Written 2,500 years ago by Sun Tzu, a general and strategist in ancient China (770-476 BCE), The Art of War consists of organizational and strategic planning to help an army achieve victory in battle. It continues to be relevant and is used in modern military study and increasingly being applied to business and leadership strategies.
This is the beginning of a series of articles exploring different parts of Sun Tzu’s writings and how they can apply to the “Art of Firefighting”.
“When planning victory according to my counsel, act according to the situation and make use of external factors. To act according to the situation is to seize the advantage by adapting one’s plans. A victorious leader plans for many eventualities before the battle; a defeated leader plans for only a few. Many options bring victory, few options bring defeat, no options at all spell disaster”- Sun Tzu, The Art of War.
Strategic and tactical decisions on the fireground should be based on the situation found, such as the building, fire and smoke conditions and how quickly they are changing or growing, the likelihood of victims in danger, etc. The incident should drive the decisions and the structure of the incident command system developed to deal with it. The situation being faced also includes “external factors” that should be factored into fireground decisions, such as resources immediately available and those still coming, resource and personnel capabilities, available water supply, weather, (i.e.: wind, etc). Our ability to quickly assess and understand the situation and those external factors will dictate how we make decisions.
If “few options bring defeat, and no options at all spell disaster”, then arguably two of the most dangerous words on the fireground are “Always” and “Never”, as in, “We NEVER enter or search a vacant house or building”. That statement has not been based on the situation found. It doesn’t take into consideration many factors or as they may be called, pieces of the puzzle, such as:
Is it vacant because it’s condemned or because it’s been newly remodeled and is for sale?
Is there an advanced fire present and spreading quickly throughout the structure, or light smoke only showing from an upstairs window? What’s on fire up there, a mattress or pile of trash still in the incipient phase?
Are there neighbors telling you that kids often play in the vacant house, or that they were seen entering shortly before the fire was noticed?
The same goes for a statement on the other end of the spectrum such as, “We ALWAYS go offensive with a 1 ¾” line through the front door at every fire”. These are automatic decisions that were made long before the fire, any fire, started. They can be etched in policy stone or standard operating procedures, but they eliminate options. “Many options bring victory, few options bring defeat, no options at all spell disaster”
The best incident commander, at any rank, arrives with an open mind and many options available and being actively considered. He/she assesses the incident, what’s in danger and the risk, puts as many pieces of the puzzle together to develop the best picture possible of what’s really happening, and makes GOOD decisions, not AUTOMATIC decisions.
But this can only happen when the organization and its leaders ensure that those arriving incident commanders, at any rank, have the training, experience and most importantly the empowerment, support and trust to enable them to make good decisions. People who don’t feel that they are empowered, supported and trusted by the organization’s leaders will only be worried about making sure they don’t get in trouble with the Chief, and will therefore play it safe and always opt for making the easy policy-based automatic decision. When that automatic decision turns out bad, and the Chief asks them why they did what they did, they will be able to point to the “always do this” or “never do that” written policy and say, “Because you told me to”.
We also have to ensure that not only can those good decisions be made, but that they can be acted upon. Those options the IC arrives with are only available to be put into play if our personnel arriving on those responding apparatus have the right staffing, equipment, training, knowledge, skills, abilities and winning attitudes to make them viable and effective options.
Tzu, S. (2012). The art of war. New York, NY: Chartwell Books.