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The Obligation of Preparation, Trust, and Empowerment: You Do Your Job, and Let Me Do Mine.

“It is our obligation to prepare our crews to perform on the fireground with intent and excellence prior to engaging the enemy, and then to trust and empower them to execute when the time comes.”

 

Hello, my name is Kaci. I love fighting fire (and I’m good at it).

I would like to invite you to dig in to the statement at the top of this page with me, and then do a full-on, introspective status check as to our own philosophies on our roles as officers. Do you agree with the statement? If so, how do we accomplish it? Could it really be this simple? Are we there? If you don’t agree, why?  There are a lot of questions sprinkled throughout, and they aren’t rhetorical. They are meant as discussion points for you to bravely and openly and honestly ponder, both to yourself, and among your crews. This isn’t about strategy and tactics. This is about ethos.

A brief history about me… I’ve been in the fire service for almost 13 years. I’m a company officer who also has the opportunity at times to step in as an acting shift officer, which also affords a decent amount of incident command experience.  I don’t get a fire every shift, or even every month. I don’t have the “luxury” of hemorrhaging unlimited resources toward a fire. I can’t staff any single line with six people, and I can’t (and won’t) deck gun 6,000 gallons of water at a residence. Hell, I may not even have more than a thousand gallons of water or four firefighters until 20 minutes in.

Here’s what I can tell you about that: I wouldn’t change it. Yes, you read that right.

Why? The simplest explanation is that, because of the things listed above, I have the true luxury of operating with the calm, clear mindset of lethal simplicity and informed aggression. I have to remove the million variables, unicorns, and “what-ifs” we all love to cram into every discussion. I have to quiet the swirling chaos and minutia of years of catch-phrases and complex, verbose, flawed algorithms that mighta made sense after a few decades of misapplication, a few well-intended textbooks, a few games of telephone, and a few beers. I have to remove the suffocating and blinding filters of success bias and be open to the obvious answers. I have to know - KNOW - what is available to me and when, and how to use it. If I have the nerve to put on my uniform when I get to the station, I have to know how to put out fire.

The thing is, the fact that the fire goes out isn’t good enough; it will never be, for any of us. All fires will self-mitigate in time. I don’t have the right to measure successful operations in that manner, and neither do you. “I’ve seen it work,” is a flawed metric for any pragmatic conversation, so let’s go ahead and leave that one at the door now. 

The good news is, there really are simple answers to a lot of the dilemmas we face. So much so that it starts to feel unnaturally easy, and that somehow subconsciously feels almost wrong. Occam’s Razor discusses (and I paraphrase) the concept that the simplest answer is probably the right one, i.e., if it walks like a duck and talks like a duck… So can we be open to the possibility that hazard mitigation on the fireground really doesn’t have to be as hard as we sometimes make it? And that *gasp* maybe we have been unintentionally convoluting our own methods and practices by adding unnecessary language, miracle 82-function combo tools, misapplied tactical concepts, and catch phrases. We scratch our heads and wonder why “Stuff just didn’t work like it was supposed to on that last fire.” Are we programming ourselves into thoughtless regurgitated algorithms that, ironically, require far too much thought, while shifting the focus off of the crux of the matter? Isn’t our job to make the fire go out, regardless of our insistence on two-minute arrival reports?

Being a member of the fire service, I am well aware of our innate collective and individual penchant for dying on inconsequential hills for the sole purpose of crowning ourselves “RIGHT” and arguing over nothing until our faces are red and swear words become involved, so I’d like to kick this off with some stuff on which we can all agree.

 

We’ll start with the much-exalted, highly-prized, oft-regarded-as-impossible concept of Universal Truths. Another way to describe them could be “simple and obvious statements”. There are actually things almost all of us agree on, things like:

  • Fire’s hot.
  • Water puts out fire. Skillfully applied water puts out fire better.
  • Faster skillful water makes the fire go out faster.
  • We need to be good at skillful water before we show up to the fire.
  • The more interruptions we add to skillful water getting where it should go, the longer it takes for the fire to go out.
  • We need to avoid unnecessary interruptions.
  • The root cause of civilians dying at structure fires is because, there was a fire. We should probably make that go away.

 

Not bad, huh? Well, now that we’re all holding hands, let’s tempt fate and shake it up a little. 

Back to the original statement:

“It is our obligation to prepare our crews to perform on the fireground with intent and excellence prior to engaging the enemy, and then to trust and empower them to execute when the time comes.”

Is that not the very embodiment of simplicity? Teach them how, teach them well, and then let them - trust them - to do their jobs when it matters the most. When we’re called up to the Big Show, you do your job, and let me do mine. I got this.

Yeah, it sounds easy, and dare I say, obvious. But is that where we are really at? Anecdotally, maybe not as often as we should be. So ask yourself, as a former or current line firefighter, have you ever been inside of a building, part of a crew actively engaged in fighting fire, and found yourself having to stop what you are doing in order to acknowledge insistent, repeated, task-level micromanagement from someone outside on a radio, or almost constant requests for situation updates, and all you could think was, “Let me do my JOB!”?

And isn’t that part of the disconnect? Let’s get totally real and ask ourselves more of those potentially difficult questions, for instance:

  • If I’m running a structure fire incident and assigning tactical objectives to my crews, and I am consistently finding myself feeling the overwhelming need to micromanage every task-level action of my interior crews, why is that? Do I not trust them enough to do their job? Did I not prepare them? If I have not prepared them, have I done my job? If I don’t think they are ready, why am I sending them in? Or is it that I cannot, cannot, give up even a modicum of control? If I’m busy micromanaging how they do their job during the incident, how can I do mine?

Real talk. Say I send my son to the store in my car. If I feel the irrepressible need to call him on the phone every four seconds to instruct him how to use his turn signal, I probably won’t hand him the keys in the first place, yeah? I don’t want him to kill anyone else, and I don’t want him to be killed. Either he isn’t, or I’m not, ready yet. And I certainly wouldn’t be the one to have given him the instruction to hit the Wally to begin with. I’ll prepare him first. I’ll sit in the passenger seat on a sunny day in an empty parking lot, barking in his ear incessantly, and we’ll wear holes in the pavement with the wheels of the car at about two miles an hour. And if he progresses, and manages to steer clear of people and lampposts, I’ll take him on the street next time. Then we’ll go at night. And then in the rain. I’ll put him through the paces ad nauseam until I trust him to do it without me. That’s my job, right? Common sense says I’m not gonna tell him a couple of stories, toss him the keys to the BMW, and send him out on the Autobahn while I yammer on speaker phone from my sunroom and tell him how to do a head check. When the time does come, I will have given him everything he needs in order to be successful. I will have given him the knowledge, the skills, the practice, the preparation, the tools, the objective, the trust, and the time to get it done. Then, and only then, will he shove off in a rain storm and effectively and efficiently bring me back the best damned head of lettuce in the place. Doesn’t mean I won’t worry; it’d be unnatural if I didn’t. He’ll never be the best he can be if I never take off the training wheels, and the less I bug him while he’s doing it, the more time he has to focus on the objective.

But isn’t that what we do sometimes? Fail to prepare our people and send them where they’re not ready to go when it gets real? Or, fail to trust our people and our preparation enough to let them do their job? Fail to trust ourselves to have done a good job getting them ready? Fail to realize when we aren’t able to bring ourselves to release the need to control every part of every incident, and as such, fail to let them do their jobs while simultaneously failing to do ours?

We’re all theoretically older and wiser than the kid learning to drive, right? So, if we are indeed falling short, why do we fail to recognize and rectify this on what is sometimes such an exceptionally grand scale? Why do we fail to prepare our crews to perform on the fireground with intent and excellence prior to engaging the enemy? Why do we fail to trust and empower them to execute when the time comes?

 

“It is our obligation to prepare our crews to perform on the fireground with intent and excellence prior to engaging the enemy, and then to trust and empower them to execute when the time comes.”

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