Crew Resource Management For The Fire Service


Crew Resource Management (CRM) is a force multiplier-that is to say, it acts to energize and synergize elements that already exist in the individual and multiplies them so that a “whole is greater than the sum of its parts.”1 Originally employed in the aviation industry, the concepts of crew resource management can be applied to the fire service to achieve greater efficiency and safety.

Generally, CRM refers to the effective use of all available resources, people, equipment, time, and information. By effectively using these resources to their fullest potential, all of the talents of all of the people and equipment associated with a fire can be used more effectively and efficiently. More efficient use of resources enhances safety, suppression, and the crew’s morale.


In the late 1970s, an L-1011 crashed in the Florida Everglades when the flight crew became preoccupied with changing a burnt-out nose landing gear indicator lamp. While the crew members were all working on changing the indicator lamp, they failed to notice that the altitude hold function had been accidentally disengaged, and the plane simply flew into the ground, killing all on board.2

In the same month, a B-737 crashed while attempting a go-around on an approach from Chicago’s Midway Airport. The crew became preoccupied because the flight data recorder light became inoperative, and they lost track of where they were. On the initial approach, the crew deployed speed brakes because the plane was going too fast, was too high, and was not configured for landing. The pilot decided to go around. However, as a result of extreme time pressure, he forgot to deactivate the speed brakes and crashed the airplane.3 These two crashes served as a wake-up call to the airline industry.

For many years prior to these two incidents, the cause of crashes was equipment failure. But as the equipment became more and more reliable, it became apparent that the human animal was also a cause of accidents in the air. Under the leadership of Robert Helmreich from the University of Texas, Richard S. Jensen from Ohio State University, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, the Federal Aviation Agency, the air carriers, and others, uncounted hours of research and millions of dollars were spent developing the CRM program. It optimized a crew’s interactions in times of high stress and little information when the lives of many people are at stake.

The CRM programs originally developed for the aviation industry have evolved so they are now used in hospital operating rooms, on battlefields, and in corporate boardrooms.


The fire service now finds these proven concepts knocking at its door. Equipment is becoming more and more reliable. Firefighting techniques and strategies are becoming scientifically honed, and new technologies for firefighter safety are being brought to the market daily. At the same time, firefighter fatalities and injuries on the emergency scene have plateaued. With all the new technology on the market, why is it, then, that firefighter fatalities have not significantly decreased?

Although we have developed a new and in-depth understanding of fire and our equipment has become more and more reliable, we have not focused on the most important machine on the fireground-the human machine. The lessons learned by the aviation industry are the future of firefighter training.

Presently, several initiatives are moving forward to adopt CRM principles for the fire service. The International Association of Fire Chiefs established a top-level team from the aviation industry, the International Association of Fire Fighters, and command officers from all types of fire departments to study the application of CRM to the fire service.

After the violent deaths of 14 firefighters on Storm King Mountain in Glenwood Springs, Colorado, in 1994, a movement was begun to study the human factors affecting wildland firefighters. The third phase of the federally mandated Tri-Data study “Wildland Firefighter Safety Awareness” adopts 86 goals and more than 200 specific recommendations for improving the organizational culture, leadership, human factors, and external influences that affect wildland firefighter safety.4 All of the federal wildland firefighting agencies were involved-the Bureau of Land Management, United States Forest Service, Bureau of Indian Affairs, United States Fish and Wildlife, National Park Service, and National Association of State Foresters.

Recently, the National Wildfire Coordinating Group has developed an introductory training program on CRM principles for the line firefighter. Finally, the Campbell County (WY) Fire Department has adopted a CRM program. With the successful adoption of these programs, it will not be long until CRM principles filter into all phases of emergency services.


A properly structured CRM program focuses on changing individual behaviors so that the group of individuals can operate more effectively as a team. CRM is designed to optimize the interpersonal interaction to facilitate problem solving, decision making, situational awareness, and team building. The elements of a CRM course are situational analysis, communications, leadership, followership, and decision making.

Situational Analysis

Situational analysis is the skill of becoming aware of the situation as it actually exists. Usually, there is a huge difference between how someone perceives the situation and how it actually exists. Situational awareness training teaches the skills necessary to use resources to determine how the situation actually exists and, more importantly, teaches the signs and symptoms that signify that situational awareness is being lost.

The firefighting community does a good job of teaching its firefighters which dangerous situations to look for on the fireground. Firefighters are given extensive training on the nature of fire, building construction, and the risks on the fireground. But even with all that training, accidents and deaths still occur as a result of a breakdown of the human machine. This breakdown is predictable and controllable, and it is time for the fire service to take control of the wiring inside the human brain to prevent injury and death.

Firefighter CRM training should include not only the dangerous situations firefighters should avoid but also the clues that point to the loss of situational analysis. Factors like complacency, high stress level, ambiguous instructions, unresolved discrepancies, lack of experience, lack of communication or coordination, fatigue, lack of adequate weather information, emotional pressure, fixation, and just a bad-gut feeling are clues that situational awareness is being lost.

The firefighter should be taught that when these elements start to arise, it is time to take a step back and evaluate what the situation is and what the plan will be if things start to go wrong. Periodically, throughout any operation, the firefighter should ask the following:

  • Am I aware of what is going on around me?
  • Are things happening as they are supposed to be happening? If not, why?
  • If things should go wrong, what is the plan?
  • Does the leader know the answers to all of these questions?

If the answers to the above questions are unsatisfactory, all firefighters should be given the authority to completely stop any operation in which they are participating until satisfactory answers to the questions can be given.


As emergency workers, we depend on a system of communications-not actual hands-on systems like radios, repeaters, and so on, but the way we communicate. We should have systems that deal with how, what, and when this transfer of information takes place. Keep in mind that all the equipment in the world won’t cure a bad communicator. CRM has addressed a system of communications that includes inquiry, advocacy/challenging, listening, conflict resolution, and critique. This is the basis of all cockpit communications among pilots, and it now has been adapted to the fire service.

  • Inquiry. In the wildland fire environment, we gather information many different ways. We feel what the weather is doing, we look at the flame lengths, and we hear the winds and fire. We also look to other firefighters to build our information base. Never be embarrassed to ask a question, regardless of your level of training or rank. What you don’t know could kill you. Your pride will often be restored when fellow firefighters reinforce information or correct misinformation and they will respect you even more for asking them for input. To clarify an order or an expected action is always a right of any firefighter at any level. If I don’t understand what I’m supposed to do, how am I supposed to do it?
  • Advocacy. This is the part that makes everyone nervous. For years we’ve been told or have told someone else, “Don’t talk back to me.” Now, we’re changing the rules of the game and are saying that individuals who disagree with a decision (course of action) should advocate their position. We must do this respectfully. A skilled firefighter knows that he doesn’t have all the information or the proper perspective on the incident all the time. Therefore, he should expect some feedback on decisions. In fact, in the last discussion our department had regarding advocacy, numerous command officers expressed personal concern that firefighters didn’t feel they could advocate their position.
  • Feedback/monitoring. The process involves keeping track of your actions. This is especially important after an inquiry or advocacy statement or discussion. If you make a mutual decision and nobody monitors the outcome or the process, it is very likely that the outcome will not turn out as expected.
  • Conflict resolution. Conflict is a normal part of group interaction. All personnel in the team must expect that conflict will occur, even on highly organized and effective teams. The number one item to remember is what is right, not who is right. Respectful interaction and rational thinking, void of any inappropriate influences (such as race, culture, religion, personal feelings, and so on), will lead to a successful resolution of any conflict.

For example, you are at a wildland fire and notice a large column of smoke just over a small rise. The terrain and the wind could push that fire right up to where you and your partner have your truck. You call your Division and ask what is happening (inquiry). He states that they started a back-line operation. You speak up and tell the Division that you are between the main fire and the set fire (advocacy). Division says he’s not sure where you are but that you should be all right. You state that you are in a difficult spot and the fire is going to come your way because of the terrain and the winds (advocacy). Division still says that it should probably be all right. You state that you feel that if you stay there you will be trapped because of the access and the fire behavior and that you’ll be pulling back to a safe area (advocacy, self-directive). After you state that you are leaving your assignment, it finally sinks in to the Division that you are not comfortable. He tells you that he is stopping the back-line operation and that you should be all right if you stay where you are. You agree and stay. Fifteen minutes later, you still see a large column of smoke (monitoring). You call Division and ask if he can see it and what’s going on (challenging). He states that they just had to finish up this little corner and that they are almost done. You get in your truck and leave immediately.


The militaristic methods of “I command, and you just shut up and do it” do not provide for the complexities we see today-especially in the fire service. As a matter of fact, one of the leading war-fighting agencies in the world is now training to the exact opposite. The United States Marines Corps is training its personnel to discuss objectives instead of giving “orders.” This is called “Mission Emphasis.” The teams are allowed to perform what they call an “OODA Loop”-Observation, Orientation, Decision, and Action. Allowing teams to make decisions to meet a mission objective results in a quicker OODA Loop, which translates into victory on the battlefield. Basically, the Marine Corps has decentralized its command structure and given leadership responsibilities to its working teams instead of its “brass.”

In a world and a profession full of shifting paradigms, it is essential that we use CRM to encourage and support the leaders in the fire organization. With so many duties, so much training, the increasing complexity of incidents, the continued request for more services, and dwindling time for any of it, we must support leadership in an entirely different way than we have in the past. As members of a fire organization, we must all adopt the philosophies of CRM leadership.

Effective leadership is at the heart of CRM. Each member of the fire organization must realize that he has a leadership responsibility that is important to effective decision making, incident stabilization, and safety. No matter what role or position you occupy in the incident, you must learn to become a leader and to perform as a leader. Most people believe that leaders are born, not made. That is untrue in many respects. Many “great leaders” are in the right place at the right time and at the particular situation that fits their dominant leadership style.

A leader is a person whose ideas and actions influence the thoughts and behaviors of others. This is accomplished through the use of examples, persuasion, and an understanding of the goals.

Effective leadership on the fireground is one of the keys to safely accomplishing the firefighting mission. Utilization of all of the team’s talents and resources through leadership is the heart of CRM training. But a leader is only as effective as the followers.


How to become an effective follower is perhaps the area in which members of the fire service are given the least training. Recently, we conducted training for a department in which 80 percent of the junior firefighters said they would not report a dangerous condition to command, even though it might affect firefighter safety. Ninety-five percent of the command officers developed ulcers. The reason for failure to report was that the junior firefighters believed command already knew and did not want to hear input from a junior firefighter.

The aviation industry has found that junior officers on flight crews tend to wait too long to report dangerous situations and that when they do report, they tend to either overestimate or underestimate the consequences.

We have found this situation to be true in the departments to which we have offered training. Followership training teaches a junior firefighter how to maintain situational awareness and to speak up when a dangerous situation is developing. Followership training spreads the responsibility for outcomes from the leader to the whole crew and teaches how to regulate the information flow so that important information gets to the command officer and extraneous information is weeded out.

The effective follower should complete a thorough self-examination, including a physical condition (illness or physical conditioning), mental attitude (Am I prone to hazardous attitudes that will get me in trouble?), psychological conditions (Do I have any personal problems that will interfere with my performance?), and an evaluation of the leader for the same conditions. Additionally, the good follower needs to be adept at receiving and interpreting information and instructions, teamwork skills, and making decisions in conjunction with others.

Finally, the follower should be trained in the communications skills necessary to interact with a leader, the advocacy/feedback/conflict resolution communication model explained above. The follower should have enough information and training to recognize the leader’s authority but also to question decisions and point out critical pieces of information to the leader. By using the leader’s eyes, ears, and brains and by effective use of the follower, the team becomes synergistically more efficient and effective.

Decision Making

As more research is conducted, more accidents and incidents are investigated, and people attempt to accomplish more on the fireground, we are beginning to understand that our old way of looking at how people make decisions is probably wrong. Many new theories are being applied to firefighters and other high-risk professionals. Most notably is the Theory of Naturalistic Decision Making (NDM).

“The study of NDM asks how experienced people, working as individuals or groups, in dynamic, uncertain, and often fast-paced environments, identify and assess their situation, make decisions and take actions whose consequences are meaningful to them and to the larger organization in which they operate.”5

In “A Recognition-Primed Decision Model of Rapid Decision Making,” G. Klein describes the problem situation as having four important characteristics: dynamic and continually changing conditions, real-time reactions, ill-defined goals and tasks, and knowledgeable participants.6

We must train our firefighters to use their training and experience to first judge one critical factor-time pressure. Many times firefighters make decisions based on NDM because of a perceived lack of time, when, actually, they had enough time to gather more information, come up with options, and discuss the decision with peers. Many decisions are made “from the hip” because of the perceived time constraints. But, when time pressures are real, NDM is a great idea.


CRM has been mandated by law for the aviation industry. The time has come for these aviation principles to be adopted by the fire service. However, for that to happen, a whole new mind set and organizational culture will need to be instilled from the top down. Modifying an organization’s leadership style from military and authoritarian to team leadership takes extensive training and a courageous release of control by those in command. The time for the application of the old saying “Only the lead dog has a good view” to the fire service has come and gone. The fire service needs to take on a new and tried approach that takes advantage of the entire team’s skills and senses, not just those of the leader. Leaders must buy into the concepts of CRM completely if these principles are to be successfully adopted.

The time for CRM application to the fire service has come. Additional delays will cost lives and property.


  1. Major Tony T. Kern, e-mail to CRM Developers Group, April 17, 1998.
  2. Lauber, 1986. “Cockpit resource management: background and overview.” In Cockpit Resource Management Training, H. Orlady & H. Foushee, eds., National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) Conference, Washington, D.C., Publication 2455, 1986.
  3. Ibid., 7.
  4. Wildland Firefighter Safety Awareness Study, Phase III, Tri-Data Corporation, 1998.
  5. Zsambok, C. E., “Naturalistic Decision Making: Where are we now?” In Naturalistic Decision Making, C.E. Zsambok & G. Klein, eds. (Mahwah, N.J.: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, 1996).
  6. Klein, A., “A Recognition-Primed Decision (RPD) Model of Rapid Decision Making,” In Decision Making in Action: Models and Methods, A. Klein, J. Orasanu, R. Calderwood & E. Zsambok, eds. (Norwood, N.J.: Ablex, 1993).

THOMAS Lubnau II, B.S. Fin., J.D., has been a member of the Campbell County (WY) Fire Department since 1990 and is a founding member of Lubnau, Bailey and Dumbrill, PC, a Wyoming law firm, which represents fire departments and hospitals throughout Wyoming. He has the following certifications: Fire Officer I, Fire Apparatus Operator, Hazardous Materials Technician, EMT-Basic, and Fire Instructor III and has been an instructor at several conferences on legal issues in the fire service-most recently on crew resource management (CRM). He reviewed and provided input into the National Wildfire Coordinating Group’s first course, “Human Factors on the Fireline,” and is presently involved in the development of CRM in the structural fire service through an effort organized by the International Association of Fire Chiefs.

RANDY OKRAY has been a member of the Campbell County (WY) Fire Department since 1987, where he has served as training officer for eight years. He is certified as Fire Instructor III, Fire Officer III, Fire Apparatus Operator, EMT-Basic, and Wildland Task Force Leader. He has an A.A.S. degree in fire science from Casper College. He was co-developer of the National Fire Academy classes “Wildland Urban Interface for the Structural Chief Officer,” “Cooperative Leadership Issues in the Wildland Urban Interface,” and “Wildland Urban Interface for the Structural Firefighter” and has taught those classes at the National Fire Academy in Emmitsburg, Maryland. He is presently involved in the development of CRM in the structural fire service through an effort organized by the International Association of Fire Chiefs.

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