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Pt. 2: The Art of War for Fire Service Leadership & Combat

           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 continuation of a series of articles exploring different parts of Sun Tzu’s writings and how they can apply to the “art of firefighting”.



Being prepared for all circumstances is what ensures certain victory, for it means you are fighting an enemy who is already beaten. A successful army first ensures invincibility, and only then engages the enemy. A vanquished army will have gone into battle first and only then looked for the means of victory. Thus a great soldier first places himself in an invincible position, and then ensures he does not miss the crucial opportunity to defeat the enemy.”- Sun Tzu, The Art of War.


            Victory against our enemy, the fire, does not happen when the bell hits or the pager tones go off. If you are going to be successful, that victory must be achieved in the hours, days, weeks, months and years before that moment. Some might say that we, as firefighters are here to respond to fires and other such emergencies. I say, that’s not exactly the case. The mission is not to respond to incidents, the mission is to be successful when responding to incidents, and to create the best outcome possible for the people who call us for help as well as those who we serve alongside and those we lead.

            Success on our battlefield, the fireground, is contingent on our preparation for battle. That preparation includes just about everything we do, including:

  • Training for the fight: Insure that your firefighters AND officers are ready to act by being armed with the knowledge, skills and abilities to achieve victory quickly and efficiently. A certification is great, but it’s only a piece of paper if it wasn’t acquired through the hard work, preparation and training necessary to really get better at what we do. Make sure that they not only know what to do and how to do it, but also where to do it, when to (and when not to) do it, and most importantly WHY they are doing it.

  • Weapons for the fight: This includes the tools, equipment and apparatus we use, starting with developing specifications and purchasing the right equipment. Make sure everything is acquired with a mind for how it can specifically help your particular department serve the needs of your particular community. Make sure you are buying it because it is simple, efficient, and effective, not because it is the manufacturer’s latest technological gimmick. Check the rig and the tools, and set everything up (nozzles, hose loads, pump, saws, ladders, etc) for success.

  • Physical preparation: Knowledge, skills and abilies, also include the ability to physically do the job, career or volunteer. What we do is dirty, difficult and dangerous and your fitness must match that challenge. Train to be functional, which is a combination of strength, cardiovascular and endurance.

  • Warrior mindset: In order to win, you must expect to show up and WIN. Be confident and be aggressive when and where it is appropriate. Have a vision of what a successful victory over the enemy looks like and focus your efforts to achieve it every time.

  • Successful culture: The culture of the organization must unite everyone and be mission-focused in everything it does and every decision it makes, every day. The members should be empowered to make good decisions, based on what is the right thing to do (the organization’s values), that are in the best interest of the customer, the community and the department, by fostering TRUST both up and down the chain of command. If leaders want to be able to trust their people to make good decisions, not just “follow the letter of the policies/rules”, their people have to be able to trust the leaders to support those good decisions. Trust is freeing and allows people to concentrate on the mission, not on the leader’s reactions. Without trust in the leadership people will only be concerned with doing whatever will keep them from getting in trouble with the person in power (notice I didn’t say “leader”). Don’t get stuck on stupid!

  • The right people: Recruit and hire for success. Talent, training, certifications, and previous experience are nice, but success and ultimately victory in your mission rests more with the choices and decisions your people will make than with anything else. What do they believe in? Is it what the organization believes in? Find and recruit people who have that winning, warrior mindset, who are enthusiastic about being a firefighter and are passionate about helping the organization, and everyone in it, reach their potential. Concentrate on hiring for character.


Victory happens before the fire, during our endless preparation, every day. This job is not about us, it’s about them…the ones who are relying on us to come and get them. In that moment we are often the best, last and only chance they have. BE READY FOR THAT MOMENT!


Tzu, S. (2012). The art of war. New York, NY: Chartwell Books.


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