Critical Thought for the Fire Service


We are all familiar with standard oper- ating procedures (SOPs), standard operating guidelines (SOGs), general orders (GOs), emergency operating plans (EOPs), and other common written procedures. Whether they cover proper equipment maintenance, ventilation techniques, or safe roof operations, these guidelines are the foundation of the fire service. They guide us in decision making, allowing fire officers and firefighters to safely and consistently perform specific tasks. However, following them strictly should never be a replacement for sound decision making.

Can we reasonably create an SOP for every possible emergency? No! The fire service has labored under the misperception that decision making is nothing more than the sound application of procedures. However, today, performance enhancement is a dynamic fusion of research, education, communication, and application. These four guiding principles must be used harmoniously if an industry is to improve and grow.

Like soldiers and police officers, firefighters must often make decisions in dynamic situations under extreme stress. Often, these decisions involve their own personal safety and demand a high degree of situational awareness, a process called recognition-primed decision making (RPD). Recognizing how trained professionals react to specific dynamic events (e.g., entrapment) has allowed emergency response organizations to develop training tailored to that situation. Most self-rescue techniques taught use RPD, which provides an established reaction protocol for freeing oneself from an entrapment. Such training acknowledges that extremely stressful situations can diminish one’s ability to think clearly and is designed to fill this thought vacuum with positive action. Hence, training involving repetition, and automatic response provides a firefighter with the skills necessary to survive a rapidly evolving situation. RPD is but one example of research that has led to innovative progress in the fire service.

Another example of progress is the evolution we see in the more advanced levels of education among new firefighters and the adoption of business management practices in the fire service. Many of today’s departmental chiefs have postsecondary education in business management, accounting, and labor relations. This has enhanced fire administrators’ ability to make sound arguments for departmental needs using business modeling and statistical analysis.

However, the fire service still needs to identify inherent systemic management and training barriers to progress. Using critical thinking skills at every departmental level can enhance operational and administrative productivity while simultaneously complementing existing SOGs/SOPs.

The most glaring weakness in the fire service is that it fails to train personnel in the art of thinking. In most North American public school systems, however, critical thinking courses are not part of the curriculum. Since most North American fire service organizations hire from within their respective communities, it is unlikely that their personnel would be familiar with any formal process of critical thought. If one looks critically at tactical errors and firefighter injuries and deaths, one could argue that a significant number of them are attributable to lapses in judgment.

Consider the recent world economic crisis. It is disconcerting that so many well-educated and wealthy people could conduct their business so unprofessionally. Although some policymakers blame a lack of regulation for the economic meltdown, more fundamentally, some individuals made decisions based on blind greed and emotion. Investors, traders, and bankers were so focused on profit taking that they failed to properly analyze the context and consequences of their actions. In short, they used little critical thought in their decision making.

To a lesser degree, the same can be said of the fire service. We are conditioned to react; this mentality permeates our fireground management and administrative practices. I am often surprised that many large fire departments lack forethought and only respond to crises as they arise. Critical thinking demands that we preplan, anticipating needs and solving problems before they happen. Fireground commanders and firefighters can apply their experience, skills, and knowledge to a problem, but sometimes circumstances demand a higher degree of intellectual application.




Most large fire departments provide such services as water, high-angle, low-angle, and confined-space rescue; hazmat response; auto extrication; and fire inspection, each of which has its own set of procedures and training manuals. However, few of these disciplines actually establish a formal decision-making process.

We must not mistake check-off lists and procedures for decision making. Although these valuable tools assist us in formulating decisions, actual decision making encompasses understanding the problem, anticipating the consequences of one’s actions, evaluating options, knowing the reason for every action, understanding one’s own point of view in relation to the problem, and determining one’s tolerance for risk.

At an incident, an officer, thinking critically, is continually asking questions, evaluating how actions are affecting the situation, and altering tactics accordingly. One’s ability to make sound decisions also depends on understanding behaviors that inhibit critical thinking, such as inherent bias, group think, and emotion and social filters that prevent proper analysis.1 I would prefer to be under the command of a seasoned chief who applies critical thinking to his decision making than one who simply applies the rule book. Sound decision making saves lives; simply solving problems strictly within the bounds of an established procedure, in isolation from other considerations, does not.

The acronym COAL WAS WEALTH illustrates a standard approach to procedures. This memory device provides the incident commander (IC) with a mental checklist of fireground items to consider in formulating his decisions (e.g., C = construction, O = occupancy, and so forth).2 However, this mnemonic is an aid, not a decision-making process. Its strength is twofold: It asks questions, and it demands answers. It is a means of information gathering, which is a vital part of critical thinking and formulating decisions. However, information once obtained must be logically acted on; the choice of action is the result of a decision.

For example, firefighters and officers should always identify not only the construction type of the building in which they are working but also its occupancy. In Ottawa, there are hundreds of Type III (ordinary construction) structures that combine residential and commercial/mercantile occupancies. This complicates the fire problem and requires more critical thought from the fireground commander than a similar single-occupancy building. Based on this information, the fireground commander can anticipate the path of fire spread, decide how to apply resources, and identify safety considerations. It sets the stage for all fire operations.

However, gathering information is of no use if the data are not factored into a conscious process of reasonable decision making. For example, when a fireground commander identifies a structure’s construction type but then allocates resources without regard to the fire tactics applicable to that structure and without an identifiable and defensible decision-making process, outcomes become less predictable, and situations can evolve into a chain of rapidly expanding uncontrolled events.

Perhaps the most compelling consideration for teaching critical thought in the fire service is legal liability. Can you successfully defend your decisions in a court of law? It is no longer acceptable for us to defend ourselves by stating, “It was what I thought was best at the time with the resources I had.” A good lawyer will press you to defend your decisions. You may defeat prosecution lawyers if you can outline a logical sequence of justifiable actions based on your training, experience, and judgment as part of an identifiable decision process. This is not to say that employing critical thinking skills will guarantee that you will make the right call 100 percent of the time; it will improve your odds of making the right call most of the time.

Critical thinking is “the disciplined art of ensuring that you use the best thinking you are capable of in any circumstances.”3 It involves adhering to a process that, with practice, can be applied almost subconsciously.




Fire departments are tradition-driven organizations that take pride in a shared culture, experience, and objective. However, traditional culture can flow from the firehouse onto the fireground, where the choice of tactics is sometimes based more on tradition (i.e., “This is the way we’ve always done it”) instead of on a more enlightened approach. Perhaps dozens of fire service injuries and deaths have occurred because we adhered to fire tactics that were appropriate for fighting fires in older Type III and Type V (wood-frame) structures but are dangerous in buildings that include engineered lightweight wood structural elements. It has taken a long time for us to adapt traditional tactics to structures made with lightweight elements. If we had applied critical-thinking skills to these fires from the outset, we might have achieved better safety results sooner.

Equipment is another area in which historical tradition may clash with critical thinking—for example, the traditional North American-style helmet that most of us love. Perhaps the European style is better suited to overall emergency response, since it offers better side protection at motor vehicle collisions and covers the head more completely than the North American one. It does not have to be removed to enter a vehicle for patient care because the eye protection is built into the helmet and does not project high above it. It also fits completely around the head, so it is more stable in confined spaces. With the North American-style helmet, the bill at the back may limit the range of motion when the wearer looks straight up.

At a recent competition in Germany, for safety reasons, our auto extrication team members were not allowed to use their traditional helmets because they did not meet European safety requirements. Do the Germans know something we do not? Are they more or less safety conscious? Can we defend our helmet choice based on credible scientific evidence that it is as safe as or safer than the European model?

If the new European helmet proved more effective, would we change, or would we stubbornly remain loyal to an older, less effective one? Think about it: We are wearing a helmet with the same basic design as that worn by firefighters 200 years ago! Perhaps that’s because it works, or perhaps not. Critically thinking about it may allow us to better understand why we think the way we do about our protective equipment. It means asking questions about our equipment or behavior and researching the issue impartially in an unbiased environment devoid of emotion.

However, not all traditions are bad; some are essential in maintaining a vibrant fire service. After all, using a fire pole is still quicker than running down a set of stairs! Group activities, such as eating together and helping each other out outside the job, strengthen our camaraderie and engender protective instincts that translate to the fireground.

Nevertheless, we must base our tactics on sound procedures and an educated officer corps that can “think” its way through problems and not merely react according to anachronistic fireground “traditions”—such as consistently searching fire compartments in high-heat conditions without the protection of a hoseline.

Most critical-thinking documentation identifies the elements of thought used as a basis for logically organizing one’s thinking. These elements in isolation or in concert can provide the basis of a sound decision-making process. Most decision-making processes guard against poor thinking, such as socio-centric thinking. (3, 185) Similar to “groupthink,” [sociocentric] thinking “refers to a mode of thinking that people engage in when they are deeply involved in a cohesive group…[I]t is a barrier to creativity that combines habit, fear and prejudice.” Groupthink is a barrier to critical thought and sound decision making.4 In this kind of thinking, a few influential people steer the course of decisions based on the force of will, not reason or logic. Others in the group may acquiesce to poor decisions because it is in their personal interest to do so.

In another form of groupthink, everyone focuses on a single solution to the exclusion of all other alternatives. It is felt that the solution must be the right one since there is a group consensus about it, not because it has been rigorously investigated.

Any policymaking process that precludes unbiased introspection or any effort not to identify all aspects of a problem is not critical thought. Situations must be analyzed objectively and procedures applied and revised as the situation demands.




How many times do we order a firefighter to vent a window without first ensuring that that member understands why he is doing so? There is not enough time to explain every order, you may say. Although this may be true in some circumstances, is it in every single one? When ordering a firefighter to vent a window, wouldn’t it make sense to communicate the purpose for the vent? Communicating the purpose for every action defines the approach taken, the parameters within which the action is to be performed, and the amount of damage and inherent risk involved. Is the venting part of a coordinated fire attack? Is it part of a vent-enter-search operation? Or is it merely to vent the smoke from a pot on the stove? Is the possible damage that may result from an action in proportion to the problem?

Understanding the vent’s purpose affects the vent’s location, possible ladder placement, how the task should be performed, and whether the vent must be coordinated with other fireground activities.

Critical though must be at the core of every fireground action. Understanding an action’s purpose is an important element in critical thinking. Other elements include but are not limited to properly identifying the problem and asking the following questions: What is the question at issue? What are the consequences and implications of taking an action? Do I have enough information to make a decision? How is time affecting the situation? What is my intended outcome?

Teaching fire personnel a process of critical thought can and will reduce workplace injury, enhance fireground management, and create a more professional and forward-thinking environment. The beauty of embracing this discipline is that it enhances every employee’s life, since the rules learned can be applied to every situation and decision they make.

A captain can apply a critical-thinking process to in-station personnel issues as well as those on the fireground. People who exercise critical thinking tend to stand out, since they can sift through their minds’ own intellectual detritus and identify the main problem, distill it down to its root, and effectively apply a solution with laser-like precision.

Teaching critical thinking enhances fire personnel’s decision-making processes. Attaining good critical thinking skills requires diligence, time, and a great deal of effort. You have to be able to think about yourself critically, objectively analyze your decisions, and concentrate on how you think and why you think the way you do. It may even involve asking your peers to evaluate your decision-making process. Are you an emotional decision maker—i.e., do you react first with emotion and second with thought? Do you methodically make decisions or fly by the seat of your pants and hope for the best outcome?




The best beginning approach to becoming a better decision maker is to practice the following:

1 Identify the problem. What is the primary question at issue? Isolate it from the other secondary issues and focus on this issue first. Do I fully understand the problem? Am I focusing resources in the right areas in relation to the problem?

2 Understand the purpose for every action. Ensure you are always clear about whatever action you are taking, and apply your knowledge, skills, and experience toward the problem.

3 Obtain as much information as possible, consider the consequences of proposed actions, and be reflective about your thinking. Constantly reevaluate your decisions and actions, and approach every problem with an open mind. Try to anticipate what comes next. Fighting large fires is a bit like playing chess: To win, you have to anticipate your and your opponent’s future moves. Well-trained, experienced firefighters who think ahead can be formidable foes for any fire.

4 Continually ask questions that demand answers from the information you are gathering. Is what I am doing helping or hindering? What are the consequences of one given action over another? Am I allowing my emotions to cloud my judgment? Am I evaluating the risk?

Remember, we can all improve our thinking processes and enhance the quality and speed with which we suppress fires, rescue citizens, and mitigate uncontrolled events. Organizations that embrace a critical-thinking approach are those that choose to train their personnel in solving all problems, not just those outlined by procedure or those that are familiar.




On the fireground, each firefighter should consider the building construction type and occupancy and how they affect their decisions. What is the primary concern—fire suppression, rescue, or both? What are the appropriate tactics? Is this fire vent-controlled or fuel-controlled? A vent-controlled fire is one that is limited by the amount of oxygen it is receiving in relation to the configuration of the fire compartment and the fuel type, whereas a fuel-controlled fire is limited only by the amount of fuel there is to burn. Does the incident commander have all the information needed to make sound decisions? Does every firefighter and officer on the scene understand the purpose for every action they are taking? Do the actions being taken mesh with the overall incident action plan, or do they deviate from the overall incident objectives?

The following demonstrates how critical thinking is applied at an incident.

On December 25, 2009, the Ottawa (Ontario, Canada) Fire Services responded to a two-story, single-family dwelling in an area of century-old homes. The initial call reported smoke coming from a house, a possible structure fire. The structure was a 2½-story Type V balloon-frame house with smoke showing from the eaves and windows on the second floor. The wispy gray-white smoke was not pushing out with any significant volume, and the first-floor front living room window was smoke stained. The house was secure; no car was in the driveway. Neighbors said they believed the family was away for the holiday.

This was a vent-controlled fire because the fire’s growth was limited by the amount of oxygen it received, so we raised ladders to the top windows and vented one window to alleviate the interior pressure and reduce the possibility of a backdraft. A 360° reconnaissance was performed as the first line was stretched.

Once the attack crew was in position, we forced entry, and the rescue company followed to assist in fire attack and complete a primary search. Once the door was opened, the neutral plane lowered and the heat and smoke intensified. As we advanced down the main hallway, I noticed flames emanating from the vents set in the wood flooring. I advised the captain that we needed to pull back since we were advancing over a fire in a basement and conditions were worsening. Not yet knowing the location of the basement stairs, we retreated to the front porch and closed the door to control the amount of oxygen the fire received. This slowed the fire progression and gave us a moment to reevaluate the situation and establish an attack plan.

Using a critical-thinking process, we evaluated the facts:


  • The main entrance was above the fire, and it would be dangerous to advance over the fire.
  • Because of the balloon-frame construction, the fire was likely progressing from the basement into the interior walls.
  • We needed more information and resources—e.g., the exact location of the entrance to the basement stairs, a larger-diameter hose, a 2½-inch hoseline equipped with a Bresnan rotary nozzle, and additional companies to perform fire attack and to prepare for the fire’s possible progression to the roof.
  • We needed to coordinate our actions among various companies to ensure that hoselines were positioned to complement fire attack and not work at cross purposes.


    To cool and control the gaseous layer in the basement, command decided to flank the fire and inject water through an exterior basement window to reduce it prior to making an offensive push. The backup engine company used a 2½-inch line to hit the fire from one side. We waited momentarily to see how this affected the situation and to determine the fire’s origin and its intended path of travel before we attacked it. Fire was now showing in the front living room. We contained it and then inserted a Bresnan rotary nozzle near the front entrance by enlarging the floor vent opening from the safety of the front doorway. This tactic held the fire in check as we found the exact location of the basement stairs. We left the Bresnan, staffed by two firefighters, running while we pushed our attack line into the basement by the interior stairway.

    Using the Bresnan nozzle drastically reduced the fire compartment’s temperature, allowing us to advance safely into the fire compartment. As we advanced the line into the basement, other companies opened the building from the outside and inside to cut off vertical fire spread. We quickly and effectively extinguished the fire within a 30-minute window.

    As a result of critically thinking through a problem, the building was saved. We evaluated the situation, gathered information, formulated an initial incident action plan in accordance with our SOPs, and proceeded. When we realized the situation was not what we had thought it was, we retreated, reevaluated, identified the safety hazards, and looked for alternative methods of fire attack. We combined our knowledge and expertise with our available resources and thought our way through the problem.

    Fighting fires is an intellectual exercise as much as it is a physical one. When you first start to use these skills, you may initially notice that it is cumbersome and that your thought process may even slow down as you slowly wean off your gut reactions and adopt a more reflective mode of thinking. However, in time you will find that your thought process improves and that your mind adjusts accordingly. Eventually, you will be able to rapidly evaluate the situation, filter several options, ask questions discerning the implications and consequences, and make your decisions based on a sequential robust thought process.•••

    Critical thinking does not replace experiential knowledge, training, and protocols but rather enhances these tools and improves your ability to focus on making better decisions. Critical thinking is metacognitive, as it involves thinking about your thinking.5




    1. Harvard Business School. Making Smart Decisions. Harvard Business School Press, 2006, 100.

    2. Norman, John. The Fire Officer’s Handbook of Tactics, Third Edition. Fire Engineering, 2005, 8.

    3. Paul, Dr. R, and Dr. Linda Elder. Critical Thinking: Tools for Taking Charge of Your Professional and Personal Life. Pearson Education, Inc., 2002, 7.

    4. Wade, Norman M. The Battle Staff SMARTbook: Doctrinal Guide to Military Decision Making and Tactical Operations, Second Edition. Lightning Press, 2005, 1-36.

    5. Nosich, Gerald M. Learning to Think Things Through: A Guide to Critical Thinking Across the Curriculum. Pearson Prentice Hall, 2004, 3.

    KEVIN C. LAMBERT is a 27-year fire service veteran and a lieutenant in charge of Heavy Rescue Company 12 with the Ottawa (Ontario, Canada) Fire Services. Experienced in fire prevention, training, and project management, he is the lead author of the department’s new Strategy and Tactics Manual. He has a fire technology diploma from the Ontario Fire College and degrees in law and political science.


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