Operational Flexibility: Should We Always Follow “The Rules”?


Just follow the rules! Encouraging people to “follow the rules” is sound advice most of the time, especially as it relates to a high-stakes operation like a fireground. Rule following tends to put you, the officer or firefighter, in a position for success. However, rule following alone is insufficient to ensure positive outcomes during fireground operations.

Stinking Rules! Who Needs ’Em?

All fire departments have rules, directives, standards, policies, or guidelines that have usually developed through hard-won experience. Many may have names or incidents attached to them that bring back memories of operations gone wrong or firefighters who were seriously injured or killed. Ideally, in the rulemaking process, an organization attempts to understand the ways in which things worked when they succeeded or the mechanisms of failure when they didn’t. This process naturally assumes linkages between cause and effect.

Although this approach works in most cases, it is a very linear process. As John S. Carroll notes, “There is a presumption that organizations are like machines whose problems can be decomposed into parts, the causes identified, and the fixes put in place. The ‘fixing’ orientation looks for linear cause-effect relationships, simplifies problems by decomposing them into well understood components, and applies specialized knowledge to create technical solutions.”1

Fire departments plan this way even though it is well known that very few emergencies unfold in a strictly linear manner. We train our fireground commanders and promote our officers based on their ability to remember and follow checklists, further reinforcing this linear approach to incident management. This runs headlong into the reality that emergencies are decidedly nonlinear. While the fireground commander has his head buried in the checklist or his eyes glued to the command board, numerous things are happening that don’t fit the linear/checklist approach. If we as professionals would simply accept the nonlinearity of emergency work, we can start to move in the right direction. Firefighters will have greater success in following the rules as intended and varying from them when appropriate.

A Reality Check On “The Rules”

Our standard operating procedures (SOPs) are great when they apply to the situation at hand, but they do not consider the variability in the operational environment, sometimes referred to as “friction.” Often, SOPs are effective because “they work in a particular configuration, and a particular scale, and in a particular context and culture.”2 Design SOPs to provide a predictable and repeatable initial deployment of fire/rescue resources for the incidents and events that you most commonly encounter. Emergency operations are such that an attempt to produce precise control over all actions from alert to return will likely lead to additional frustration precisely because the range of possible outcomes is too varied and unpredictable.

Three Core Principles

If you choose to hang your hat on the idea of following the rules “no matter what,” you are implying that all rule following is an end unto itself. It shouldn’t be. The emergency scene requires adaptive behavior in which firefighters act in accordance with the incident commander’s (IC’s) intent. Firefighters should be using a general set of doctrine, rules, and experience to fill the gaps between what they are ordered to do, what they see must be done, and what they believe other members of the team are doing.

A core set of principles can guide personnel faced with situations that don’t match the SOPs or for which no SOPs exist. And to be clear, there are times when you will have to break the rules to facilitate operational effectiveness. The principles below will enhance your ability to operate without destroying the unity of effort essential to effective incident management. The three core principles are intent, communication, and coordination.

  1. Intent. Understanding intent is critical: “What is the intent of my SOPs or orders from my supervisor?”
  2. Communication. Ensuring ongoing communication is critical: “How do I inform others of my actions?”
  3. Coordination. Ensuring operational coordination is critical: “How do I behave in ways that support the overall mission?”

Deliberate, Defendable Action

The primary principle guiding deviation from established procedures is deliberate, defendable action. A deliberate, defendable action is one in which the person taking the action in question does so because he understands the intent of the IC or the SOP. Further, this deviation from the norm occurs only when it is determined to be critical to operational success and only for so long as the situation absolutely requires it. Further, the burden of proof for the appropriateness of the deviation is on the person taking the action, as is the responsibility for the outcome.

Some guidelines to assist in determining if deviation is a reasonable approach are as follows:

  1. You are certain the action meets the intent, if not the letter, of the SOP.
  2. You can reasonably defend the action.
  3. You are certain your action is necessary to meet the SOP’s intent.
  4. You clearly communicate the action to all on scene.
  5. You bring your actions back into accordance with the SOP as soon as possible.


An SOP for the XYZ Fire Department is to pull 2½-inch attack lines on all confirmed commercial fires. This “rule” resulted from the experience at many commercial fires in which members were unable to quickly control fires in commercial structures using smaller lines.

Engine 55 (E55) responded to a grocery store fire at 1900 hours on a Friday. The engine officer’s initial plan, on seeing smoke showing from the rear of the building, was to pull a 2½-inch line as the primary attack line. On arrival, the store manager tells him he has just come from the back storage area where the fire started. It is a small fire in a small closet that is starting to grow.

The E55 officer evaluates the smoke conditions along with the new information and decides to pull an extended 1¾-inch line to the back storeroom. He calls for the backup line to be a 2½-inch line and proceeds to the fire.

The task is to evaluate the decision-making process and determine if it fits within acceptable boundaries for moving away from the rule, “Pull 2½-inch lines on all confirmed commercial fires.”

Meets the Rule’s Intent

You don’t just get to do what you want to do simply because you want to do it. Your decision to move away from the SOPs or orders of your supervisor must consider their intent. Most likely, you are seeking to meet an aspect of the incident priorities of life safety, incident stabilization, property conservation, or environmental stabilization (LIPE). It may not be “the rule,” but it’s also not so far outside the intent of the rule that no one even remotely recognizes what you’re doing.

The intent of pulling the 2½-inch line is to provide sufficient fire flow for successful fire extinguishment. In this case, the officer determined that the smaller line would accomplish that outcome. The intent was not to ignore the SOPs but to meet the higher priority of “extinguishment,” which the SOPs were intended to accomplish.

Deliberate and Defendable

You should be able to articulate reasons for why you are choosing to do something that is off script. And those reasons should be “reasonable.” People questioning your actions should be able to understand the reasoning behind your decision whether or not they agree with your action. The key difference between freelancing and performing defendable actions is the justification for the actions taken. When the motives for deviation are based on the intent of the SOPs, the defense of the deviation should be fairly straightforward.

The officer can point to the smoke conditions on arrival, the new information he received from the manager who had eyes on the fire, and his limited staffing to justify the 1¾-inch choice. His decision to pull the more maneuverable line to apply the quickest water possible on an incipient fire is valid reasoning. Furthermore, by directing that the backup line be of the required size, the officer acknowledges the intent and the need to make accommodations in case the initial assessment was flawed.

Necessary to Accomplish the Mission

Your decision to operate “against the rule” is based on an outcome you expect to see. Also, you’re reasonably certain you’ll be able to tell if your choice is working and react appropriately if not. This step is what divides those who just shoot from the hip and those who thoughtfully make a decision that is different than “the norm.”

The officer made his choice based on the intent of limiting the scope of the emergency. He may have known or assumed that stretching the larger line would give the fire time to grow. However, whether this deviation is absolutely necessary will depend on the situation.

Action Is Communicated

Communication is always critical but never more so than when you make decisions that are likely different from what is expected. Even though not everything is going to follow a prescribed checklist, many are still expecting that list. It is what they’ve been trained to anticipate. The person deviating from the rules is responsible for communicating what he is doing and what is expected of others.

In this case, the officer communicated the plan to incoming units and asked for a backup line that was in line with the SOPs.

Return to SOPs ASAP

If you’ve made a correct decision, you should be close to the boundaries of expectations and should have a positive outcome. But sometimes, despite deliberate, defendable action, there are less than positive outcomes. The judgment of whether deviation was appropriate is not tied to outcomes but rather to process. Despite the outcome, you may not use one deviation as a justification for subsequent deviation. Each one must be considered and justified in isolation and on its own merit. The sooner you can get back on script, the easier it will be to coordinate the operation.

The request for a 2½-inch backup line moves the operation back in line with the SOPs and provides options if the fire is too big for the initial line. If the fire goes out quickly, the intent of the SOP is met; if not, a backup plan is already in motion.

Breaking the Rules to Follow Them

Personnel are expected to follow applicable policies and procedures. It is recognized that officers occasionally face difficult problems for which no simple solutions exist or for which established policies and procedures are inadequate. In these situations, personnel must use their knowledge, skills, experience, and education, combined with the values and principles outlined in this document, to assist in their decision making.

We wish that every fire service SOP/policy manual would have some statement like the one above to set down “the rules.” It authorizes firefighters to do the job to the best of their abilities while recognizing that linearity is unlikely. The further admonition here is that action is expected. Decisions are required. And no checklist, SOP, or other guide can take the place of well-trained firefighters choosing a course of action and following through.

So follow the rules. They should be an important part of your operations and guide the majority of your actions. But when they don’t apply and deviation is necessary, don’t freeze, act sensibly, and consider following the principles and corollaries outlined above. Using these principles, you can form a framework that will serve you well when information is limited, emotions are high, and the checklist just doesn’t seem to match the moment.


1. Carroll, J. (November 1998) “Organizational Learning Activities in High-Hazard Industries: The Logics Underlying Self-Analysis.” Journal of Management Studies, 35,(6), 699-717.

2. Petroski, Henry. Success Through Failure: The Paradox of Design. Princeton University Press. 2006.

CHARLES BAILEY is an assistant chief with Montgomery County (MD) Fire and Rescue Services, with which he has served since 1991. He is assigned as duty operations chief for the B shift.

MIKE GAGLIANO has 30 years of fire/crash/rescue experience with the Seattle (WA) Fire Department (SFD) and the United States Air Force. He is the captain of Ladder 5 and a member of the SFD’s Strategic Planning Leadership Group. Gagliano has written numerous fire service articles, is co-author of Air Management for the Fire Service and the SCBA chapter of Fire Engineering’s Handbook for Firefighter I and II (Pennwell Publishing). He is a member of the Fire Engineering/FDIC Advisory Board; a director for the Firesmoke Coalition (Firesmoke.org); and on the advisory board of the UL-Firefighter Safety and Research Institute. He teaches across the country on air management, fireground tactics, leadership, and company officer development. He co-hosts the popular Fire Engineering Blog Talk Radio show “The Mikey G and Mikey D Show” and partners with his wife Anne (Firelife.com) to teach on strategies for developing and maintaining a strong marriage/family.

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