As a fire officer, I often found myself feeling overwhelmed and ill-equipped to make sound decisions.

Am I the only one who struggles with this, or do we have an unrealistic expectation of how fire officers should make decisions under pressure?

Note: A version of this article was initially written for the Swedish fire service, it may not be relevant to you in your country.

I am not good enough

When I trained to become a crew commander, I was taught to analyze the situation, conduct a risk assessment, identify possible solutions, and select the optimal one.

The emphasis was placed on making well-considered decisions based on the current situation. It sounds very reasonable.

However, I was failing to live up to the expectations placed upon me. I made too many mistakes and seemed to miss even obvious clues to what was going on.

More knowledge made it worse

I tried to get a deeper understanding of firefighting. The more I learned, the more apparent it became that there are no absolute truths; all fires are unique.

“This realization further solidified the notion that all my decisions must be tailored to that specific situation.”

Gaining more knowledge also allowed me to look for more information during the incident. Yet, the urgency of the situation left me without enough time to gather and analyze those clues, forcing me to make quick decisions that I knew were not well-informed.

More knowledge only worsened my sense of inadequacy.

Setting goals require information

To ease the workload on my brain and improve coordination, I was taught to set clear goals. I should aim to set goals for specific groups, sectors, and the overall incident.

These goals empower individuals to make independent decisions about the details and relieve my brain for other tasks.

However, I most often felt that I lacked the time and information to create meaningful and actionable goals. Simply repeating the priority of saving lives before addressing property or the environment was not good enough.

Without proper goals the risk is confusion or even chaos in the incident response.

Stuck in a dilemma

I realized that I needed to revise my image of what is expected of myself as the first arriving crew commander. One of the first things I crossed off my own mental list was setting a goal for the incident.

“I was busy trying to figure out if there was a fire anywhere at all, let alone what it should look like when we go home.”

But there are too many things that needs to get done when arriving to a fire. Many of them are obviously bad and someone needs to do something about them. Like catching the child hanging from the balcony or spraying water on the fire in the window.

Each task is simple, the problem is that there are too many things to consider for one brain.

I couldn’t micromanage the firefighters, as I lacked the necessary information and time to do so effectively. Conversely, I couldn’t set goals for them either, as I didn’t have enough time or information to create meaningful and actionable goals.

I realized I was stuck in a frustrating dilemma.

Command does not extinguish fires

There are several reasons why we have fire officers, for example that someone needs to have a supervisory role. But you can’t talk a fire to death through command meetings and status reports, even if some people seem to think so.

What actually extinguishes fires are firefighters spraying water and working. It is not certain that command is even necessary to initiate and carry out operations.

When I looked back at my incidents I realized I was the bottleneck, and not the force for actions that I wanted to be.

Firefighters are not sheep

One of my great insights was that we had badly mistreated firefighters ability to act independently.

“We boasted about the Swedish firefighters ability to act independently during interior smoke diving, that our officers did not need to be inside directing like some foreign officers did.”

But at the same time, I was taught to gather the firefighters behind the fire truck when I arrived and tell them what to do. On the outside of the building, the firefighters were suddenly sheep that had to be led by the shepherd to avoid running away.

A completely horrible way to waste fully functioning brains, arms, and legs.

Frameworks create autonomy with control

Our interior smoke diving rules and training provide firefighters with a clear framework for what they can and cannot do within burning structures. This structured approach fosters independence and empowers firefighters to make sound judgments without constant supervision.

As a supervisor, I can anticipate the actions of my crew and ensure that our operations are coordinated and effective.

On the outside of a burning building, we also need frameworks that enable firefighters to work independently and efficiently. By establishing clear roles and responsibilities, we can minimize confusion, chaos, and potential hazards.

Set goals before the incident

It took a long time before I understood that goals could be created before the incident. I can create frameworks that outline what can and cannot be done in specific situations, and what goals are to be achieved.

These frameworks can either be automatically triggered upon arrival at an incident. Alternatively, they can be activated by a direct order from the commanding officer. Regardless of how they are initiated, the predetermined goals provides direction and autonomy to firefighters.

Don't disturb, the officer is thinking

Upon arrival, firefighters should work within the framework and try to do something about all the obviously wrong things they see. Extinguish flames through the window, close doors, ventilate stairwells.

It’s neither chaos nor dangerous, it’s effective.

“As an officer, I am busy trying to understand what is happening and what to do about it. I need time.”

Time to evaluate whether the frameworks that the firefighters are working with make sense or need to be adjusted. And time to possibly lead the firefighters in a new direction.

Don't throw the baby out with the bathwater

Swedish incident command does a lot right. We have (relatively) unpretentious and dynamic senior command. We understand that complex problems require many brains, and no single crisis general solves the problem effectively.

Command meetings, collaboration and setting goals during incidents are super important tools.

But we need to give first arriving officers better tools to work with. Something that relieve their brain to make better decisions and plan ahead.

One of those tools is more independent firefighters working within frameworks towards predetermined goals.

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