On the fireground, we are always gathering information. We need to know what is going on around us, because the only way we can make better decisions is by gathering more and better information. We do a 360 around the building. We read the smoke. We try to ascertain where the fire currently is, how extensive it is, where it is going and how quickly is it moving. We gather information about the building and how long it will stand being attacked by the fire before it collapses. A popular phrase for this process in the fire service these days is “Situational Awareness”. However, true situational awareness is not just the gathering of information; it is the gathering of information that is as close to accurate as we can get, and then utilizing that information to make sure our perception of what is really going on (reality) is as closely aligned as possible to reality. We are constantly seeking the truth. Our belief, or perception about what is going on, has no affect on altering or changing what is actually going on.
Our belief about whether or not the roof will hold up another ten minutes while we decide whether to withdraw the interior firefighters will not affect when the roof will actually fail. Our hope that the room we are searching will not flashover until the search is complete and we are out has no affect on when the room will actually flashover. It is therefore incumbent upon us as firefighters and officers to make sure that our perception of reality is as closely matched to reality as possible.
As individuals, we cannot see or be aware of everything, so we utilize all of the resources available to us to gather as much information as possible, including such things as thermal imaging cameras, information from bystanders or family members or pre-fire plans. A system called Crew Resource Management (CRM) emphasizes the effective use of your personnel to maintain situational awareness on the fireground. Through CRM, we make sure that our personnel are empowered to speak up when they have information that might be critical to the success of the mission, especially with regard to hazards. We even tell probationary firefighters that if they see something, they should say something. We want our firefighters to tell us what they see and what their interpretation of it is so that we can make better decisions.
While the major emphasis on situational awareness in the fire service usually centers on fireground operations, it is also extremely important for us as leaders to always be situationally aware of what is going on around us in our organization. In order for the leader to initiate a change or fix a problem, he/she must first know that the problem exists and have as much information as possible about the true nature of the problem. As on the fireground, we must also utilize CRM to maintain our organizational awareness. It is especially important for chief officers to be able to gather accurate information and feedback from those in the lower levels of the hierarchical chain of command. Chiefs, and especially the Fire Chief, may not know what is really going on out there in the fire stations or in the street. They may not be in a position to observe first hand the equipment or procedural problems that operational personnel are experiencing and they may be unaware of the morale or leadership problems that the organization is struggling with. The farther away a leader is from the reality of a situation or problem the harder it will be for them to be aware of it. A Fire Chief must surround him or herself with subordinates such as Assistant or Deputy Chiefs who are not only constantly seeking this information from other subordinates, but are also empowered by the Fire Chief to speak freely about the reality of the organization. Leaders must always be seeking the TRUTH, even if that truth is not good news and not something they really want to hear. Success of the organization depends on giving the leader not what they necessarily want to hear, but what they NEED to hear, and they need to hear the truth even before the problem becomes an issue requiring the leader’s attention.
During his time as the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and as Secretary of State, Gen. Colin Powell always had a standing rule for his staffs: “Let me know about a problem as soon as you know about it”. He believed that knowing he had a problem was important, but it was more important to start the process of finding a solution. He went on to say, “I always used that first notification to give the staff guidance about finding alternative solutions or about possibilities I didn’t want them to consider. This was guidance, not a final decision. I always made it clear that I would not leap off a cliff or jump to a solution while they were still determining the shape of the problem. But I still had to know about it. And I wanted all of it, not part of it. I wanted to hear all the bad. If they didn’t tell me, I risked hearing it from some outsider or tripping over it myself. They knew they didn’t want that to happen” (Powell, 2012).
It is incumbent upon the leader to make it clear to subordinates that when bad news comes up the chain of command, the messenger will not be shot upon delivery. It takes a lot of courage for a lieutenant, captain or battalion chief to bring news up the chain of command to the Fire Chief that the Chief’s pet project or favorite program is just not working, or that some other major problem exists in the organization. The only way subordinates will feel empowered to stand up and bring the truth about a problem forward is if they trust the leader. If the emperor, or in our case the Fire Chief is wearing no clothes, it takes a courageous individual to stand up and say so before the Chief walks out of the office in front of the troops. The only one who can create and foster this environment of trust is the leader. A fire department that does not have this kind of environment runs the risk of becoming an organization where everyone knows there is a horrible problem except for the leaders, or worse yet the leadership suspects there might be a problem but doesn’t want to know about it, and doesn’t want anyone else to know about it either, hoping it will just go away. Subordinates are forbidden to speak of the problem and everyone is told, “Problem? There’s no problem, now just go on about your business, everything is ok”. This may lead to what I call the “Tailspin Syndrome” like a passenger jet plane that is accelerating towards the ground with all engines on fire and the passengers (firefighters and officers) are all screaming in anticipation of the crash, yet the pilot (Fire Chief) is telling people if they look out the left side of the aircraft they can see the Grand Canyon and the flight attendants (Deputy/Assistant Chiefs) are calmly walking through the aisles asking each person if they would prefer chicken or fish for lunch while soft elevator music plays in the background.
A leader’s lack of organizational situational awareness can injure or kill a fire department just as sure as it can lead to the injury or death of a firefighter on the fireground. We must always be seeking the truth by creating and maintaining an environment of trust that will allow our personnel to bring that truth to us before it becomes a problem that is beyond our ability to fix or before it becomes tomorrow’s newspaper headline.
Powell, C. (2012). It Worked For Me: In Life and Leadership. New York, NY: Harper Collins Publishers.