Decision Making in the Fire Service

By Thomas N. Warren

Decision making is the cornerstone skill for anyone in a leadership position. Every person in a leadership position, in the fire service or in the private sector, must make decisions every day and be responsible for those decisions. Effective decision making is a skill that distinguishes truly inspirational leaders from those who are simply holding a position in an organization; there is an awful lot more to decision making than flipping a coin. Decision making in the private sector is somewhat different that the decision making in the fire service, although both share many similarities.

In the private sector, decision making is a skill that is studied and defined by a specific process. Most colleges and universities require their students to study decision making as part of their business programs. The University of Massachusetts offers a program that teaches a seven-step process to decision making similar to other programs offered by most colleges and universities. However, it is not common in most fire science curriculums (we’ll address this later). The program breaks down decision making into the following seven basic steps:

  1. Identify the decision to be made.
  2. Gather relevant information.
  3. Identify the alternatives.
  4. Weigh the evidence.
  5. Choose among the alternatives.
  6. Take action.
  7. Review the decision and consequences.

This is a very deliberate process that allows the private sector to engage in deep thought and contemplation prior to making a decision. The goal is to review all the options, weighing the positives and negatives of each option to project a positive outcome for the issue at hand. The core reason for the decision itself is to improve an existing situation/condition or to improve a profit margin while at the same time minimizing any harmful effects that decision may have. Decisions are not easy, and most people find it difficult to make sound decisions on a consistent basis. This difficulty in decision making (indecision) is rooted in the fear of negative results for the decisions made. No one wants to be responsible for a bad or costly decision so people tend to procrastinate or overstudy an issue to the point that often no decision is made. The fear of the decision’s result can paralyze some people, limiting their ability to make good decisions. Strong leaders have grown over time to understand how to quickly analyze information and project an outcome when faced with decisions. It is a skill that can be learned, but some people seem to have a natural ability to master this process. People who move seamlessly from one decision to the next generally rise to leadership positions in their organizations. It is an essential skill for all leaders regardless of the nature of their business.

San Antonio (TX) Fire Chief and Emergency Operations liaison Steve Reuthner checks an operations board in the Alamo Command Center in San Antonio. (Photo found on Wikimedia Commons courtesy of Patsy Lynch/FEMA.)


Another component to decision making is the ethical implications of decisions. Most colleges and universities require their business students to take a business ethics course that ties into the decision-making process. Ethical decision making can be challenging for everyone in these modern times. Most recently, Lance Armstrong, one of the world’s most recognized cyclists, revealed the he was doping to win races dating back many years. He made decisions—in a very conscious way—to advance his cycling career that were unethical while denying any misconduct for many years to achieve sports notoriety.

Armstrong is one of many in the sports world to fall victim to unethical decision making in recent history. In the business world, there are examples of unethical decision making in the actions of major companies like Bernard Madoff Investment Securities, Enron, and AIG. These companies made unethical decisions that they felt would yield enormous profits. But ultimately, their decisions caused great harm to many people. Government is not immune from unethical decision making such as Rod Blagojevich in Chicago and Bill Clinton and Jack Abramoff in Washington, DC, to name a few. There is no simple definition to ethical decision making, but it essentially relates to a person’s value set, family upbringing, sense of fairness, and religious and cultural background. All these components become part of a decision-making process that is based on doing what is right vs. doing what is wrong.

We become ethical when we make decisions based on what we should do for our organization for the common good. This requires us to think about how our decisions will impact others before a decision is made and what its impact will be in the long term. People who are recognized as ethical decision makers will find that their colleagues think of them as trustworthy, responsible and, most importantly, respected professionals. This is clearly a reputation that we all should strive for regardless of our occupations. Professionally, this reputation will lead to leadership roles in your organization as well as a deep sense of personal gratification and the respect of your peers and colleagues.

So, what do these decision making and ethics concepts have to do with the fire service?  As mentioned earlier, firefighters are not extensively trained in decision making and ethics. Decision making is guided more by standard operating procedures (SOPs) than by a study of ethics and decision making. As I reviewed the course offerings in the fire science programs at my local colleges and universities, I could not find any decision-making or ethics courses in the curriculum. However, general ethics courses were offered in general studies as electives. The absence of decision making and ethical studies does not indicate that these disciplines are not needed in the fire service; in fact, I would argue that they are needed more today than ever. As the fire service becomes more diverse, including generation Xers, Millennials, women, and other minorities, we need to be more cognizant of the impact our decisions may have on our firefighters, unintentionally or otherwise.

The post-World War II strong paramilitary organizational structure on which most departments were built is fading and being replaced by more socially liberal organizational structures.

In many ways, the same concepts that apply to the private sector also apply to the fire service but in the fire service decision making falls into two basic types of decision processes. The first process is the operational type decision-making process and the second is the administrative type of decision-making process.



This represents the more dynamic decision making that occurs at fire and emergency scenes and is usually based on known SOPs that are instituted in an organization to create order as well as comprehensive actions in a proactive manner. There is little time to extensively consider the seven-step process for the many decisions required at rapidly expanding incidents. Fire company officers will direct their initial operations by an operational plan known by every responding fire company. This procedure allows all strategic elements of the fire or emergency response to be met, allowing an incident commander (IC) to build on the plan as conditions warrant. The decision making that follows the initial response will be based on the IC’s experience, the nature of the incident, and the operation’s progress.

The bases of all operational plans are, in order of importance, life safety, incident stabilization, and property conservation. Fire officers and chiefs have become very adapt at making decisions at fire and emergency scenes with little information available while managing the rapidly expanding incident. Although they may not realize it, these fire officers are making a series of decisions: Committing personnel and equipment in dangerous conditions using the seven-step process in a very subconscious way in a matter of minutes. They simply call it “size-up” followed by an “incident action plan.”

The decisions made at fire and emergency incidents are based largely on strategic and tactical needs, with little consideration given to the ethical side of the decision-making process. In large part, ethical considerations were evaluated in detail during the development of the operational plan used to mitigate the fire or emergency (SOPs). Firefighters consider their work to be a good and purposeful endeavor that aligns with ethical behavior. They do not think about right and wrong in their actions because they, as well as the general public, feel that what they do is the right thing.



Administrative decision making is a more deliberative process than fireground decisions; it is very similar to the models used in the private sector. Fire company officers do not normally think of themselves as involved in administrative decision making but, in fact, every decision made outside of fire and emergency operations will fall into this category. Fire officers must make daily decisions regarding station duties, scheduling, training, and resolving minor firehouse disputes; they often use some unconscious form of the seven-step process. Some of these decisions will have little consequence beyond the firehouse, but that is not always the case. A good fire officer will know when it is appropriate to make a decision and when it is appropriate to bump it up the chain of command. The fairness and consistency with which fire officers make these decisions will translate directly to that fire officer’s reputation. This fairness and consistency is also at the core of ethical decision making. Most company officers do not think of their decision making in these terms, but most try to be fair, consistent, and responsible for their decisions. Most also see it as their responsibility to make good decisions for the common good of everyone in their company. So without any formal education concerning ethical decision making, they find themselves making very ethical decisions.

The highest level of administrative decision making is in the chief’s office. Here, unlike anywhere else in any fire department, virtually every decision has consequences and must be made in a consistently and deliberately. Fire department administrative offices must be operated like any progressive business office and avoid the decision-making process found on the fireground; the skill set is not transferable. This is where formal education as to how to make decisions and ethical decision making is paramount.

The chief will set the tone for the entire department in terms of his decision making. If he plays fast and loose with the rules and personnel, than he can expect his officers to do the same. Procrastination or overstudying an issue will look like the chief is detached from the department and his responsibilities. The direct result of this type of reputation will be deteriorating labor relations, low morale and, ultimately, a dysfunctional organization. It is vital for the organization that the chief is fair, consistent, and responsible in his decision making and that he uses a systematic approach—such as the seven-step process.

The chief must always be mindful to be make ethical decisions in a timely manner, whether dealing with the firefighters or the city administration. A track record of ethical decision making will provide some insulation from scandalous attacks from adversaries when making unpopular decisions. The chief who consistently makes ethical decisions will build trust, respect, and stature in his position, creating an environment that is difficult to criticize. Everyone will soon learn that the chief is working for the good of the organization and that his decisions may even become predictable in a positive sense over time.

The decision-making process used in the private sector is not readily transferable to commanding fire and emergency scenes, but it is a transferable skill in the administrative side at most levels of any fire department. Studying decision-making skills and ethical decision making is clearly worth the time and effort for any fire officer aspiring to a chief-level position.


Thomas N. WarrenTHOMAS N. WARREN has more than 40 years of experience in the fire service in both career and volunteer departments. He recently retired as assistant chief of department of the Providence (RI) Fire Department after 33 years of service. He has a bachelor’s degree in fire science from Providence College, an associate degree in business administration from the Community College of Rhode Island, and a certificate in occupational safety and health from Roger Williams University.



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