Leadership Zig-Zag

Sometimes it's not about making the right decision, but just making a decision at all

Fire leaders are faced with dozens of decisions to make every day. Many are simple, some are complicated, and a few have more serious ramifications. Sometimes it’s not about making the right decision, but just making a decision at all. So, why do some fire leaders avoid making decisions?

dilbert-removing obstacles

Leaders in the fire service, from firefighter to fire chief, must master the ability to make good decisions quickly in order to keep the fire department moving forward. The best leaders surround themselves with people they trust and subject matter experts, so that they can get reliable information to make better decisions.

Fire leaders cannot afford to zig-zag. Learn to remain calm under pressure, trust the teams you have built, and use all of the information available to make the best decision. Oh, and sometimes having a little faith doesn’t hurt either.

We Determine The Outcome Of Any Action Or Situation

The human element (you and I) determines the outcome of any action or situation. The world is not a safe place, and I’m not referring to natural disasters or terrorism. I’m talking about human error that changes or destroys lives everyday.

 

Everyone of us is touched or affected by the decisions or actions of others. Maybe it’s an incorrect dose of medication given during a routine medical procedure, or just stepping on the gas and speeding through a red light. Many people are harmed every day as a result of the errors we make.

Daily life in our complex world is all about us (people); it’s not about technology. Everything we use, whether technology (tools, machines, equipment, etc.) or systems (training, processes, procedures, etc.) is controlled, influenced and/or operated by us (people). Therefore, our performance determines how well the technology and systems will work, and how safe and effective we will be.

From the error of a moment, comes the sorrow of a lifetime  ~Chinese proverb

How do your decisions affect the actions of others? How can you improve your performance?

If You Want To Change The World…

United States Naval Admiral, William H. McRaven, delivers sound advice in his commencement speech to the University of Texas Class of 2014. Below are the quick notes on what to do. Listen to the speech to find out why and how to do it.

  • If you want to change the world, start by doing the little things right: make your bed.
  • If you want to change the world, find someone to help you paddle.
  • If you want to change the world, measure people by the size of their heart.
  • If you want to change the world, get over being a sugar cookie and move forward.
  • If you want change the world, don’t be afraid of the circus.
  • If you want to change the world, sometimes you have to slide down the obstacles head first.
  • If you want to change the world, don’t back down from the sharks.
  • If you want to change the world, you must be your very best in the darkest of moments.
  • If you want to change the world, start singing when you’re up to your neck in mud.
  • If you want to change the world, don’t ever ring the bell.

Also, read the workingfirechief’s blog for his thoughts on “Changing the fire service for the positive and keep good traditions alive.”

How will you help change the world?

Margin: Is There Room For Error?

What is margin and how does it impact operations in a complex and dynamic environment?

Watch this video from WildlandFire LLC to learn how margin looks to us in the field, and if we understand it, how we can use it to be safer and more effective.

We all have the power to control margin. What actions can you take to build margin?

Firefighter Critical Success Factors: How Do You Measure Up?

Performance-clean-standard-crop-1Observing Firefighter Performance: 3 critical factors contribute to firefighter excellence

“We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act, but a habit.”  -Aristotle

After many years of observing firefighters at my department during training operations and on the fireground, it’s apparent that some of them perform significantly better than others, especially during unforeseen, dangerous events. Firefighters at my department undergo similar initial training programs (recruit academy) and on-duty recurrent training. So what makes one firefighter perform better than another?

Statistics from the International Association of Fire Chiefs (IAFC) Crew Resource Management Program reveal that approximately 50 percent of all firefighter line-of-duty deaths are attributed to some type of firefighter or crew error. Therefore, the reasons behind excellent performance versus merely acceptable performance should be a serious concern for company officers and fire departments.

It’s easy to identify and report the mistakes that firefighters make during training sessions. After all, firefighters are human, and all humans make mistakes. But we can do better than merely relying on post-incident reports. We can observe the attitudes and performance of those firefighters who distinguish themselves during training and fireground operations. Demonstrated excellence in a training environment is no guarantee of excellence during a true emergency. However, firefighters who display excellence during training and normal fireground operations will most likely demonstrate similar behavior during an actual emergency.

Performance-2-Brian Bastinell 2003Critical Success Factors

Excellent firefighters share certain attributes and attitudes that are present at all times. In my observation, excellence boils down to the following three critical success factors:
1. An intimate knowledge of and a passion for the fire service profession;
2. A professional attitude that includes understanding the job’s dangers, practicing situational awareness and reacting conservatively to a challenging event; and
3. The acceptance and use of the department’s operational procedures.

Let’s take a closer look at each of the three.

Critical Success Factor No. 1:

An intimate knowledge of and a passion for the fire service profession. Highly successful firefighters take pride in knowing their profession, much more than the minimum required training. They spend time reading articles in professional trade magazines, talking about tools and techniques with other firefighters, critiquing their own incidents, attending conferences or classes and, most important, reviewing their department’s operational procedures. They are very familiar with the tools and equipment carried on their apparatus, and how best to use them. They accept, understand and practice the Incident Management System (IMS).

Excellent firefighters are knowledgeable about building construction and pre-fire plans. They know the different types of construction and how they affect safety and operational tactics on the fireground. They are students of the fire service and are always seeking more knowledge.

Because they are human, excellent firefighters still make mistakes. But their mistakes are fewer, less serious and more quickly discovered and corrected than those made by other firefighters.

How does an intimate knowledge of and a passion for the fire service influence the daily activities of an excellent firefighter? The answer is simple: Firefighters are constantly making life and death decisions. To make a decision, they must collect and analyze the current information and compare it with past experiences and lessons learned. The excellent firefighter draws on a wider range of information, which leads to better decisions. Lacking important information, especially the understanding of basic operational and safety procedures and techniques, can result in disaster. In the fire service, knowledge is not just power; it’s safety.

Critical Success Factor No. 2:

A professional attitude that includes understanding the job’s dangers, practicing situational awareness and reacting conservatively to challenging events. Professional firefighters know that the fire ground is dangerous and that conditions can change rapidly, without warning. They are not complacent. They are skeptical. They are alert and are always asking themselves, “What if…?” “What will we do if we cannot contain the fire to this room?” Excellent firefighters are prepared with a backup plan should the initial plan fail.

Because they are skeptical, these excellent firefighters will sense abnormalities sooner than their peers. They will anticipate, and thus avoid, potentially hazardous events. When unexpected events do occur, they will identify and handle them more effectively than other firefighters.

A constant situational awareness is one of the most important aspects of the critical success factors. Firefighters who exhibit constant situational awareness always know what their objective is, how much air they have and most important, where they are with regard to some reference point in the structure. Many case studies from tragic fireground incidents cite a loss of situational awareness.

A challenging event is anything that occurs on the fireground that could potentially affect safety. An equipment failure would be considered a challenging event, as would a change in the weather; either could compromise safety. In response to challenging events, excellent firefighters take actions to preserve or enhance the current level of safety. Examples include not entering a fire building if the conditions are deteriorating too rapidly, or revising strategies because of changing weather. The first goal of any fireground operation is firefighter safety; everything else comes second. The excellent firefighter is aggressively conservative.

Critical Success Factor No. 3:

The acceptance and use of the department’s operational procedures. All fire departments should have a complete set of operational procedures called standard operating procedures (SOPs) or standard operating guidelines (SOGs). Regardless of the name, operational procedures provide structure for fireground operations.

Some firefighters rely on operational procedures more than others; some take them for granted, and some ignore them completely. When asked why operational procedures are important, firefighters might reply, “So everyone will do things the same way.” But there’s much more to them than standardization.

Operational procedures provide firefighters with time-tested, consistent, safe methods of accomplishing many normal and abnormal tasks. They help firefighters avoid the surprises that might occur if there were no prescribed methods for handling the event.

Lastly, adherence to the department’s operational procedures help keep firefighters prepared and ready to react to unexpected events, which might include a low air bottle alarm, a lost firefighter, or an incident that escalates rapidly in size or complexity. These challenging events can be anticipated and practiced. Department operational procedures provide firefighters with a set process for dealing with such events, and excellent firefighters embrace their use.

Are You Observing?

The lesson learned by observing excellent firefighters is clear. The excellent firefighter has a passion for the profession, understands the dangers of the job, is aware of their surroundings, responds conservatively to challenging events and accepts and uses operational procedures.

How do your firefighters measure up against these critical success factors? Do they continually study their profession and practice the responsibilities of their position? Do they take seriously, the potential dangers that come with their job and prepare for them? And do they review, accept, and practice the department’s operational procedures in order to perform safely and effectively?

The three critical success factors can be a company officer’s checklist for safe and effective fireground operations, and a long and successful fire service career. So ask yourself honestly: If someone was observing you, would you rate as an excellent firefighter?

This was from an article written for Fire Rescue Magazine that was published in February 2007.

Fighting Fire in The Lion’s Den


A family had had to make for a quick exit when their van caught fire while touring the lion enclosure at a wild animal safari park.

The family was rescued by park rangers and the lions were moved (eventually) to another location.

What problems are created, and what tactical and Command solutions (strategies) must be applied?

Thinking FAST and SLOW Influences Our Decision Making

Our brains process information in two very distinct ways: One way is FAST thinking which acts automatically based on our experience or what we see, and the other is SLOW thinking where our body speeds up (our muscles tense, our pupils dilate, and our heart rate increases) but our brain slows down. Both FAST and SLOW thinking influence our reactions and drive our decision making.

Depending on the complexity of the situation and the risk involved, firefighters must be able to use either FAST or SLOW thinking.

Watch this short video from AsapSCIENCE for important information about how we make decisions.

How do you practice decision making in complex situations?

Want more information on decision making? Read Daniel Kahneman’s Thinking Fast and Slow which describes in detail, with several examples, how our brains have two systems, or speeds to help us make decisions. Also a must read is Gary Klein’s Streetlights and Shadows which sums up his take on rapid prime decision making in complex situations.


Row House Fire: Philadelphia

Video by: phillyfirenews. Video info: Row Home Fire in West Philadelphia on Friday, Jan. 17, 2014. The fire was located on the 1600 block of N. 60th Street. Video provided to PhillyFireNews.com by Fox29

Apply Intentional Command to efficiently synchronize resources and effectively attack rapidly evolving, complex and severe problems.

Full Speed Size Up

  1. What is the occupancy?
  2. What is the life hazard?
  3. Where are the occupants?
  4. Where is the fire?
  5. What is the fire doing to the building and where is it going?
  6. What is the ventilation situation?

What problems are created, and what tactical and Command solutions (strategies)  must be applied?

My Recent Presentation: Arrival, Now What?

GFFSLast Friday, I had the privilege of speaking at the the Great Florida Fire School in Ft. Pierce, Florida. Hundreds of firefighters attended the week-long conference that included both lecture and practical programs ranging from live fire to classroom classes. A few of my friends delivered the following classes: Applications of Positive Pressure (Captain John Flynn), The Courage Within (Driver/Operator Ric Jorge), and Gauges Don’t Lie (Doug Watson).

My program was a compilation of a few of my previous lectures on crew resource management that address stress, situation awareness, decision making, and intentional command all rolled into one. I called it Arrival, Now What: The First Fifteen are the Most Important! Why are the first 15 minutes the most important? It’s simple, that’s where more things happen than we have time and resources to handle. This highly compressed time frame increases chaos that forces us to play catch up, and we have to be more aware of it and have a better approach to handle it. Following are some takeaways from my presentation, just to get you thinking.

Numerous “fireground frictions” impact impact the first fifteen minutes of an incident. Frictions are “uncertainties that complicate performance” and they include, but are not limited to, disorientation, extreme fire behavior, loss of situation awareness, task saturation, and command confusion. Watch the video below for information about how new materials and technologies that are making fire-related risks much greater and our challenges for more difficult.

How do we transform unproductive confusion and disorder into controllable challenges? We study the predictability and performance of buildings and today’s fireground, and we improve the skill of controlling chaos. New scientific studies are showing us (seeing can be believing) how our tactics sometimes help or hinder the situation. The video below shows how controlling the door can seriously impact a fire event, and can help us control the fire (watch the temperatures change).

To stay ready, we have to practice sensible approaches that improve situation awareness, reduce task saturation, and improve decision making in those highly compressed time frames. Here are some of the sources I used to make my point:

What other problems (frictions) can you identify in the first fifteen minutes of an incident? How do you transform unproductive confusion and disorder into controllable challenges? What are you doing to stay ready?

How Leaders Build Winning Teams

In his book Winning, Jack Welch says he found that some ways of leading always seem to work in creating a winning team. Her they are:

  1. Leaders relentlessly upgrade their team, using every encounter as an opportunity to evaluate, coach, and build self confidence.
  2. Leaders make sure people not only see the vision, they live it and breathe it.
  3. Leaders get into everyone’s skin, exuding positive energy and optimism.
  4. Leaders establish trust with candor, transparency, and credit.
  5. Leaders have the courage to make unpopular decisions and gut calls.
  6. Leaders probe and push with a curiosity that borders on skepticism, making sure their questions are answered with action.
  7. Leaders inspire risk taking and learning by setting the example.
  8. Leaders celebrate.

How do you build a winning team? What can you do today to build a better team?