Harness the Power of Applied Fire Service Research

By Dan Kerrigan

The fire service is filled with Type-A personalities—doers, people that seek out difficult challenges and overcome them for a living. It’s in our DNA to solve problems under duress. We do some of our best problem-solving when we are under pressure. It’s exactly what our communities expect from us, and this approach works much of the time. One of the reasons for this is because we are usually addressing technical challenges.

We routinely revert to past experiences, training, knowledge, skills, abilities, and reliance on standard operating procedures or guidelines that have been put in place to help us safely and consistently manage these technical challenges. Where we sometimes get in trouble is when we try to solve an adaptive challenge with a technical fix, and this is why applied fire service research is so important.


Technical vs. Adaptive

Technical challenges are essentially things we can fix by referring to something known; people do it every day. We can look up the answer on the Internet. We can read the instructions. We can make a simple engineering change that solves the issue. For example, let’s say that over the past year, department personnel lost or misplaced 17 apparatus fuel caps, and the cost to replace these caps is becoming prohibitive. One possible solution would be to tether the caps to the apparatus. Another example would be if a flat tire. How do you fix that? You change the tire. If you do not know how to do it, there are many ways to find out by quickly researching it on the Internet, consulting a manual, or simply asking for assistance. These are technical problems; there are answers or solutions available that will alleviate the issue relatively quickly.

Adaptive challenges are different for many reasons. In their book Leadership on the Line: Staying Alive through the Dangers of Leading, Heifitz and Linsky (2002) describe adaptive challenges as those that “require experiments, new discoveries, and adjustments from numerous places in the organization or community.” Adaptive challenges can involve attitudes and perspectives; they correlate with the way people feel about things that affect them and their organization. Adaptive change takes people out of their comfort zone. Leading adaptive change is about discovering new solutions to difficult problems, and those solutions can create “disequilibrium.” Think for a moment about the ongoing Underwrites Laboratories (UL)/National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) fire flow path studies and the evolution of recommended tactics for extinguishing structure fires. This is not an issue that can be addressed by reading the instructions in a manual. It requires new thinking, experimentation, data collection and interpretation, and the willingness to be open to uncomfortable change in a profession that is deeply rooted in tradition and history.


Meaningful Change

When talking about adaptive change, we’re not just talking about the everyday mechanics of running a fire service organization; we’re not just talking about changing that tire. Al Gillespie, retired chief and instructor at the National Fire Academy (NFA), says, “We’re talking about changing hearts and minds.” We’re attempting to influence attitudes (either within your organization or outside of it), and when we go down that road, we’re not going to have much success if we try to apply quick, technical fixes. Just as the research UL and NIST are conducting is resulting in recommendations based on data that is reliable and replicable, you can do the same in your organization to solve complex problems as well.

In your organization, the challenge might be the fact that you do not have official job descriptions for your battalion chiefs, or it might be that you don’t know the best ways to integrate your command staff into an emergency operations center. It might focus on the implementation of a physical fitness program, a medical evaluation program for your personnel, or the analysis of factors that are contributing to a high injury or mortality rate in your jurisdiction from a specific incident type. It may even be that you need to convince an elected board of supervisors or commissioners to buy a particular piece of apparatus that you’ve never before needed. Regardless of the nature of the problem, your research should help you identify recommendations for change that are supported by the data you uncover. Your results may also identify information that may come as a surprise to you—information that conflicts with assumptions you may have made prior to the research. A good leader is someone that can accept and document these facts as well. We don’t know what we don’t know, and sometimes we make the mistake of thinking we do. Applied research can open your eyes to solutions that you might not have otherwise considered, regardless of your years of professional experience and personal leadership qualities.


Problem, Purpose, and Research Instruments

Take a step-by-step approach when conducting applied research. Remember, we’re trying to solve a complex issue for which there might not yet be a clear answer, so start with identifying the problem and the purpose of your research. The problem and purpose should be concise. What’s wrong, and what do you intend to do to solve it? Are you attempting to identify strategies, establish a program, evaluate a program or policy, or implement something new?  

Example One:  “Anytown City Fire Department” does not have an effective residential fire and safety code communication program. The purpose of the research is to identify innovative methods of communicating fire and safety code requirements to the residential population of Anytown City, USA.

Example Two:  Anytown City Fire Department personnel do not maintain and appropriate level fitness to execute their duties. The purpose of the research is to identify strategies to improve fitness in the Anytown City Fire Department.

Example Three:  Anytown City Fire Department’s current aerial apparatus does not meet the operational needs of the department and community. The purpose of the research is to evaluate options for aerial devices for the Anytown Fire Department.

The type of research you will do depends on your terminal objective. In the first example, the action research method would be indicated. In other words, your intent would be to produce a plan based on the results of the research. In the second and third examples, descriptive research would be used to gather data and make recommendations that would likely improve the current situation. Other common research types include evaluative and historical. You are less likely to use correlational, casual-comparative, and experimental. These types of research usually attempt to prove a hypothesis.

Once you have identified your problem and purpose, develop a few (usually 3-5) research questions that will help you address your problem. Questions might focus on what other departments are doing to address a similar issue, what your personnel think about a particular topic, or what elements you should include in your new program. The point is, you’ll be attempting to find out what other people think about your issue and find out what other people or organizations may have already done to solve similar challenges so that you might assimilate their ideas or rule them out.

Prior to conducting original research, it’s important to conduct a literature review. Although a literature review is not considered original research, there is an enormous amount of information out there at your fingertips. A good place to start is the Learning Resource Center (LRC) at the NFA. It contains thousands of applied research projects completed by your colleagues in addition to books, journals, periodicals, and other peer reviewed material. It’s likely that there is someone that has faced a similar problem in the past, so why not see what they did to solve it? You can also call the good people who work in the LRC at (301) 447-1030. They are always eager to help you find the information you need!

Your work does not have to use complex procedures like extensive scientific computer modeling or double-blind studies. Your research should be practical. It should include instruments that will best address the challenge you face or, more accurately, answer the research questions you have developed. Your original research instruments may be as simple as conducting interviews with officials from other departments that faced similar challenges or professionals that have knowledge or skill in a particular area such as human resources. It might involve asking your own personnel in the form of a questionnaire how they feel about a certain issue or grabbing a stopwatch, pen, and pad and conducting tests to determine what the most effective and repeatable means is to accomplish a certain task safely. Your research can also include pilot studies, analyses of existing data, focus groups, and other testing to determine reaction or opinion of a certain demographic.

Be creative in your quest for information, and document your results in detail. Most important, make sure that the procedures that you use are relevant to the problem you are addressing. Do your research instruments help you to answer your research questions? If they do, then your procedures will be effective in addressing the adaptive challenge you’ve identified (you’re not just going to get approval to purchase a tractor drawn aerial that exceeds the budgeted replacement amount by $250,000 simply because you know it is what works best operationally; you have to prove it with data).


Applying the Results

Once the research is complete and the results are documented, analyze the data, compare it with what you found in your literature review, and draw conclusions. In the end, your research should help you to develop recommendations on how to solve the problem you identified. There will be a lot of work left to do, but your recommendations, when based on verifiable data, should provide a road map on how to get there.

Your results should also provide you with data that you need to gain stakeholder support for initiatives about which you are passionate. We can no longer assume that we are untouchable because we are in the public safety business or assume that we will automatically get whatever we ask for; we are accountable for our actions and, when we need something, we must have reliable data to support that need.

Lastly, your results should offer suggestions on how future researchers might attack a similar problem. Although your research is typically meant to address a local organizational challenge, solid research often results in replication in other departments as well; therefore, your work may have much more of an impact to the fire service than you realize.

We can’t change attitudes, hearts, and minds like we change a tire. Applied fire service research can help us to bridge the gap between the present and the future, between what’s assumed and what’s fact. It helps us to discover new ways of operating that can’t be found in an instruction manual.

Don’t be intimidated by applied research. Embrace it as a tool to help you solve some of your most complex, adaptive problems. Your organization will be better off for it, your community will benefit from it and, if you’re lucky, you might even discover a solution to a problem that benefits the fire service on a national scale.



Heifetz R. A. and Linsky M. Leadership on the line: Staying alive through the dangers of leading. Boston, MA: Harvard Business School Press (2002).


Dan Kerrigan is a 28-year fire service veteran and an assistant fire marshal/deputy emergency management coordinator and department health and fitness coordinator for the East Whiteland Township Department of Codes and Life Safety in Chester County, Pennsylvania. Kerrigan is a graduate of the National Fire Academy’s Executive Fire Officer Program and holds a Master’s Degree in Executive Fire Service Leadership. He is a PA State Fire Academy Suppression Level Instructor as well as an adjunct professor at Anna Maria College and Immaculata University. Contact Kerrigan at dkerrigan@eastwhiteland.org or follow him on Twitter @dankerrigan2.


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