By Jerry Knapp
Working at West Point for 33 years, 10 months, and eight days gave me numerous life-changing opportunities to work with some of the best leaders this country has to offer. One of these lessons learned was always to have a “Plan B” for any operation you plan, execute, or are involved in.
I’d like to share with you this very important leadership lesson through a humorous story and relate that to how important that aspect of critical thinking–HAVING A PLAN B–is to you as a firefighter, company officer, or chief officer.
The Army-Navy football game is a big event at West Point. Winning that one game can turn a losing season into an immediate success. To prepare for the game, there is Army-Navy week. There are a variety of spirit-enhancing events leading up to the Army-Navy Bonfire on Thursday night before the game. This event is the culmination the spirit-enhancing activities during the week, with some high-speed entertainment for the cadets before the lighting of the bonfire. Some of the best I have been privileged to be a part of were: an Abrams tank driving over–without slowing down a second– a salvaged car (mysteriously and cleverly painted in Navy colors) or the night assault by a Special Forces unit via helicopter insertion, complete with their dune buggy-type war wagons. With guns blazing as they exited the Chinook helicopters in total darkness, they “successfully” rescued the notionally captive Army Mule, which of course ensured victory on the gridiron a few days later.
The bonfire is similar to any other football rally, except that this fire has a boat on top marked with Navy symbols and colors. The boat is usually a large cabin cruiser, about 35 feet long, salvaged from a nearby boatyard. The boat arrives on a flatbed truck and a crane hoists it into place as the bonfire’s centerpiece. As the West Point leaders work the crowd of cadets to a fever pitch with rousing pep talks over the loudspeaker system, the fire is lit and that bit of the “Navy” atop of the fire goes down in flames. All this spirited effort certainly helps to ensure victory for Army.
Part of my responsibility was to coordinate the movement, placement, and ignition of the boat. I met my point of contact, an Army Corps of Engineer major, to work out the details. He had advised me by phone that he already had the boat. We met at the boat, which was not very cleverly hidden in a storage yard on post. Not being a boater myself, I could only describe to you the boat as a runabout. It was about 12 feet long and held together by 100 or so coats of paint that it had received over its long and abused life span.
The cold breeze of late November was blowing hard, making the outdoor meeting agenda move very quickly. After our mutual handshake introductions, I got right to the point, “Major, this boat is way too small and will be huge disappointment for everyone involved. It’s a loser. You will likely be a private immediately after the fire.”
He laughed and said this boat is just his “deception plan.” He reminded me that in the previous year, the night before the pep rally, the exchange cadets (Navy midshipmen) touched off the fire. When we arrived at work in the morning, the day of the planned bonfire, we found a smoldering heap of bonfire and boat ash. We all scrambled to put the materials together for the fire in only a few hours. Needless to say, it was not one of the most memorable pep rallies West Point has ever seen. Just as the Operations Order (Plan A) called for, we had set the bonfire material and large boat up the day before to ensure we had time for last-minute preparations. Unfortunately, our planning was foiled by some highly-motivated Navy mids.
So, having learned the lesson from the previous year, the good major had a Plan B. His Plan B was actually in front of his Plan A. If the mids burned this small boat, the real bonfire boat would be brought in the day of the fire and safe from the accelerant-laden hands of a few Navy squids (Navy exchange cadets) in our midst. Logistically, we made this plan a reality with some clever preplanning.
The bonfire was a complete success.
The lesson learned: We all should have a Plan A and a Plan B. The military has an expression, “The plan never survives first contact with the enemy.” For firefighters, we all know that things often don’t go “according to plan” at some of our jobs. Often, firefighters’ lives hang in the balance and depend on our ability to execute our Plan B and think on our feet when things don’t go as planned.
Here are three critical examples of situations in which we all definitely need a Plan B:
1. When you stretch short with your preconnected hose load (Plan A). The success of Plan B depends how well you have trained your members to extend the stretch.
2. When you have a Mayday on the fireground. Obviously, your Plan A did not survive first contact with the enemy. Is your Plan B staffed, equipped, and commanded to save the life of the downed firefighter(s)?
3. When you have a delay in getting water to your first hoseline at a house fire and your search teams are deep inside the building…your Plan A maybe a death sentence. Unless Plan B works immediately!
Let’s take a look at one of these in detail, a short stretch. Your engine company has responded to 2½-story house fire. On arrival, a neighbor meets you at the street, hysterical that the family is home. One room is heavily involved on the second floor, and fire will soon to be extending to the attic. A search team has forced the front door and entered the structure. Two members of the engine company stretch your 1¾-inch line through the same door, but come up short and cannot apply water to the seat of the fire. You see the search team disappear down the hallway into the hot, fast-moving smoke. Plan A–stretch the first line between the seat of the fire and occupants, means of egress, or seat of the fire–has failed.
Three options exist:
- Abandon this line and stretch a second with the crew that stretched the first line.
- Add a length to this line or, if staffing permits (not likely), have a second engine stretch a second line (but which end do we add it to? There are two choices!)
- Use the backup line that was stretched to support the first line (assuming you have enough personnel to do this on the first alarm).
Your Plan B–whatever you choose–is now in effect, whether you like it or not, whether you have it, and whether you have planned and trained for it or not. No matter what Plan B you choose, you must execute it. Success or failure depends on a few facts, but most importantly on the following: Do all your company/department members know what Plan B is for this situation? More importantly, have they practiced it? Your Plan A has not survived first contact with the enemy! The fire is growing unchecked and your search team is deep in the home at this point. They have forced the front door, allowing in all the air the fire needs to go to flashover, if it has not already. Your ability to execute Plan B may mean the difference between life and death for your search team. By the way, according to the latest Underwriters Laboratory study, “Impact of Ventilation on Fire Behavior in Legacy and Contemporary Residential Construction,” under the conditions described above, you have (on average) about 100 seconds until the house flashes over, immediately endangering your search teams. If you have not read this study, it is a must-read for all firefighters (CLICK HERE TO READ IT).
An effective Plan B is a force multiplier. Career or volunteer, we are all short of personnel these days on the fireground. If you have trained your members in Plan B, they will be able to execute it rapidly and effectively. The net result is that, even with limited personnel, they can and will perform and achieve goals that normally would take more staff. Their effectiveness is much greater than that of a company that did not have or practice its Plan B. Just as a lever multiplies the force of the operator, a Plan B multiplies your company’s effectiveness.
So, for a winter drill, consider talking through a couple of your standard operating guidelines (SOGs) with your members, then inserting a real-life problem they may have to face. Firefighters will come up with several different solutions. The question is, Which one do you want to practice and which will become your next SOG? Selecting one and communicating that to everyone on the fireground in a panic situation will be difficult. Figure it out now, when firefighters’ lives are not in danger.
Whether the successful Plan B bonfire and boat burning had any impact on the Army-Navy game that year, we will never know. What is clear, Army beat Navy. Maybe it was the Plan B they decided to go to during halftime.
JERRY KNAPP is the assistant chief for the Rockland County (NY) Hazmat Team and a training officer at the Rockland County Fire Training Center in Pomona, New York. He is a 35-year veteran firefighter/EMT with the West Haverstraw (NY) Fire Department, has a degree in fire protection, and was a nationally registered paramedic. Knapp is the former plans officer for the Directorate of Emergency Services at the United States Military Academy in West Point, New York.