Pursuing Proactive Fire Service Solutions


Chevrolet introduced one of the first commercially available gasoline injection systems in an American-made car. What year was it? It was an option on the 1957 Corvette. What decade saw fuel injection become common for American-made cars? It was the 1980s before fuel injection became common on American-made cars; almost three decades passed between the introduction of fuel injection by American manufacturers and their widespread adoption of the technology. Meanwhile, other car manufacturers used fuel injection more readily. Porsche and Mercedes are two examples. Pause for a second and consider your reaction to that information. Chances are good that your reaction was something along the lines of, “Well, of course, those two companies used fuel injection and the American companies didn’t. They are performance manufacturers.” Are Porsche and Mercedes really better car builders than American car builders? The answer is no, but they have gained that reputation by appearing to be on the forefront of technology by more readily embracing innovation and using it in their products.


This is a simplified story of what happened, but it is a good example to help us explain how we change. The fire service often jokes about its resistance to change, but change does not come easily to any organization and, regardless of our reputation, the fire service is changing. People naturally weigh change against how it affects them personally and consider the following:

  • what they lose in the change,
  • their comfort with the status quo compared with the uncertainty of an unknown change, and
  • how it conflicts with their values.

People make this judgment quickly and often before fully understanding the change. The natural tendency is to remain the same because it is comfortable.1-3 Unfortunately, an organization embracing the status quo is moving backward when compared with other organizations in the same industry that are progressing.4 There is evidence of people in history literally moving backward.5 Those isolated from others by choice or by geography not only stay the same but also begin to forget knowledge, skills, and abilities once known to them while retaining only the most frequently used skills.

The status quo is important to us because it represents a shared experience, our values, and our culture. Changing the status quo means not only trading away something that is comfortable but also challenging the validity of the beliefs and values we adopted throughout our lives. Therefore, challenging the status quo means overcoming immense, long-established hurdles.

It is easy to see that American car manufacturers continued producing products with which they were comfortable-maintaining the status quo of using carburetors over venturing into an unknown future of fuel injection. It took the outside forces of government regulations and the increased purchasing of imported cars using fuel injection technology to push American manufacturers toward adopting fuel injection. Meanwhile, Porsche and Mercedes moved forward during the 1960s and 1970s improving on Bosch’s fuel injection systems (another name associated with performance and innovation).

Reflection on this example today shows how the American manufacturers maintaining the status quo went backward in comparison with the European manufacturers that embraced different technology. In fact, Chevrolet even sold its fuel injection technology that eventually ended up with the Bosch Company. This is similar to the scenario of isolated people beginning to forget what they once knew. (5) In the 1980s, Chevrolet needed to relearn what it had known about gasoline injection in the 1950s.

Therefore, it is not that the other manufacturers are better companies than American car manufacturers. Rather, they chose to accept the temporary discomfort of adopting new technology and challenging their beliefs and values because they envisioned a profitable future based on it. Those leading the organizations overcame their personal hesitation to adopting the technology. They then led the employees through the transition of uncertain times that accompany change by communicating a vision the employees accepted. They communicated the vision with enough mastery that their employees overcame a sense of what was to be lost and instead focused on what was possible through innovation.

Bringing the higher reliability concept to the fire service is a similar challenge. Because some of the higher reliability change involves behavioral change, we know it is not an easy change. Those who see a benefit from it will embrace it whereas others will wait to see if it is another fad or if the idea has merit. Some will even form an opinion against it without first exploring it simply because change threatens the status quo. Even though the higher reliability concept builds on many ideas and systems already used in the fire service, it does include some change.

Change in the fire service challenges deep values and tradition passed on from one generation to the next through our role models, teachers, captains, and other respected folks in the fire service. In fact, working to develop a Higher Reliability Organization (HRO) includes some of the hardest change. It includes behavioral change rather than just technical change.


The most fundamental aspect of higher reliability organizing is a desire to improve constantly, to develop a culture of ongoing learning that never accepts something as being good enough. A learning culture is one of critical but constructive analysis of why we do things the way we do. When asked, “Why do we do this?” the answer should never be, “Because we’ve always done it that way.” We should do what we do as a fire department because it is safer for the firefighters and citizens or provides a more effective, valuable service to the community.

An organization cannot ever say, “We have completed all of the steps on the checklist to become an HRO, so we are a safe and an effective organization.” An HRO is continually learning and evolving, and the learning does not occur without direction. The learning builds systems based on five HRO principles developed by Weick and Sutcliffe6 while encouraging behaviors based on eight reliability oriented employee behaviors identified by Ericksen and Dyer7 (Figure 1). Most importantly, the systems and behaviors do not exist within silos. The systems and behaviors permeate the organization’s chain of command, divisions, operating arenas, and services to become a comprehensive way of doing business-a cultural shift in how the department takes care of its firefighters and provides services to its citizens. Hence, an HRO is proactive because a learning department recognizes trends with opportunities to improve service and to prevent problems before someone is hurt.

Figure 1. Higher Reliability Organization Components
Basic overview of the components comprising a fire service higher reliability organization.
Basic overview of the components comprising a fire service higher reliability organization.


The fire service is familiar with systems. We use systems to check apparatus, manage incidents, train personnel, and maintain documentation, to name a few instances. Departments providing advanced life support maintain additional systems measuring the quality of services and attempting to identify areas that need improvement. What if we took these systems and applied the concepts across the department based on a few fundamental concepts of learning, the five HRO principles, and the eight reliability oriented employee behaviors?


Many systems existing within the fire service have HRO attributes or contribute to the fundamental HRO behavior of ongoing learning (Figure 1). However, these systems may not be part of a comprehensive mindset applied departmentwide or, in some cases, may have lost some of their HRO attributes as they moved from their origins. If we understand what makes something an HRO system, then we can continually improve that system and apply it in other ways across the organization.


FIRESCOPE ICS contains many HRO attributes including the following:

  • After-action reviews that encourage ongoing learning.
  • Incident forms that contribute to situational awareness.
  • Deferring to expertise [e.g., an incident commander (IC) conferring with a hazmat technician].
  • Resources showing initiative to adjust to changing conditions.

Wait a minute-resources (e.g., a truck company) showing initiative to adjust to changing conditions is an HRO attribute? Resources adjusting to changing conditions sounds like freelancing because the resource is acting without a command from the IC. Notice that the example here is the FIRESCOPE ICS because this ICS system allows for flexibility and is not a top-down management tool. One reason FIRESCOPE ICS is an example of a currently used HRO system is that it is a communication system developing sufficient situational awareness for crews to react to changing conditions without endangering others while providing the means to communicate this change up the chain of command so that all of the resources and supervisors maintain their situational awareness.8

However, some of this has been lost to the National Incident Management System and its generalization of the system. It seems that ICS is taught as a top-down management tool, which means that it is less of a communication tool and more of a management tool. Since such a fundamental piece of the system is lost in this translation, the system loses a major HRO attribute. That is why it is so important to evaluate changes within the context of the five HRO principles and the eight reliability oriented employee behaviors.


Many emerging fire service systems also have HRO attributes (Figure 1). One of the most promising HRO systems emerging in the fire service is Crew Resource Management (CRM).

Learning happens one person at a time within a fire department. Then, the learning is debated, adapted, and spread across an organization through communication.9 CRM is a communication tool that helps us understand our communication patterns both at an emergency scene and outside of an emergency scene, enhancing communication so that ongoing learning can occur within an organization. Communication should be based on outcomes instead of hierarchy because, regardless of rank, we all want successful outcomes. CRM also has other HRO attributes including the following:

  • Developing situational awareness.
  • Engaging others to find a better solution.
  • Working as a crew to improvise.


Although many systems with HRO attributes exist and ongoing learning is the most fundamental aspect of an HRO, none of it happens without communication. For example, systems cannot become comprehensive across a fire department without communicating lessons learned in a near-miss report to training and operations so adjustments can be made (the ongoing learning aspect). You can learn more about the five principles and eight behaviors by reading the Tailboard Talk series at Fire Engineering’s Web site at Home>Leadership>Fireground Management>More Tailboard Talk.


1. Heifetz, RA, & Linsky, M. (2002). Leadership on the line: Staying alive through the dangers of leading. Boston, MA: Harvard Business School Publishing.

2. Bridges, W. (2003). Managing Transitions: Making the Most of Change. Philadelphia, PA: Da Capo Press Books.

3. Lines, R. (2005, March). “The Structure and Function of Attitudes Toward Organizational Change.” Human Resources Development Review, 4(1), 8 – 32.

4. Oakley, E, & Krug, D. (1994). Enlightened Leadership: Getting to the Heart of Change. New York, NY: A Fireside Book.

5. Ridley, M. (2010). The Rational Optimist: How Prosperity Evolves. New York, NY: HarperCollins Publishers.

6. Weick, KE, & Sutcliffe, KM. (2007). Managing the Unexpected: Resilient Performance in an Age of Uncertainty (2nd ed. ed.). San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

7. Ericksen, J & Dyer, L. (2004, March 1). Toward A Strategic Human Resource Management Model of High Reliability Organization Performance. Retrieved February 18, 2010, from CAHRS Working Paper #04-02: Cornell University, School of Industrial and Labor Relations, Center for Advanced Human Resource Studies: http://digitalcommons.ilr.cornell.edu/cahrswp/9.

8. Bigley, GA, & Roberts, KH. (2001). “The incident command system: High reliability organizing for complex and volatile task environments.” Academy of Management Journal, 44, 1281 – 1300.

9. Bisel, RS, Messersmith, AS, & Kelley, KM. (2012). “Supervisor-subordinate communication: Hierarchical mum effect meets organizational learning.” Journal of Business Communications, 419(2), 128-147. doi:10.1177/0021943612436972.

DANE CARLEY entered the fire service in 1989 in Southern California and is a battalion chief for the Fargo (ND) Fire Department. Since 1989, he has worked in structural, wildland-urban interface, and wildland firefighting capacities ranging from fire explorer to career battalion chief with a Fire Officer designation from the Commission on Professional Credentialing. He has a bachelor’s degree in fire and safety engineering technology and a master’s degree in public safety executive leadership. He is a student in the National Fire Academy’s Executive Fire Officer Program. Carley cowrites The Tailboard Talk monthly column on higher reliability organizing for fireengineering.com and co-hosts a monthly radio show by the same name on Fire Engineering Talk Radio.

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