community sees us fighting fire, but they rarely see us preventing fire through inspections, code enforcement, and education. Fighting fire is, and always will be, needed. But our overall mission to save lives and protect property should have just as much, if not more, emphasis before the fire.

Data Driven Decisions

More decisions are made by data today. Data provides a better picture of past history and future trends that can identify safer practices, more effective strategies, and lower operating costs. Expect more radical approaches to the long-rooted staffing and deployment models to meet changing needs throughout the communities and peak demand times.

Expanded Duties

Saving lives and protecting property is why the fire service exists. But it will mean more than just fighting fires. Fire departments can expect to be called on and used for more emergency and non-emergency situations than ever before. More education to increase situation awareness and decision making combined with a strong skill-based training will be required to meet a multitude of dangerous and chaotic situations.

More information. The need for more prevention. More things to do and more threats coming our way. Open-mindedness and a far reaching vision will keep the fire service in the “game of change” this year.

What changes do you see coming in 2016? How will you address them?

What We Learned From Each Other About Building A Command

3 days of training on how to calm the chaos at a mega event

It all began with a high rise fire at the Phoenix Towers on Singer Island, Florida. Fire crews knew the building and had responded their many times for this type of event, a fire alarm. What they thought might be a routine alarm, suddenly became a mega event, full of the chaos that comes from a high rise building where upper floors are filled with smoke and lots of occupants need help. They also discovered they needed some help too.


The Phoenix Towers condominium on Singer Island, Florida. Photo by Billy Schmidt.

The Riviera Beach Fire-Rescue Department serves the City of Riviera Beach, Florida, which includes Singer Island. The Department has 4 stations located throughout the city, each housing a fire suppression unit and a medical transport unit. Every day there is a minimum of 17 personnel on duty including one battalion chief. It’s a diverse city that keeps the fire department busy on any given day.

The fire occurred at 1721 hours on a Sunday evening in a 25-story residential high-rise building. Initially dispatched to a fire alarm, units arrived and reported “nothing showing from the exterior.” An investigation revealed a smoke detector activation in the penthouse and several residents stating there was smoke in the hallways on the upper floors. Requests were made by the first-arriving crews to upgrade to a high-rise response and for additional units to assist with evacuation. The requests were denied by the responding battalion chief because there were multiple other calls in the city at the same time and their resources were stretched. The crews ascended the stairs and confirmed the presence of light to moderate smoke on floors 14 to 16. When they reached the remaining floors they encountered heavy smoke and several occupants needing assistance. The battalion chief arrived on scene and assumed command. The crews informed command of the smoke conditions and again requested more units for assistance. Command requested that dispatch upgrade the alarm to a full high-rise response and to send additional units for assistance. After some time, the crews found the origin of the fire and extinguished it with a dry chemical extinguisher. Resources from surrounding agencies, including tactical units and command staff, arrived on scene and assisted with ventilation and the successful evacuation of all occupants. There were no civilian or firefighter injuries or deaths. The entire incident lasted approximately 6 hours.

Adaptability is Important on the Fireground

No battle plan survives contact with the enemy. -Helmuth von Moltke

We pre-plan the building and train for the situation. But things rarely go exactly to plan. That’s why it’s important that we are observant and adaptable in every situation. Our preconceived notions about what is going to happen, because we’ve been to this fire alarm before, are likely to change before we even get started.

Complicated incidents, a fire alarm at a high rise with lots of occupants, quickly becomes chaotic when things don’t go according to plan. Critical cues, unexpected things, begin to appear that trigger a revision to our initial plan. Sometimes, the event outgrows our ability as a single fire department to safely and effectively apply the operations and support needed to bring order to the chaos. Building a strategic command team while working with other agencies can be cumbersome, but is necessary to establish a manageable span-of-control and provide for comprehensive resource management. Like firefighters, fire departments must be adaptable.

From Command To A Team

There are new rules for engagement in our complex world, so says General Stan McChrystal in his book, Team of Teams. The ability to react quickly and adapt is critical, and its becoming more important in today’s fire service. Mega events, such as high rise fires and terrorist attacks, require new ways to communicate and work together. All agencies, fire and police especially, must learn to break down the silos, work across jurisdictional lines, and master the flexible response that comes from teamwork and collaboration. They have to be able to work as a “team of teams.”


Agencies must learn to break down the silos, work across jurisdictional lines, and master the flexible response that comes from teamwork and collaboration. Photo courtesy of Artie Werkle.

Practicing And Growing Together

In recent years, fire departments in Palm Beach County found themselves confronting more dangerous and complex incidents than ever before, requiring different levels of effort from all agencies and credible emergency management capabilities county-wide. The fire chiefs and training officers in the County recognized this and decided to do something about it. A county-wide command training program was created to improve incident scene management capabilities that would save lives and protect property, combine individual fire department efforts and increase resources, enhance jurisdictional flexibility to handle large-scale events, and provide for a safer, more accountable emergency scene.

The command training was modeled after the National Fire Academy’s Command & Control series, using a case method practice and decision-making exercises. Regardless of size or current capabilities, all fire departments within the County were invited to send personnel, with focus on potential incident commanders. This inter-agency approach would create an environment for open discussion and collaborative learning. The goal was to build stronger command teams to better handle mega events.

Using the Case Method and Staff Ride Concept

Fire instructors teaching incident command often use stories drawn from historic emergency events that will enliven their presentations and illustrate their points. Much of it is lecture with exciting pictures or video and little, if no student interaction or critical thinking. Instead, this county-wide command training promoted the use of decision-forcing cases that would enhance awareness, strengthen decision-making, and empower action from the front line officers.


Decision-forcing cases enhance awareness, strengthen decision-making, and empower action from the front line officers. Photo courtesy of Captain Steve Trimble.

The purpose of staff rides are to further the development of fire service leaders. They are planned learning events that recreate previous incidents at the actual site of the events to produce a fireground analysis in three dimensions. It promotes maximum student involvement through a pre-study of the incident and the building, an instructor facilitated site visit, and an instructor facilitated dialogue session.

Photo courtesy of Captain Steve Trimble.

Staff rides are planned learning events that recreate previous incidents at the actual site of the events to produce a fireground analysis. Photo courtesy of Captain Steve Trimble.

 What We Learned From Each Other

The recent fire at the Phoenix Towers on Singer Island was the motivation for the latest county-wide command training hosted by the Riviera Beach Fire Rescue Department. Having facilitated the previous county-wide command training sessions, I was asked to help with this one. Over a three-day period, firefighters, company officers and chief officers from a variety of fire departments came together to review and practice command operations at a mega event. Using the recent fire at The Towers as a case study, participants worked as teams in a strategic decision-making exercise to identify the problems, communicate clear objectives, and implement executable plans to manage a high rise fire.

Photo courtesy of Captain Steve Trimble.

Over a three-day period, firefighters, company officers and chief officers from a variety of fire departments came together to review and practice command operations at a mega event. Photo courtesy of Captain Steve Trimble.

The incident at the Phoenix Towers was a big event. While the fire was determined to be electrical and not large in scale, the smoke it produced filled ten floors and required the evacuation of approximately 20 residents. Here are some of the lessons we learned:

  • Recognize the size of the event and call for additional alarms early to reduce the reflex time for needed apparatus, personnel and other resources on any large building or long duration incident.
  • Expand command before the demand. Preemptive actions to front-load a command team will ensure rapid, concise decisions and actions.
  • Build trust between strategic commanders (chief officers) and tactical units (company officers) to better evaluate and act on the CAN reports and information provided by on-scene units.

It’s great to see so many fire departments come together for a common purpose. These are the people who will be out there handling these mega events and the more training they can do now, the better success they will have in the future. I plan to continue working with all fire departments to help them build better command teams that will calm the chaos.

Are You Building A Harmonious Team?

Wildland Fire Leadership
November 10, 2015

There’s more to it than just saying you’re a team. In complex and dangerous situations, teams have to work together, harmoniously. Like the improvisation of a jazz quartet, each member knows when to step in and when to hand it over to another. They’re connected.

Read here Pam McDonald’s take on Unity Through Harmony, or how fire leaders build cohesive teams to work in high risk environments.

Where It All Began: 6 Pioneers Of Fire Behavior

FireRescue1: Fire Chief Digital Edition
October 21, 2015

In days of old, fires were ferocious and demanded that firefighters learn on the job. There were no water systems or building codes to slow the fire to give firefighters the time to respond. Many people, including firefighters, died trying to save lives and protect property. They had to make decisions, and fast. The fire service needed pioneers to design tools and develop ways to do it better. A few individuals have stood out for their contributions to do just that.

Read here in the Fire Chief Digital Edition about where it all began.

To learn more about the history of the fire service go here to BruceHensler.com.

Constructive Conflict

Managing tough conversations in the firehouse

When firefighters talk openly, developing ideas together, debating different perspectives and blending those views, they work better together. They work as a team.

Photo by Tim Olk.

Photo by Tim Olk.

Because different ideas and opinions are examined, that team will move forward together, actively aligned and ready to tackle any objective. Yet many firefighters avoid constructive conflict.

Do you and your team of firefighters have tough conversations? Do you air every concern, reservation, and alternative, without holding anything back? Do you debrief your training and the incidents you respond to? Do you walk away from your meetings knowing that you can count on them to do what they say and to support you as you move the team forward? Are you able to focus your energy on the team’s objectives?

Many times we see constructive conflict turn into destructive conflict, which creates tension and resentment. It undermines relationships within the team and distracts from the team’s common goals. Or, if the team avoids conflict, it becomes guarded and shares fewer ideas. Questions remain unasked, ideas and opinions go unchallenged, and members of the team do not feel united. This can lead to a lack of support in each other’s decisions, which will compromise safety and execution.

How can you and your team of firefighters encourage constructive conflict and avoid sliding down into destructive conflict? The combination of three principles can help keep your team’s conflict positive: listening up, sharing a common commitment and creating a climate of trust.

Listening Up

Leadership authority Stephen R. Covey makes a relevant point in his bestselling book, “The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People.” The fifth habit he lists is: “Seek First to Understand, Then to Be Understood.”

The cause of almost all conflict is often a lack of understanding. If we don’t listen to others, then how can we truly understand the situation? We must learn to listen with more than just our ears; we must listen with our eyes and our hearts. Listen to the words being said, but also get a feel for how the message is delivered. Listen to the tone and watch the body language. To really understand what someone else is saying, we should listen first, and talk second.

A team that shares a common purpose is inspired to work hard together. Team members working towards a common goal will be more willing to engage in tough conversations. Bringing everyone together in an open discussion lets them see the cause and effects of the issues facing the team. Being part of the planning process triggers a valuable buy-in from everyone. When everyone feels that they have collective ownership, they will come to know and trust one another.

Climate of Trust

Trust doesn’t just happen — it has to be earned, and it’s earned best by giving it. When trust is present, people can usually set aside their egos or individual wants and focus on the team. Because they value their relationship with the team, they can now feel comfortable communicating their intentions and perceptions or making amends as necessary. Teams that foster trust become stronger and more productive through frequent and open communication.

In recent years, the fire service has experienced an alarming number of firefighter injuries and deaths because of a lack of communication or the inability of firefighters to speak up.

Creating a cohesive firefighting team has never been more challenging. The interpersonal dynamics of a team or crew can change constantly. Members of great firefighting teams openly express themselves in ways to understand and improve the organization.

They must be willing to address conflicts, constructively, when they occur. Teams that practice constructive conflict make better decisions and are more productive.

Open communication, a common commitment, and trust will keep your team positive and productive.

This post on Constructive Conflict was originally published for The Company Officer Series at FireRescue1.com on July 30, 2007.

The Best Way To Lead On The Fireground

Put skill, will, and teamwork together

FFwindowwalkThe best fireground teams have high skill, high will, and high teamwork. Have you ever been in a firehouse where everyone believed that each team member was highly trained, and that all knew their purpose and what they had to do? It’s the finest kind of team to be in. Some teams in the fire service are like this today. I’ve been on a few myself. All of them can be. Once there, this kind of team needs only four things:

  1. Mission-type orders with clear objectives and support.
  2. General supervision to provide current information and coordinated action.
  3. Trust.
  4. … and a fireground where they can go to work!

Are You An Obstacle?

Clear the path for your people to succeed

dilbert-removing obstacles

What stands in the way of your firefighters doing their job? Take a minute and look at your fire department; the rules (policies and procedures), how your firefighters learn (training), how they work (teamwork), and what they have to work with (tools, equipment, and facilities). Now take a look at you, their leader. Does your fire department and your leadership provide a clear path for your firefighters to work safely and effectively (don’t confuse effective with efficient). Are they able to achieve the organization’s objectives, and just as important their personal goals?

How can you, their leader, remove the obstacles that clutter their path to success?

Picture their workday: A workplace full of modern technology that can be confusing and sometimes difficult to operate. Policies telling them what they can’t do and procedures telling them how to do everything. Training and continuing education pulling them in different directions. Individuals with personal agendas or a lack of passion for the job. Facilities, tools, and equipment that must be inspected and maintained. And then there is you, their leader, and your requirements and expectations. There’s more to learn, more to do, and less time to get all of it done.

How can you help your firefighters get past all of those obstacles and accomplish their goals? And the Department’s goals?

As their leader, your goal is to ensure your firefighters’ safety and enhance their performance while enriching their personal satisfaction by focusing on their motivation, and all of this while completing your fire department’s mission. Your challenge is to use a leadership style that best meets their motivational needs, one that makes the path to their goals clear and easy to travel through coaching and direction.

Simply put, the role of the leader is to provide the necessary information, support and resources over and above those provided by the fire department to ensure both your firefighters’ personal satisfaction and a safe and effective performance. As their leader, you must work with your firefighters to define goals, clarify the path to reach those goals, clear the obstacles from that path and then provide the support needed to accomplish the goals.

A firefighter’s day is filled with many obstacles: responding to emergency calls, training requirements, rules and regulations, station and equipment maintenance, new technology, and many other potential hurdles. Don’t be one of those obstacles.

Clear the path for your firefighters by carefully assessing each of them and their tasks and then choosing an appropriate leadership style to match. As a leader, I always tried to remove myself as a fundamental part of the equation, so that the great people on our team could do their very best work without me getting in the way. Getting out of the way was hard to learn, because self-awareness is really tough to develop.

Remove obstacles for your team, for your staff, and by doing so you’ll remove obstacles for yourself as well. Imagine that.