Crew Resource Management The Elephant in the Fire Station

BY CRAIG NELSON

It is three o’clock in the morning, and your engine or truck company is toned out to a working structure fire in an apartment building. Right off the bat, you start trying to gather information about the incident to which you are now responding because that is what this job is about-gathering information so you can safely and effectively produce the best possible outcome when you go to work. The more information you have, the better the decisions you can make. We are trained to be problem solvers in an extremely complex and often fast-moving environment where we encounter a multitude of dangers and hazards. Yet, the vast majority of our incidents end successfully, often preventing severe damage to lives and property.

In the world of fire, as cheesy as it sounds, failure is not an option! Training, experience, education, and hard work come together on a daily basis to help us provide successful outcomes. We encounter incidents at all hours of the day and night, many while most people are sleeping warmly in their beds. Keeping our communities safe is something we take great pride in. Yet, that does not mean that we can relax our focus for even one second. Those who have been around a while realize that we never know what hazards may be lurking around the next corner.

As your engine arrives at the scene, you provide a scene size-up, assume command, and begin a walk-around. You finish the walk-around; smoke is showing. You inform the crew of your game plan. They quickly begin working on making your plan come to life. You make entry and pass command to the next officer on the scene. While inside the apartment building, you and your newest firefighter work diligently to fight the fire, which has now spread to the attic and adjoining apartments. More crews are added to aid with search, rescue, and fire attack efforts. One of the other crews meets up with you; you turn down your radio to talk (yell through your mask) with them because of all the radio traffic. After a quick update, your crew and the other crew continue attacking the fire. While this is happening, crews on the exterior have been relaying increasing signs of roof collapse over the radio. Your newest crew member has heard this radio traffic and is thinking about saying something but … DOESN’T.

The new member said nothing partly because he ass u me d (purposely spread out) the company officer who has much more experience, knowledge, and training heard the radio traffic. He also said nothing because he was taught early on in training to keep his mouth shut and not question his superiors, so, more importantly in his mind, he is going to follow the rules and definitely NOT question why his officer is choosing to remain inside fighting this fire.

Our system has taught him not to participate beyond basic rote skills, not to question, not to use his brain. In his initial training, he was taught that flames showing from the eaves and vents combined with a sagging roof are dangerous, but still he holds back even though he knows that this situation has a good chance of injuring or killing him and others. He is caught within the powerful grip of a typical hierarchal type system that often prevents people from speaking up when they should, even when they know they might be injured.

Strict hierarchal structures like the fire service uses work well to bring order to the chaotic scenes we encounter, but they have a weakness that, if left unaddressed, can lead to major problems in emergency situations. In a hierarchal system, questioning could come across as second-guessing his company officer. Besides, in this case the firefighter believes in his mind that the company officer is all-knowing (super human). The company officer must have heard the reports about the roof and decided that it was safe to continue. What the new firefighter has not been taught is that although his company officer is very skillful and knowledgeable, he is not superhuman, he is human, and humans make mistakes. The roof collapses on all companies inside; the outcome is tragic. This crew was not trained in one of the critical areas of crew resource management (CRM) that teaches assertive communication, one of the largest problem areas in many hierarchal industries like the fire service. The crew was not taught how to maximize use of their most valuable resources-their people. The crew was not taught to ask, “Why?”

WHAT IF …

What if the newest crew member says, “Captain, do you believe it is safe to continue with reports of the roof sagging while we are encountering this type of fire behavior?” This quickly informs the captain that he didn’t hear the radio reports about the roof. The crew member then informs command of his crew’s status and exits the building. The roof collapses shortly after all crews have exited. The outcome would be routine: No one would be hurt, and the fire would be extinguished.

This crew was trained to use assertive communication and the many other areas of CRM. This crew used its most valuable resources-its people. This crew was taught to ask “why?” This crew is safe. The members will go home to their spouses and kids when their shift is over. Sometime soon in the future, they will write up a near-miss report and critique the incident to take further advantage of the proactive learning that comes from using CRM. This will help them to develop proactive realistic training aimed at improving the areas where they are likely to encounter a safety or an operational problem/issue.

If you are human, you will make mistakes, and each is an opportunity to learn. The above story is from a real life incident where the newest crew member actually spoke up, and the roof collapsed behind them as the crew was walking out the front door. The newest crew member saved a lot of lives, but the importance of his assertive communication and the effort it took to speak up cannot be emphasized enough.

We often spend a lot of time and money to find the best candidates, so why do we tell them on the first day to keep their mouths shut? Today’s new firefighters are energetic, smart, well trained, and well educated. CRM teaches us that we need to treat them as such by maximizing their knowledge and skills, to include them as a valuable part of the team. CRM does not discount that they may still be very green and need to continue learning from others in the fire department, especially from those with more experience. CRM also does not reduce or remove the responsibility of the officer in charge to make decisions. What CRM does is use all available information from all sources (including your firefighters) to help the officer in charge make better decisions. CRM looks into the human factors and relationships present in almost all of our near-miss incidents and accidents for true solutions to problem safety areas.

The research shows that most accidents and near-misses can be tracked back to a human factor-related cause. What does this mean? It means that if a fire truck crashes, the odds are that it wasn’t caused by bad brakes or a stuck throttle. The odds are that it was caused by a person who was driving too fast, a person who was distracted, or a person who wasn’t familiar with apparatus handling. The solution in this situation would be to try to prevent this type of incident in the future by looking into areas of better training and understanding of apparatus operations. It would not just look at the individual but also at the situation and behaviors surrounding the person at the time. Simply disciplining the driver won’t teach him anything or prevent the incident from happening again.

A lack of assertiveness or a hesitancy to speak up from junior people is one of the most common causes of breakdowns in high-performance crews. Pull one of your newer people, someone a year or a little more time, aside. Ask him to give you an honest answer to this question: Have you ever been on a call when you thought that you should say something but didn’t? I tried this, and the answers shocked me. These are human factor causes, so they require human factor solutions, which is what CRM is, a system to improve safety and operations.

How many of the factors in Figure 1 could be considered human factors?

Based on all submitted reports

To some degree, all of the near-miss categories can be influenced by human factors such as the following:

  • Equipment can be poorly maintained by humans.
  • The weather can affect human stress and decision making.
  • Humans write procedures.

Many successful businesses and fire departments use systems to perform at a higher level. We use systems on a daily basis. Some of the most familiar systems we use include Incident Command, Near-Miss Reporting, Accountability, and National Fire Incident Reporting. Other systems with which you may not be as familiar also have been around for a while. CRM fits into this group, and it is gaining widespread attention. The fire service received a mainstream introduction to it in the 2002 “Crew Resource Management a Positive Change for the Fire Service” manual produced by the International Association of Fire Chiefs. Since that time, some fire departments have been using CRM but, as with all changes, it has taken time to gain familiarity and widespread acceptance. Even now as CRM is gaining widespread acceptance in the fire service, other systems are being considered and used. One example of an emerging system is Higher Reliability Organizing (HRO), which includes CRM within its larger operational system.

CRM has finally arrived. It was the subject of a session at FDIC 2013. It is now more important than ever that all fire service agencies operate as efficiently and as effectively as possible. CRM will help you do this, but it will involve change.

Whether we like it or not, the world around us is constantly changing. The older I get, the less I like to change, but that doesn’t mean that resisting is a good idea or even a possibility. Maintaining the status quo is equivalent to falling behind. How many businesses are around that still do things the same way they did them 30, 40, or 50 years ago? CRM is a change in the way we operate, but it is a necessary and good change. Any change can be difficult because it often involves the unknown; learning new methods; losing something; or, at the least, some sort of compromise. So, for any change to be successful, it must be undertaken in a careful manner to ensure it will be as effective as possible. This means getting input from those it will affect and explaining all components so everyone understands how to make the change and why it is being made. CRM helps us to learn from past mistakes and human factors to provide a proactive approach to safety. True solutions to safety and operations are never finished; they are continually practiced and trained on. There are no silver bullet fixes. Our communities deserve nothing less than the best service we can provide.

Reference

National Firefighter Near-Miss Reporting System. (2012). 2012 Near-Miss Calendar. Retrieved from www.firefighternearmiss.com.

CRAIG NELSON has been in the fire service for more than 12 years and has worked as a volunteer, paid-on-call, and full-time firefighter/EMT. He is a captain for the Fargo (ND) Fire Department and works part-time at Minnesota State Community and Technical College-Moorhead as a fire instructor. He is a columnist for FireEngineering.com. Previously, he worked seasonally for the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources as a wildland firefighter in northwest Minnesota. Prior to his fire career, he was an airline pilot. He has a bachelor’s degree in business administration and a master’s degree in executive fire service leadership.

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