From The Jumpseat: Negotiating Hazards

Photo by Tony Greco.

By Mark J. Cotter

Firefighting is a profession torn between two suitors: action and safety. For many of us, the former is what drew us to this endeavor, and it remains a key part of our identity. The latter has our best interests in mind and is trying hard to win us over. We chase after one, and the other chases after us; it’s as complex as any love triangle, and just as dangerous.

Giving in completely to either would inevitably lead to catastrophe, whether by commission (doing something reckless) or omission (not doing something expected of us). So, we are left with the need to accept relative success regarding those aspects of our incident management plans that minimize risks to ourselves while maximizing benefit for our customers. We do the best we can, as carefully as we can.

Although it is easy enough to say and understand, operationalizing such a compromise between caution and engagement is no easy task. Furthermore, even the most careful, measured, and informed approaches have no guarantee of success in any of those categories; sometimes victims die, buildings burn down, or firefighters are hurt or killed, despite our best efforts. Balancing these competing impulses and approaches is what keeps good officers on their toes at emergency scenes and, often, awake at night worrying about past and future incidents.

The fire service’s preoccupation for many years now has been preventing firefighter deaths and injuries, with the occurrence of either being viewed as a failure. This focus on ourselves can cause us to overlook shortcomings in other aspects of our performance. This sense of individual and collective guilt for being unable to protect our own clashes with and, in some ways, tends to overwhelm our innate desire to protect the public.

Typical fire service attempts to improve safety at emergency incidents have involved increased supervision (safety officers), enhanced backup (rapid intervention teams), and upgraded personal protective equipment (PPE), all of which are vital but, in my view, are insufficient; they lie pretty much on only one side of the scales we are considering. We need techniques that we can use on the performance part of our job—ways to adapt to, out-think, and overcome the challenges put forth by the incident at hand.

I am in no way “anti-safety” and count myself as a staunch supporter of policies and procedures that help protect our own. Furthermore, I feel it is a collective embarrassment to our profession that so many of our line-of-duty incidents and deaths could be prevented by simply enacting and enforcing currently accepted guidelines. Still, I also believe that our natural inclination to act cannot be effectively countered with any amount of rules, short of one that completely bans firefighters from responding to fires.

A different perspective on our collective dilemma might be found in the extensive research performed in other industries including health care, energy, and the military. In these endeavors, “failure” leads to—respectively—injury or death to customers, loss of service, sometimes with catastrophic proportions (i.e., nuclear plant meltdowns or city-wide blackouts); and the collapse of a nation. We must similarly expand our definition of “failure” beyond that of self-preservation.

The term “reliability” is used in many industries to refer to the ability to avoid failure, with “high” being its preferred level. In this context, it can be further defined as the ability to engage in error-free performance. Since not doing our job effectively and sustaining injuries are each examples of potential fireground “errors,” this term succeeds in embracing both of the otherwise competing priorities previously mentioned. “High reliability organizations” is a term used to describe the attributes of the best performers in high-risk industries, such as aircraft carriers, nuclear power generators, and NASA.

Reliability has been described as a “dynamic nonevent,” meaning that a required component is the ability to continuously adapt to different challenges and that its primary effect is to prevent problems. At an emergency scene, we demonstrate this quality when we quickly adjust our strategy and tactics to address an evolving incident. It also suggests that when we do our jobs well, we efficiently control the incident without creating other “incidents” (e.g., injuries to firefighters, exposure involvement, unnecessary damage).

Some efforts to improve reliability are observable such as personnel wearing full PPE in the hazard zone, or staying out of a collapse zone, but there are so many other components such as situational awareness and tactical control that are not as readily visible, yet they are equally important. Given its comprehensiveness and appropriateness, we in the fire service must begin measuring our performance against the standard of reliability.

So, how do we consistently integrate these dual considerations—doing the right things and avoiding the wrong things—into our fireground decision-making process? And, by decisions, I’m not just talking about strategy and tactics; I am talking about the do/don’t, yes/no, go/no-go choices every firefighter makes throughout an emergency incident. Although an officer might be able to more readily get an entire company in trouble with an ill-advised command, individual members can hurt themselves just as badly if given the opportunity, easily dragging down the rest of his team in the process.

Major Jason Brezler, a member of the United States Marine Corps and the Fire Department of New York’s (FDNY’s) Special Operations Command; a former member of FDNY Ladder 58 and Squad 252; founder and commanding officer of Leadership Under Fire, Inc.; and the creator of “Making Yourself Hard to Kill—Fostering a Culture of Survival and Discipline” articulated just such a comprehensive approach. As he described one of his training classes:

“The similarities between combat and fireground operations demand that firefighters be trained to be complex problem solvers under fire. This presentation serves to challenge several of the fallacies promoted by the ‘culture of safety’ and introduces a ‘culture of survival and discipline’ that provides a more appropriate paradigm for both fire service training as well as fireground operations. The paradigm not only endeavors to save the lives of firefighters, but enables the fire service to maximize its ability to protect the public.”

I attended one of Brezler’s classes at the Fire Department Instructors Conference a few years ago.  His dad had been a chief I served under, though I didn’t think his presentation would involve anything more than yet another new spin on fireground management. Unexpectedly, I left amazed and enlightened from the information shared by this inhabitant of two worlds: military and firefighting. His youth is belied by his wisdom, and what he has developed through his extensive study of both professions is truly a thing of beauty.

Despite the content of Brezler’s resume (he is also a graduate of the United States Naval Academy and served in Iraq and Afghanistan), his is by no means a Rambo-like, full-speed-ahead, all-caution-aside approach. Actually, that easy path has already been well-worn by many in the fire service. Brezler’s method is much more effective and much more demanding. It requires focusing attention and significant efforts to changing the ways we approach mental and physical preparation, tactics, and training.

Although I cannot do justice to his concepts any more than you could describe those of a sage such as Alan Brunacini in anything less than a multivolume textbook, one example he provided served to distill for me the differences between the “culture of safety” and the “culture of survival and discipline”: The military has safety officers on the firing range, but intelligence officers on the battleground. In the first setting, where real danger exists, virtually every aspect is controllable, and injuries are completely unacceptable. Having at least one person whose sole responsibility is to look out for the welfare of participants is not only necessary, but, more importantly, feasible. In battle, however, where control is a rare commodity and injury and death are actively seeking out personnel, it is information about the enemy and the progress of the battle that is indispensable.

So, his is a model that recognizes the frequently chaotic nature of the incident scene and brings to bear for the fire service techniques that have proven effective on the battlefield. The title of “Making Yourself Hard to Kill” indicates both its focus on improving safety, and the recognition that there are no absolute fixes. After all, he didn’t call it “Impossible” to kill. My only concern with his techniques is that they are so difficult to implement. That is not a criticism, but a recognition of the complexity of making peace among these competing impulses we have been discussing.

This compelling vision Brezler has articulated for becoming a high reliability fire department is merely a unique twist on those we have heard from fire service leaders for years. For instance, consider the philosophy of the late Tom Brennan, as described by Bobby Halton:

“He always insisted the magazine put a priority on safety, working safety. Today many uninformed confuse safety with not fighting the fire. Tom would say safety was ensuring that enough staffing and training be provided so you are capable of making the building behave, that the companies-the truck, engine, and squad activities-can simultaneously and synergistically accomplish their missions. That is safety, not RIT, not safety officers, not two in/two out, not command systems, but well-trained, well-staffed, well-led companies working as one. Attacking the fire with thinking firefighters who honor themselves and their profession by always being ready, always being the best, and always training and challenging themselves-that was Brennan-based safety.” [When Irish Eyes Are Smiling (Fire Engineering, June 1, 2006)]

Or, in Tommy’s own words, “The best safety tactic is always put the fire out!” [Safety on This Job? (Fire Engineering, April 2004)]

Simple? Not in the least. Orchestrating an efficient fire suppression operation is one of the most difficult and dangerous activities in the civilian world. Sometimes, even usually, we’re faced with an incident that we can control with a less-than-perfect performance by all of the players. We experience the dreaded “event” on those infrequent occasions when a department’s operational weaknesses are aligned with a specific situation that exploits those deficiencies, a potential combination that we can minimize only by systematically reducing our vulnerabilities through planning, training, and leadership.

The easy way is to remain on either extreme: Avoid hazards with more defensive operations; sacrifice effectiveness for safety, default to aggressive tactics, or rely on our PPE or the immense extinguishing power of water and the odds to protect us (most of the time). Finding the sweet spot of efficiency and failure avoidance requires a significant investment of time, effort, and attention. Unfortunately, I suspect many will be unwilling to pay that price, which does not bode well for us, our families, or our customers. The quest for high reliability is for those who are willing to do what is necessary to be the best.

In the end, if you have two lovers, you may not be able to please both, but you at least try to not anger either.


Mark J. Cotter has more than 40 years experience in emergency services and is currently a volunteer Captain with the Salisbury (MD) Fire Department. He can be reached at

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