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.

Our Mission Statement in 4 Short Sentences

Photo by Kim Fitzsimmons

Photo by Kim Fitzsimmons

Like most fire departments, we have a kind of sterile mission statement that’s enclosed in a picture frame or found at the bottom of our letterhead. In short, it focuses on these five areas: employee health and safety, customer relations, quality, efficiency, and recently we added fiscal sustainability (not a bad idea in today’s crazy economic world).

I believe in our mission, but also think it’s too long and doesn’t carry a punch. So, for better clarity, and a little more impact, here’s what I preach to the troops, in 4 short sentences:

Be safe. Be a master at what you do. Be professional. And, be nice.

Here’s a little more detail on each one:

  • Be Safe. Respond safely, work safely, and train safely. Follow your policies and standard operating procedures, and execute them safely and effectively. Stay aware of everything. Watch over your brothers and sisters and have their back. Speak up when you need to, and say it right. Continue to maintain the readiness of your safety equipment, and use it properly when you’re supposed to. Practice personnel accountability, all the time; and know where you are at all times.
  • Be a master a what you do. Don’t just settle for competence, be a master at what you do. You have to, because people are counting on you. Stay physically fit, because your work involves great physical exertion. Stay mentally fit. Be a continuous learner; read books, go to conferences, and get a college education. Cultivate your powers of observation and have inquiring minds. Know WHY and HOW to do things, not just what to do. Communicate effectively and often. Have the initiative and will to keep going. Be disciplined and follow orders. Constantly train for readiness and improvement. Arrive on scene ready and prepared to help. Always look back at what you did and ask, HOW can I do it better next time?
  • Be Professional. Be courageous, but calm. Be patient, because it can be difficult dealing with people who are in a state of considerable stress (sometimes, including your brothers and sisters). Practice a positive image everywhere, all the time. Consider every person a customer, especially the other members of your Department, the support people, and the administrative staff. Maintain your fire house, your truck, and your equipment in a constant state of readiness; and do it with pride in appearance. Maintain pride in your appearance and wear your uniform proudly. Get involved and provide ideas to make the job easier, safer, and more enjoyable for all of us.
  • And last, but most important, be nice. You’re in the people business, so be nice to everyone you encounter. Behave and work with your peers, not against them. Be a servant to others, because it’s the true calling of the fire service. Practice compassion and consideration for everyone, including customers, bystanders, family members, and fire department members; show that you care. Treat each other and the public with respect. Help people and do a little more.

These are my four simple suggestions for a mission. If each of us makes an effort to follow these, we will have a safe and rewarding career.

What’s your simple mission?

Daily safety inspections must become a ritual, not just a requirement.

See on Scoop.it – read here on Controlling Chaos

Billy M Schmidt‘s insight:

Our safety gear and equipment are our tools to do the demanding work that we do: save lives and protect property. They are also our lifelines. The coats, pants, boots, gloves, hood, and helmet we wear protect us from the elements. Our SCBA provides the air we need to do the work and get out, and our radios connect us to the outside for information and when we need help. Why wouldn’t we know everything about them, every day? Daily safety inspections must become a ritual, not just a requirement. Read here from NearMissMatters about the importance of inspecting your lineline tools every day.

See on www.firefighternearmiss.com

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?

Are You Ready for a Rapid Intervention Event?

My March 2012 column at Fire Rescue Magazine on FirefighterNation: Forming a rapid intervention committee allows fire departments to focus on awareness, readiness and response to mayday events. By Billy Schmidt Published Thursday, March 15, 2012.

On the fireground, what makes things real for you as a firefighter? What gets your heart racing, your blood pumping? Fire and angry, black smoke surrounding the house on arrival? Bystanders on the scene screaming that someone is still inside? Or the sound of “mayday, mayday!” over the radio at the height of an operation? Any of these can put your brain into overload—naval aviators call this “helmet fire.” Everything you experience during stressful situations will tax your ability to handle the crisis—but a mayday call will take you to your limit. So ask yourself this question: Whether you’re the downed firefighter calling the mayday, a member of the rapid intervention crew (RIC) responding to it or the incident commander trying to get control of it, are you really ready to handle it?

Are you ready? Read more here.

Rapid Intervention Roundtable at HEAT Conference 2012

Photo by Tim Olk

2012 South Florida HEAT Conference

Hosted by the Fire Training Officers of the Palm Beaches

Rapid Intervention Realities Roundtable

The sound of “Mayday, Mayday” heard over the radio will bring a sense of uneasiness and urgency to everyone on the fire ground. One of our own is in trouble. Is your fire department ready to manage an incident where firefighters transmit a Mayday?

Where does your fire department stand with rapid intervention team (RIT) operations? Many changes have taken place since RIT was first introduced, but how has your fire department RIT operation changed? Do you have RIT policies and procedures that are accepted and used? Do you provide realistic training for firefighter assist and survival? Do you have adequate staffing and resources, and relationships with other response agencies that will assist you with your RIT operations? Is your command staff ready to manage the risk and make the decisions to successfully control a Mayday incident?

District Chief Billy Schmidt (PBCFR) will host a roundtable chat on rapid intervention realities across Palm Beach County. Members of the Rapid Intervention Group will discuss RIT policies and procedures, practices, staffing and resources, and command and control. The Group will share its mission and intent to help fire departments in Palm Beach County raise the awareness of prevention, heighten the state of readiness, and strengthen the level of rapid intervention response.

Come and listen as they discuss their research into the following:

  • The impact of NFPA 1407
  • How to prevent unsafe conditions that may cause firefighters to become lost, trapped or injured on the fire ground
  • How to build knowledgeable, well-trained Rapid Intervention Teams
  • How to get Command and RIT working on the same page
  • How to get a fire department ready to respond to the unthinkable: A Mayday

The Rapid Intervention Group includes members from most Palm Beach County Fire Departments and is working to develop a fully comprehensive rapid intervention program through a collaborative partnership and a solution-centered approach that focuses on “fire-ground firefighter safety” as the highest priority.

Start Before You're Ready!

Nike was right, we should “just do it!” Resistance is a huge roadblock in the path of our progress. It prevents us from bringing ideas to life or sometimes just plain having fun. Steven Pressfield knows this and that’s what his recently released book, Do the Work, is all about. The book begins with this, “On the field of the Self stand a knight and a dragon. You are the knight. Resistance is the dragon.”

I downloaded a Kindle version of the book and read it fast, just as Seth Godin suggested in the Forward (Godin also talks on his blog about how ‘shipping,’ delivering work on a deadline, is key to success). Then I purchased it on iTunes and listened to SP read his own words; even better.

Go here to read more from Pressfield about staying stupid, trusting the soup, and starting before you’re ready.

Build a Relationship and Trust Will Come

Photo by Tim Olk

Photo by Tim Olk

Trust. You know when you have it, and you know when you don’t. How do we define trust in a team or an organization? How do we build it, and then maintain it? Trust is more important today because of the rapidly changing and challenging world we live in.

Trust creates opportunity. It promotes effective communication, increases motivation, and creates synergy (1+1>2) in teams and organizations that lead to safer and more effective actions. Everything is easier when teams and organizations have trust.

Real trust allows for a state of readiness in teams and organizations because members experience a sense of safety and confidence in each other. Do you have trust on your team, in your organization? If yes, how can you strengthen and maintain it? If not, how do you build it?

Build a relationship first, and trust will come.

Of Related Interest:

Relationship Before Opportunity. Dan Rockwell, The Leadership Freak
How to Build (or Rebuild) Trust. Michael Hyatt, Intentional Leadership

FireGroundWorks: Are You Ready?

Photo by Tim Olk

Is your fire department ready? Do you build well-trained firefighters into well-trained teams? Do you develop firefighters and teams that think and operate in complex environments? Have you prepared your fire department to be ready for anything, at anytime and at any intensity level? If not, then why not? What’s stopping you?

Dramatic changes in the world demand that the fire service be ready for anything. Several factors affect a fire department’s ability to be ready, and the right training strategy is crucial to addressing these new challenges.

The real question is: How do we train (condition) everyone to be ready for any situation, and to be more decisive, deliberate, and correct in their actions?

Firegroundworks was created to help fire departments get ready. FGW explores the fire service, studying, writing, and speaking on how firefighters think and how they behave, and finding ways to help them perform better. The focus is on adaptive leadership and sensemaking through situational awareness, rapid decision-making, task management, and teamwork. At the end of the day, technology is cool, but firefighters still need to bring thinking to action. It’s all about being ready, and that’s what FireGroundWorks is all about.

Are you Ready? Follow FireGroundWorks for articles, videos, podcasts, and links for readiness on the fire ground.