Tactical Safety: Free Thinking for the Fire Service

By Ray McCormack

“Free thinking for the fire service” is a mantra that encourages firefighters to be all they can be. Free thinking and its cousin, free speech, are under increased scrutiny, with the latter often only brought forth in guarded conversational whispers.

Every firefighter is free to think as they choose, but expression of some thoughts and opinions (lawful) must often be tweaked so as not to disturb other firefighters’ sensibilities. This is the difference between a firefighter being all they can be and a firefighter being all they are allowed to be. The fire service is trying to decrease the number of sensibility injuries, so at times free thinking might be best kept from manifesting into free speech. Talk about thermal insult!

All firefighters should practice free thinking and also be able to share their thoughts with their fellow firefighters, unencumbered by reprisal. The fire service is not strengthened by water cooler talk. If an environment is one of sterility, then free thought and speech usually match the low-luster decor. It goes against our nature to soft pedal our thoughts. Firefighters are people of action and creative problem solvers. When suppression of free thought is felt to exist, it festers until it breaks, with results that are often negative.  While crew opinions can range from total agreement to complete fragmentation, we should be happy with the survey results because it has been harvested through free thought.

Although no one has clamped down on free thinking totally, still many firefighters say things they do not own. It is important to remember that advertising strategies are often used to get your attention about and buy in on prepackaged mantras. Free thinkers use this rule. Size-up skills are not just for responses.

When someone tells you how to think about something, pause and do just that, think about it. After you have given it the requisite amount of time it deserves, use your free thought to act on that information. Actions such as dismissal, further contemplation, or endorsement keeps you in a free-thinking mode. When others are trying to unduly influence your ability to think freely, look out, because once you allow space for that infiltration, you lose free-though space and associated filters.

A recent example of attempting to make firefighters think more freely is departments changing SOPs to SOGs (procedures vs. guidelines). The ding on SOPs was that they restrict free thought, whereas the word guidelines is more flexible. Does changing a word make a difference? Some say it does.  A Philadelphia lawyer could explain it better.  What does make a difference is if a department allows flexibility for free thinking at fires and emergencies–that is bigger than a word.

Free thinking must be at its highest levels at a fire, however your actions are something that needs to be controlled at a fire scene. Your actions must mesh with others’ actions and not become a patchwork of separatist movements. This is why we have game plans, to channel typical actions based on conditions encountered, developed from varied experiences, properly mixed to obtain an expected outcome.

Firefighters must be free to think things through using experience and knowledge to communicate and fix the problems we face every day. Enhanced problem solving can only occur when we strip down the issue and use our free thinking brains to make adjustments for what we hope will be improved results. Your tactical safety has always been about free thinking; make sure you keep it that way. If you want to, of course.

Next Tactical Safety – Operating With a Sense of Entitlement


Ray McCormack: Tactical Safety for Firefighters

RAY McCORMACK is a 30-year veteran and a lieutenant with FDNY. He is the publisher and editor of Urban Firefighter Magazine. He delivered the keynote address at FDIC in 2009 and he is on the Editorial Board of Fire Engineering Magazine.


  • RAY McCORMACK is a lieutenant and veteran of the Fire Department of New York. He delivered the keynote address at FDIC 2009. He is the co-creator and editor of Urban Firefighter and the an FDIC International instructor.

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