Military Lessons for Volunteer Fire Departments


The fire service likes to say it is a paramilitary organization; this is true because we share many similarities with the military. First, we both deal with life-and-death situations (although the military often deals with greater numbers of casualties and engages in much larger operations than fire departments). Second, we both plan for operations, but we must adjust to the conditions of our respective battlefields. Third, we both train extensively. On the fire side there are specialty disciplines such as engine, truck, and rescue. On the military side, there are artillery, infantry, and combat engineers. Since our basic operations are similar, what can the fire service learn from the military? Are there any military concepts that, with some modification, we can transfer to the fire service and from which we can benefit organizationally and personally?

This article shares a few major concepts I learned working as a civilian for the U.S. Army for 33 years. As a civilian employee, I supported military units at West Point and other task force units. While I worked in emergency management, planning, and leadership positions at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, I was fortunate to always have a high-ranking military officer as a boss. What follows is not only what I learned but also what I actively observed as deep-rooted systems; successful policies and procedures; and, sometimes, just plain-old ingrained culture of the organization and its leaders. The focus here is to highlight a few successful habits and leadership qualities that I observed, learned, and subsequently used from my military bosses and mentors that may be useful to you. I was able to benefit from their years of training and experience, which, by the time they attained the rank of lieutenant colonel or colonel, was quite significant.

Lessons from My Mentors

Thankfully, my military bosses were all excellent mentors who shared with me their most successful policies, procedures, and cultures. Following are a few of their most successful tips that I have been able to use in my professional and personal life. To be clear, these are my observations from my noncombat staff positions and experiences, and they in no way represent U.S. Army policy, procedures, or culture; they are simply my observations of successful management techniques that may be useful to the American fire service and, especially, to our company and department leaders at every level.

Leave it better than you found it. This applies to all ranks in the fire service. For the firefighter, leave your locker better than you found it—the next probie will appreciate it, and your firehouse will be better for it. Pack the hose and clean the tools better than you found them—the next shift may need them in life-and-death situations.

For officers, leave the position better than you found it. If you are a lieutenant, train your company better than it was trained before. If you are a captain, coordinate your operation with other companies with which you typically respond during emergencies. Chiefs are responsible to provide clear guidance through policies and procedures to subordinates. If they are not in place when you are promoted or they need updating when you take office, one of your leadership goals must be to write or update them. Leave your sacred leadership position better than you found it: Firefighters’ lives depend on it.

Officers of all ranks are leaders. Don’t just idle in the position, check the block, and collect your reward; leave it better than you found it! The world changes a bit every day. If you as a leader remain static, your organization will remain static, and soon the world will pass you by and you and your organization will be behind.

Take care of the member next to you. The Army calls them “Battle Buddies,” and it is your responsibility to look out for these members in your crew, company, or department. Sometimes a simple, “Hey, is everything all right?” may make the difference in helping them out of a potentially serious problem. Always consider that you may have some good advice for them. If they verbalize an issue, they are making it seem less daunting and, perhaps, less insurmountable. The bottom line is that it shows you care, and what goes around comes around. It is better for your battle buddies, you, and your company or department. Create a culture of support, caring, and solutions.

Make your expectations known. If you are the engine chauffeur, tell the probie—as he wraps the hydrant—that you will be looking in the driver’s side mirror for him to give you the hand signal to lay a supply line. Explaining your expectations is a whole lot better for everyone than chewing him out after the alarm.

Set personal and organizational goals with timelines and milestones. Setting goals is the key to success at almost anything. It is much like defining the problem: You can’t solve it if you don’t clearly know the objective. Set a goal to read or update your department’s standard operating procedures (SOPs). Because there are many, set a “milestone” schedule by reading five or 10 SOPs per day or shift. This is a milestone—a measure to get you part way to your ultimate goal of reading them all. The late Chief Alan Brunacini used the term “benchmarks” when discussing strategic and tactical operations at fires. Perhaps the biggest was the “all clear” benchmark that, in his system, meant the search proved negative or solid information confirmed no trapped occupants. Milestones break a huge task into smaller manageable, achievable tasks. When faced with a daunting task, ask yourself, “How do you eat an elephant?” The answer is, “One bite [milestone] at a time!”

Prepare the battlefield. Military strategists prepare their battlefield by creating anti-personnel minefields to control movement of enemy troops or with preinvasion artillery bombardment to make an assault more effective. When planning, consider what is needed to make your operation easier; faster; and, most importantly, more successful, and have it in place before the operation begins. For example, when planning a company-level engine company drill, prepare your battlefield by going to the site and making sure that you can drill there, that there is a water supply, that your training objective can be accomplished in that area, and that you clearly define what you want your members to do when they arrive on site. This way, you, the site, and your training plan are ready and you are confident, which will be apparent to your members. The alternative is to arrive on site, do a recon of the area while your members wait, and then figure out what you want your members to do. In this case, you have lost their focus and confidence because you were unprepared.

Put it in writing. Writing things down forces us to clarify, specify, and organize our thoughts. It also allows us to support with facts rather than emotions. The advantage of writing it down is that it gives you an opportunity to visualize your thoughts and see, evaluate, and improve them. Once your thoughts or plans are on paper, others can improve them. In our engine company training example, write down the sequence of the training to review and evaluate it to be sure it meets your training objectives. If your operation (the drill) was successful, you can pass it on to another officer so that that company can benefit from your success.

Use a standard format. The purpose of written correspondence of any kind is to share information, send requests or orders, or establish SOPs. The Army has a standard format for most correspondence; at the top of this list is the operations order (OPORD). OPORDs are written in a standard five-paragraph format with the headers Situation, Mission, Execution, Support, Command, and Signal and Control. These paragraphs may go on for pages, but the framework/format is the same. The planner who writes the OPORD knows where to put tasks and critical information for subordinate leaders and units. The reader, because he was trained in the intricacies of this effective tool, knows where to look in the OPORD for what he needs to know so the unit can support the overall mission. As a leader, use several types of standard formats to effectively communicate policy, procedures, and important updates such as incident action plans, department orders, training circulars, and SOPs. Whatever format you use to inform your subordinates must be useful, practical, and effective for them.

Be transparent and control rumors. Secrets and surprises both on the fireground and in the firehouse are not good in the emergency services. Transparency; stating your expectations, goals, and objectives; and making clear, mid-course corrections so subordinates know “where you are coming from” are a great help in accomplishing the mission.

Life can throw you curveballs, so adjust your goals or methods based on unforeseen circumstances, and make them clear to your subordinates. Our organizations are made up of people. Idle hands are the devil’s workshop, and we often have some spare time in the fire service. Expect rumors to develop. How do you dispel these rumors to help keep the organization running smoothly? Establish a rumor control officer. As a leader, you may choose to do this yourself. In reality, this is a kind of light-hearted method (bordering on a joke), but do not underestimate the value of stating the rumor and dispelling it during meetings—either officially or spontaneously. Rumor control is like damage control: Onboard a ship, it can help keep your ship from sinking from the damage—real or imagined.

Mentor up and down the chain of command. This doesn’t necessarily mean having to create father-son type relationships, but it may help to put your arm around your member’s shoulder and have a talk. Whether he is a coworker or a subordinate, talk to him about something you did in the past that worked really well. Also, this does not need to be a senior member talking to a junior member; it is more about one student of fire suppression talking to another. For the senior members, remember that there is a clear responsibility for them to share what they have learned with the junior members. It is not an option but clearly a responsibility of the job.

Mentoring can also be passive, and you can do it to improve your own operations. Ask yourself, “What can I learn from this member?” It could be anyone in the department, such as your boss, coworker, subordinate, or superior. For example, a unit in which I worked was not running smoothly. There were great people in the right positions all trying to do the right thing, but we were still not as effective and efficient as we should have been. We all knew it, and we were all trying hard, but that spark just was not there. So, our boss started doing “stand-ups.” Each morning, we had a short meeting where we literally stood up in our office and stated our objectives for the day as well as whether we needed any support, advice, funding; if we were on schedule; and so on. These 15-minute meetings were effective in getting us to run smoothly again. The boss was careful to make the meetings a bit social and nonthreatening. He always had his cup of coffee in hand; if the conversation got too intense, he would divert the conversation to the virtues of his coffee. Simple? Yes. Silly? Maybe. Effective? Definitely.

Mentor your boss. Although there is great value in using standard formats, department procedures, and established policies, there is equal value in innovation to improve the process. Another mentor of mine insisted (and rightfully so) that we use the standard OPORD format for all our planned operations. They included everything from coordinating presidential visits with safety, security, fire, and aircraft fire and rescue protection to Army-Navy football games. Our problem was that our mid-level managers would not read the entire document and that, when they deployed their people and resources to conduct an operation, it was not a complete success. To overcome this problem, I used aerial photographs to display important post assignments, routes, and timelines. This simple photograph with overlaid callouts and other information provided subordinate unit leaders right down to their line personnel with a quick effective visual view of the entire operation. Senior leaders could picture the operation as well as could mid-managers and the soldiers who had to execute the mission. A picture is worth a thousand words, especially if there are a thousand words to read.

Lead by Example

During an especially bad wildfire season in the Northeast, I was assigned as the liaison officer (LNO) for a colonel who led an aviation unit of Blackhawk helicopters flying water bucket missions. As the LNO, my job was to assist him with whatever he needed to keep the five Blackhawks and their 660-gallon buckets flying to suppress the multiple fires. After establishing the plan, the area of operation, and logistical support, we got down to business.

The colonel set up a system where he would radio the pilots from an observation point near the fire line on how to approach it and when to initiate the release of the water. What we quickly learned was that he could not be at an observation point to direct the helicopters and still see where the water actually hit the ground; he needed an observer on the ground near the point where the water hit to relay information about the accuracy of the drop so he could adjust the next Blackhawk in the rotation. This task became my job for two weeks. Working as a team, we dropped 590,000 gallons of water. The air drop knocked down the fire, and hand crews followed up for final extinguishment.

After an exhausting day, the dining facility brought out dinner to the helispot we had set up. There was plenty of food for the number of people we had on site. Some folks were in the chow line, and I mentioned to the colonel that we should get in line. He said abruptly, “I always eat last.” I replied, “Sir, there is more food here than we will ever eat.” He looked at me and said, “I always eat last to be sure there is enough for my crews.” I got it the second time, loud and clear. His people were his first concern. This was one way to lead by example. It was a clear message to his subordinate leaders on how to take care of their subordinates by example.

In our profession, we can lead by example with simple things such as always wearing personal protective equipment, keeping fit to fight fires, maintaining good radio discipline, attending relevant training, and so on. Our subordinates watch what we do, so always lead by example.

JERRY KNAPP is a 44-year veteran firefighter/emergency medical technician with the West Haverstraw (NY) Fire Department; a training officer at the Rockland County Fire Training Center in Pomona, New York; chief of the Rockland County Hazardous Materials Team; and a former nationally certified paramedic. He has a degree in fire protection; is the co-author of House Fires (Fire Engineering); wrote the “Fire Attack” chapter in Fire Engineering’s Handbook for Firefighter I and II (Fire Engineering); and has authored numerous articles for fire service trade journals.


Fire Triangle, You Say? The Fire Decagon and Fire Behavior

How to Plan and Execute a Large-Scale Training Drill

Tactical Considerations: Gas Emergencies

No posts to display