Firefighters make decisions. Some of these decisions are trivial (such as what to watch on television), and some may have life and death consequences (such as how to treat a patient). Although officers do have greater responsibility in the area of decision making, all people on the job, from the newest firefighter to the secretary in the front office, make decisions that significantly affect themselves and others.

Few would argue that firefighters make important decisions, but not all decisions go well. Some firefighters make high-quality decisions even under pressure, and the outcomes are good. Then there are those other decisions-the ill-fated promotion, the poorly accepted change in uniform policy, or the fire attack gone wrong. In some cases, the same people who make excellent decisions one day completely blow it the next. Why does this happen? How can all fire professionals learn to make better decisions?

First, recognize that all decisions are not alike. Many would find this an obvious fact-who would compare the decision about what to have for dinner with that which involves treatment of a patient? But despite the obvious difference, many individuals make decisions as if all issues facing them were similar. Rather than choosing a decision-making style and strategy to fit the situation at hand, they make decisions based on personal style and preference.


There are several types of decision-making processes, and each has value in the fire service, depending on the situation.

Autocratic. Perhaps the most familiar form of decision making is that of an individual or a small group making decisions that affect the entire group or organization-for example, a company officer instructs the crew where to position the engine and what equipment to bring into the fire. The officer assesses the situation and makes a decision, which is announced or explained to those who must carry it out. Although the officer may consider information from other sources, that person makes the decision individually.

Among the distinct advantages of this form of decision making are that it is quick, clear, and familiar to members of hierarchical organizations. Responsibility and accountability for the resulting decision are also clear. When seconds count and lives are on the line, this process often makes the most sense.

But it does have its drawbacks. A consistently autocratic decision-making style used on and off the emergency scene can disempower those who follow-they are hesitant to offer their input because they are fairly certain it will be ignored. An attitude of “just tell me what to do” may prevail, which can lead to real problems. Also, for the decision maker, making every decision alone is exhausting and can be a bad habit when applied to situations that demand a more collaborative approach.

Perhaps the biggest problem with organizational cultures (like the fire service) that promote autocratic decision making is that they do not allow people who are not in leadership positions the opportunity to learn how to make good decisions. Since decision making is learned through observation and practice, firefighters coming up through the ranks often know nothing more about decision making than just telling others what to do. Although it is absolutely necessary for a fire officer to be able to make confident, autocratic decisions, it is also important to understand that using this method to an extreme will alienate people and create an atmosphere of learned helplessness, in which people are unwilling to take any initiative on their own.

Majority rule. The majority rule process involves a group voting on a question; the option that the majority of voters favor is the final decision. This process is familiar to those living in democratic societies and thus is easy to employ when a group cannot agree between two options. It works well for decisions involving well-defined options and when the resulting stakes are not too high. For example, if a station cannot decide what to have for dinner, it’s natural to vote on it and let the majority decide the outcome.

Majority decision making has its limitations. It is obviously unsuited to situations in which one or more people have more expertise and responsibility for the resulting decision, such as making strategic choices at an emergency scene. Voting also breaks down when there are more than two choices; thus, the resulting decision is made by less than a majority of those affected. Since voting is often done to reach a quick result, those in the minority may not feel that deeper issues are addressed or that their points of view are really heard and understood.

Consensus. In consensus decision making, all those affected have the opportunity to be heard on the issues, and the ultimate decision is made not by voting but by developing a plan that everyone can buy into. In this process, all those affected may not agree completely with the final decision but are committed to the overriding goals and thus will support the decision regardless of individual differences. In a true consensus process, participants have three choices: to agree with the plan, to disagree, or to stand aside. If strong disagreement continues, the decision must be deferred. Those who choose to stand aside are saying that although they disagree with some specifics of the plan, they will support the greater good of moving forward with it.

This process takes time and is obviously unsuited to decisions that are time sensitive. It would be ridiculous to use the consensus process when deciding whether to begin CPR on a patient or how to initiate a fire attack. But many decisions in the fire service lend themselves to the consensus process; yet it is not often used, mainly because leaders may lack the experience, desire, or skills to make it work.

Consider something as simple as the decision of what to have for dinner. If one person always decides according to his preference, the rest of the group will soon lose interest in participating, and eating meals as a group will disappear. If this decision is always voted on, those with similar tastes will always dictate what is served to those with different preferences. As a result, the group may splinter over this issue. But if the goal is to keep having meals together, then using a consensus process can work. In that case, everyone is heard and although sometimes decisions are made that may not reflect the majority opinion, people agree to compromise for the greater good.

Reaching consensus isn’t easy, even when the topic is something as simple as dinner. Apply the process to diverse groups considering issues like traffic mitigation or new station location, and it can feel like trying to run in quicksand. The keys to effective consensus decision making, at any level, are skilled leadership and facilitation of the process. It is also necessary that the members of the group have a commitment to a mission that is greater than any individual position or preference.

Unanimous agreement. The most difficult way to make decisions is to demand unanimous agreement, a process used when the stakes are very high and it is necessary that everyone have a high level of personal commitment to the result. Thus, juries in criminal trials must reach unanimous decisions. In the context of the fire service, requiring unanimous agreement is usually reserved for decisions in which the stakes are equally high for every participating individual and all must have strong and equal commitment to the decision.

This process is also only practical for decisions made among relatively small groups. For example, when developing a strategy for a small team about to engage in a high-risk rescue, getting unanimous agreement for the plan among members of the team would be beneficial and possible.

Among the various decision processes, there is a sliding scale of participation from the autocratic style to those that require agreement from all involved. Decision-making processes that create more opportunities for participation take more time and effort but also create more ownership of the outcome. They also allow the unique skills and knowledge of diverse individuals to contribute to a better plan. Most importantly, they provide opportunities for people not in official leadership positions to develop communication, option evaluation, and negotiation skills in decision making.

For these reasons, many fire departments create committees or teams that include organization members across rank and function lines. For example, chiefs, company officers, driver/operators, administrators, and mechanics might come together to consider what type of apparatus the department should purchase. The contribution of the diversity of experiences and needs among the group ideally will result in the best possible choice. But this can only happen when the process itself works well, and this is a typical downfall of group decision-making processes.

When group process fails, there are often identifiable reasons. Here are some of the things people might say if the team described above failed to meet its goals:

  • They said we were all equal on the team, but that wasn’t true. They paid lip service to what we said and then the chiefs did what they wanted.
  • We worked for weeks to design the best truck we could and then they told us they had money only for what we already had.
  • No one was in charge of the meetings. Everyone argued or tried to push their personal agendas. We never got anything done.
  • We didn’t have the resources we needed. There wasn’t enough time to do it right. We lacked access to the information we needed to make an informed decision.
  • There was pressure on all of us to agree, even when people had different ideas. It killed any real dialogue from the beginning.

Managing a group decision-making process is challenging even under the best conditions. Even when it seems like all the pieces are in place, things can still unravel. You can maximize your success by following some basic guidelines.

First, make sure you are choosing the right process for the situation. When an immediate decision is needed, that is not the time to begin a long collaborative process. On the other hand, if buy-in from all involved is critical to success, it is best to steer away from autocratic or even majority-rule methods. Although these may bring short-term results, the long-term damage may more than offset those gains.

Second, bring the right people into the process. If you are beginning a collaborative process and hope to achieve a consensus decision, it is critical that the people involved in the process have the overall mission in mind. Are they able to put aside personal agendas toward achieving a common goal? On the other hand, be cautious about choosing people for committees or teams who are too much alike and who tend to avoid or suppress conflict.

Diversity and dissent, when managed well, create the climate for better decisions to ultimately emerge. Insisting that people agree too quickly is the recipe for groupthink, which can lead to disastrous consequences.

Third, assist people involved in group decision making in developing the skills they need to do the job well. Critical skills include facilitation, organization, communication, and negotiation. Everyone in the group, not just the leader, should have skills and experience in these areas. Providing training, mentoring, access to useful feedback, and opportunities to practice are some methods to promote these skills.

Fourth, create clear expectations about roles and responsibilities in the decision-making process. If a group is serving strictly in an advisory capacity, make this clear from the beginning. If you already know what decision you will make, don’t raise people’s expectations that they will have real impact on the decision. Be honest about the roles people will play in any decision-making process, but also make sure there are opportunities for genuine involvement in some important organizational decisions.

Finally, give people real responsibility when you do engage them in decision-making processes. Hold them accountable for what they do. In the same way that some leaders pay lip service to their subordinates’ involvement in making decisions, some line people use team or committee involvement as a way of promoting personal or sub-group agendas and then blame the failure of the process on leaders. For any group decision- making process to work, everyone must be committed to the organizational outcome beyond personal gain.

When people are clear about what kind of decision is needed in any given situation and what their roles are in making the decision work, the group process often goes well. Few firefighters will question or criticize legitimate orders on an emergency scene, even when given in a very autocratic manner. Decisions reached through a successful consensus process usually have a high level of buy-in and long-term success. But people get frustrated when inappropriate methods are used; for example, talking though every decision instead of just taking action. People hate leaders who micromanage them because they want to make every decision themselves. People also readily disengage from any decision-making process when they feel their input is not valued or heard.

• • •

Firefighters operate as members of teams, and they can only be truly successful as individuals when those teams work well. A critical aspect of highly functional teams is the ability to make good group decisions. The ability to make decisions together and jointly commit to the outcomes is a result not only of good leadership but also of all those involved understanding what good decision making entails.

LINDA F. WILLING is a retired fire officer with the Boulder (CO) Fire Department and the principal consultant and trainer for RealWorld Training and Consulting. She is an adjunct faculty member of the National Fire Academy in the Executive Fire Officer Program. Willing has a bachelor’s degree from the University of Pennsylvania and a master’s degree in management from Regis University in Denver.

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