Core Values of Commonsense Leadership: Preplanning Is Not Enough

by Jim Mason

This article further develops the idea that officers need to have a core of commonsense values. These values will guide a leader through the tough times that lie ahead. An officer who uses common sense when preparing the crew for the next alarm and in making decisions on the fireground will be a successful leader.

A recent television commercial tells a story that illustrates a point of common sense. The setting is a golf course. In the ad, a young golfer is ready to drive the ball off the first tee at the beginning of the course. After the young man sets his ball, he looks down a long fairway to the green.

Before he gets in his stance to swing, an older golfer walks up to him to offer advice. The older gentleman points down field and says “When I was your age, I used to be able to drive the ball all the way to the hole, over those trees there.”

Well, the younger golfer doesn’t want to look bad in front of someone twice his age, so he readjusts his stance to take advantage of the older man’s advice. The younger golfer pulls the golf club back and takes a swing. He hits the ball and it starts to fly in a way that can only be described as a strike that dreams are made of. The ball takes off like a rocket headed to the moon.

But instead of ending up near the hole, the ball hits the trees and lands just feet away from where the young golfer is standing. After witnessing this, the older gentleman quietly walks back over to the young man, all the while shaking his head. When he gets to the younger golfer he says, “The problem is, when I was your age, those trees were much smaller.”

The point of the story: Things change. If a fire officer is depending on preplanning alone to understand a fire situation, he is likely to fail. This relates directly to the last article in this series, “Know Your Response District.” In that article, I suggested that officers develop a good knowledge of their response districts prior to the alarm. This is still true. Understanding what they will respond to in the neighborhood surrounding the firehouse is important. It can give an officer a chance to preplan many things about what can and should be done when certain fireground situations arise.

But preplanning is not enough. Knowing your response district is not all there is to making good fireground decisions. A preplanned response is only as good as the size-up that is made when the companies arrive at the emergency scene. As a core value of commonsense leadership, preplanning should be considered a way to discover the likely actions that you will take on the fireground, not the guaranteed ones. Only when you have a clear understanding of the situation can you decide the actual strategies and tactics to use to save life and property on the fireground.

The value of preplanning is that it gives your team members practice. It’s a good drill to get everyone in the crew on the same page for the fire response. It can serve as a dry run of size-up points for future battles.

But size-up evolutions have their limitations. The emergency scene is usually much more difficult than we expected. There is no actual fire on a preplanning drill. There are also no civilian witnesses on the front lawn screaming that someone is trapped. We might expect the building construction to be of one type then find out that it’s built differently.

The following photo shows an example of how construction can be different in reality than it appeared in the preplanning stage.


(1) Photos by author. Click to enlarge

This 100-year old building was originally erected as a small taxpayer/mixed-use with apartments over the storefront. During the preplan, this building seemed to be of ordinary construction. When it was built a century ago, there were not many other construction style options besides wood-frame, and this structure has brick on the outside. So, it’s got to be ordinary construction, right?

The problem is that this building lies in an area of Chicago where expensive remodeling projects have been in fashion for several years. During the rehabilitation, the occupancy was changed from mixed use to fully residential. Trusses were installed to hold up the floors and roof. This construction change is shown in the photo below, taken during the remodeling project.


(2) Click to enlarge

How the structure has been changed is critical knowledge for firefighters. Knowing that the structure contains trusses is critical for survival if we undertake an interior attack. If the preplan were completed after the remodeling was finished, it is likely we wouldn’t detect the change in the construction style.

To determine these changes, you must investigate when the department arrives at the fire scene. Inspect several sides of the structure to confirm or refute what is indicated on the prefire plan. In other response districts around the country, this and other critical size-up factors may remain hidden from even the best preplanning efforts.

An effective size-up must confirm what your preplan suggests as a course of action on the fireground. Commonsense leadership should consider preplanning as a brainstorming session, the “what if” of a particular address. What if this or that has happened when our team arrives to the emergency? Size-up, on the other hand, is the “what is” part of our planning efforts. What is the actual problem that needs to be fixed now that we are on the fire scene?

Jim Mason is 21-year veteran of the fire service and a lieutenant with the Chicago (IL) Fire Department.

Subjects: Leadership, preplanning, building construction

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