Building Trust: Decentralized Idea Making

The modern fire service must bury the notion of centralized decision making as an absolute right of command at fireground operations. Centralized decision making is necessary in sundry fireground applications and in day-to-day operations. Fireground command during hostile fire events or in times of peril requires a centralized and single-minded command structure. Often, station level discipline permits no dissenting opinion and instead accomplishes the intended purpose more effectively from a single source. Centralized decision making is discretionary and relies on the officer’s experience and confidence. Often, centralized decision making is overemphasized and employed without discretion; if overused, it will highlight deficiencies in leadership and thus weaken the working crew.

Decentralized Decision Making

Decentralized decision making is the alternative. As a service matures, this becomes the most efficient and effective use of known resources that the deciding entity knows as proper and of value in and of their own right. Trust and training and foresight and humility are the assumptions that inform decentralized decision making.

Trust and Training

Trust and training are inextricably linked to one another. A leader must have trust in a second party before he will grant decision-making authority to him. The fireground is where trust is most effectively distilled; observing someone acting wisely enables one to trust in that person’s ability. If one is lacking the fireground experience through which trustworthiness can be demonstrated, that member must acquire trust through training. Training at the company level allows officers and working crew members to trust one another, using the skills performance observed as a guide and a measure of confidence in the abilities of those with whom they will be working. As an officer in command, training those who will report to you in how you wish things to be done allows you to assign a task without having to expound on its process.

Foresight and Humility

Foresight and humility speak to an officer’s limitations and resonate with the Serenity Prayer: “Grant me serenity to accept the things I cannot change, courage to change the things that I can ….” An officer who grasps this point, that one mind cannot solve all the problems, is primed to actualize the potential of the decentralized model.

(1) “Search to Command: Search is making entry on the C side. Recommend EMS respond to the front yard.” Such a prompt saves seconds by ensuring that scene- and task-level priorities are addressed, aiding command, who may be preoccupied with a chaotic scene. (Photo by author.)

(1) “Search to Command: Search is making entry on the C side. Recommend EMS respond to the front yard.” Such a prompt saves seconds by ensuring that scene- and task-level priorities are addressed, aiding command, who may be preoccupied with a chaotic scene. (Photo by author.)

Decentralized Idea Making

A further extension of decentralized decision making is decentralized idea making. Although I implicitly trust the people with whom I work, as a company officer, I must often make a decision before the group can move in any direction. This is the argument for decentralized idea making.

In the Harvard Business Review article, “When to Decentralize Decision Making, and When Not To,” authors Herman Vantrappen and Frederic Wirtz write: “Rare is the business executive who doubts the importance of responsiveness: to be acutely alert to business opportunities and threats, and to be capable of grabbing the opportunity or fending off the threat fast and effectively.” Though written for a business review, this is a perfect description for the fireground since it is vitally important that opportunities for positive advancement on the fire and to neutralize a threat to a victim are vetted by the working crew with immediate intervention in mind.

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Imagine a fully staffed fire apparatus. Not only would it be selfish, it would be a profligate misuse of all the eyes and brains and hands on that rig if it was the rule that all eyes go wherever the officer points and no work gets done until he says, “Jump.”

I invite ideas; it should be a rule for a working crew to introduce ideas regularly and naturally as the situation dictates. If a member feels that a ladder should be thrown to a second division window to support the interior operations, he should mention it to the superior; the superior can decide how to accomplish the task. This isn’t a forceful exchange; it is relaying an idea to a supervisor. Through consideration and sometimes consultation, he can decide on a plan of action. Without the support of suggestions from others, managing the fireground depends too heavily on the eyes and brains of its officers, effectively overlooking the wealth of experience and knowledge of the vast number of members on scene. Ultimately, the officer can’t dawdle over the decision but must make it quickly. In the scenario above, the exchange might look like this: “Hey, Cap. They’ve got crews working up there on the second; I want to throw a ladder to that C/D window. Sound good?” A quick reply from the officer would initiate the action or possibly redirect the action to another fireground area that the officer feels is a greater priority. In either case, the officer reaps the benefit of the suggestion; the other set of eyes is a multiplier on the fireground, noticing an area of the fireground that may be otherwise overlooked.

Where appropriate, the fireground at large might benefit from decentralized idea making. The fireground incident commander is tasked with the macro view and all actions should occur under command’s overarching supervision. Task-oriented crews prompting a command officer with smart options on the evolving fireground might enhance overall command, which is an extension of decentralized idea making. “Engine 8 is on the C division; we have multiple searchable spaces ….”

Most modern fire scenes seem to be flawlessly run with aplomb. I am awed at the efficiency with which some of the giants for whom I work navigate these scenes. After-action reviews often yield different impressions since many commanders will notice small deficiencies, especially in task-level orders. Imagine if an activated search team on entry prompted command that they were entering and needed emergency medical response on standby in the event of a positive search result; this would advise the commander and the scene at large that the task is commencing and the potential result (photo 1). A rapid intervention team (RIT) could as easily prompt for implementing a standby RIT if deployed. In both events, the prompt is a reminder and should instill confidence in the commanding officer that those working for him were looking out for him as well.

In fact, no one on the fireground can care for the working crew performing a task like the officer in charge. The officer in command cares for everyone and everything on his fireground but cannot possibly anticipate every contingency. It is important that the crew officers look out for the scene’s extended needs to guide the process with informed clarity from the task level. Prompting is a form of decentralized idea making.

Decentralized idea making will develop the fire service and increase command capabilities. It is of paramount importance that the officer or commanding officer trust in his staff. As the officer becomes more confident in trusting his resources more completely, it is advisable to use those trusted resources more efficiently and effectively. As an officer in command of mostly task-level assignments, I am acutely aware that the only way I will look good is if those assigned to my crew look good. Although I am not motivated by this metric, it is a proud moment when we shine together.

As one rises through the fire service through experience and rank, he must change his working pronouns. When a firefighter begins his career, it’s all about “I/me”: “I cut a hole, I was on the pipe ….” Experience requires you to have the humility to share the credit: “We got the grab ….” But in command, whether at the crew/task level or over a vast incident scene, we must again change the pronoun to “they”: “They did an excellent job.” “They put a stop on it.” “They made it happen.” The notable exception to this is when a failure occurs; then it’s an “I/me” issue.

Changing the way you view success requires you to change the rules of inclusivity. When a firefighter is included in the positive results on the fireground and allowed to embrace the creativity requisite to be good at this job, the service provided is maximized—decentralize idea making.

Reference

Vantrappen, Herman and Wirtz, Frederic. When to Decentralize Decision Making, and When Not To. Harvard Business Review, December 26, 2017. https://hbr.org/2017/12/when-to-decentralize-decision-making-and-when-not-to.


Mike Emillio has served since 2002 with an Oklahoma City (OK) metropolitan area fire department, where he is a captain assigned to an engine company. He is a paramedic and rescue technician with the Oklahoma US&R team OK-TF1 and is certified as a safety diver, a swiftwater technician, an EMS instructor, and a fire instructor level 1.

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