Sizing Up the Fireground Leader: How Do You Measure Up?


Authors, professors, and researchers expend a great deal of time and effort attempting to identify leadership characteristics and theorizing about the “secrets” of successful leaders, but the purpose and application of leadership, rather than random abstract concepts, provide the focus for a leader’s actions, particularly fireground leaders who are often at a disadvantage from the very outset of an incident. At fires and other emergencies, it is not uncommon for firefighters on arrival to find advanced fire conditions, trapped occupants in various locations and degrees of peril, unknown hazards, and fire buildings with preexisting or fire-related structural concerns. Consequently, these uncertain and dynamic situations provide ample opportunities to overwhelm or distract fireground leaders, making it easy to overlook objectives. In addition, when situations are inherently unstable or in crisis, the potential for an undesirable outcome increases. Therefore, leadership is most critical when conditions are at their worst and when the ability of a leader to attain leadership objectives matters most.

The late Major Dick Winters, commander-Easy Company, 506th Parachute Infantry Regiment during World War II, summarized some of these objectives in his memoirs when he explained: “My men depended on me to carefully analyze every tactical situation, to maximize the resources that I had at my disposal, to think under pressure, and then to lead them by personal example.“1 Although a wartime battlefield commander and a fireground commander have vastly different missions, the effective leadership objectives remain the same, and the ability to fulfill these objectives will likely influence the outcome of an incident.


In the fire service, analysis of tactical situations is commonly achieved through a size-up process aimed at evaluating a variety of factors and conditions present on the fireground and using this information to prioritize critical tasks. Fireground size-up can be fast paced and challenging, particularly at the beginning of an incident when the least information is available and you are not familiar with the situation. Fireground leaders must be prepared to rapidly process incoming information, sift through incident particulars to identify those who are at the core of the problem needing immediate attention, and assign the often limited resources where they will provide the most benefit.

Although all firefighters should identify size-up points, firefighters rely on the size-up abilities of their leaders to guide them through the conflict, help them to overcome obstacles, and assume an intervening role in the emergency events. However, the skill and ability to conduct an accurate size-up vary among leaders because opportunities to gain crucial practical knowledge and experience are often sporadic. Although technical knowledge is essential in the fire service, we rely heavily on our leaders to interpret the sights, sounds, and smells of the fireground. An analysis of a cross-section of any department would likely reveal seasoned decision makers as well as members who are relatively new to this role. Departments often use preincident planning to increase familiarity with target hazards and provide training opportunities that focus on scenario-based decision making to front-load information before an actual event. Advance exposure to potential situations through actual incidents, a review of past incidents, training, self-study, or any combination of these items provides essential information fireground leaders can reference during an initial and continuous fireground size-up.


Researchers have studied the ability of fireground leaders to quickly make accurate decisions under extreme time constraints, stress, and deteriorating conditions. On the fireground, thinking under pressure means rendering decisions and giving orders in an instant and being fully aware that as the time for making a decision decreases, the relative consequences of the impending decision increase. Many of our leadership counterparts in business or manufacturing have the benefit of time when making decisions, allowing for a thorough examination of a problem, a discussion period to highlight possible solutions, consideration of projected outcomes for the proposed solutions, and then ultimately electing a course of action that is statistically best. However, the traditional decision-making process used in other professions is generally not suitable for the fireground because of a lack of time. The decision method or style used most often on the fireground is referred to as cue based, recognition prime, or the naturalistic style. It is characterized by an ability to make exacting decisions based on prior experiences and to intuitively use this information as a guide to problem solving. For fireground leaders, every situation encountered is instinctively viewed through the lens of experience in search of a match with similar characteristics so that an existing problem can be rapidly addressed. Ultimately, the ability to mentally match existing circumstances to prior situations provides fire service leaders with a means to counter the high consequences, incomplete information, limited time, and changing conditions typical of any fireground.

The ability to maximize resources on the fireground is a fundamental leadership skill that has become even more challenging over the years as fiscal constraints have limited personnel and equipment, creating an environment where errors in crew assignments may have unforgiving consequences. Preventing resources from being misallocated is best accomplished by prioritizing needs; otherwise, fireground activities will be directed as a reaction to the stresses of the incident instead of in a structured and deliberate manner based on incident priorities.


Perhaps the most time-tested and proven method for prioritizing fireground activities was introduced by Lloyd Layman2 some 70 years ago in his first text Fundamentals of Firefighting Tactics (1940), which was revised under the title Firefighting Tactics (1953). Layman divided the fireground into what he referred to as “basic divisions of firefighting tactics” he considered essential to every structural fire.

The essential tactics comprise the commonly used mnemonic “RECEO-VS”:

  • Rescue-removing people from the fire building to a place of safety.
  • Exposures-preventing fire extension to other uninvolved buildings.
  • Confinement-operations necessary to prevent fire spread to uninvolved areas of the fire building.
  • Extinguishment-attacking and extinguishing the main body of fire.
  • Overhaul-complete extinguishment of any remaining fire.
  • Ventilation-removal of heat and smoke.
  • Salvage-protection of building contents.

Layman’s method enables leaders to assign available fireground resources in a successive order based primarily on the urgency with which a tactic should generally be addressed (Rescue, Exposure, Confinement, Extinguishment, Overhaul-RECEO). Ventilation and Salvage (VS), Layman suggested, “may be required at anytime following the initial size-up.” Today, some leaders still have adequately staffed crews, but most do not. Leaders, therefore, must triage incident objectives with more accuracy than even before.


Thus far, accomplishing leadership objectives has primarily been attributed to skills, abilities, and methods, but leading by example is a distinctively different type of leadership objective. It is shaped by a leader’s ideals and will ultimately indicate if leaders’ actions reflect their attitudes. Although we would like to believe that leading by example is a common practice in the fire service, reality indicates otherwise.

A few ideals that will contribute to success in leading by example include a commitment to the department’s mission as well as the company (which should be one and the same), an obligation to the firefighters’ welfare, and maintaining a physical presence among the crew. For leaders, commitment to the mission of the fire department and their crew is often displayed by the time invested in studying a variety of materials to remain informed and prepared as well as staying abreast of studies conducted by such organizations as Underwriters Laboratories that may influence firefighting methods and tactics. Similarly, military leaders often invest a great deal of their day studying the methods of those they will oppose in battle such as prior battlefield successes and failures because “the art of war and the art of firefighting have much in common.”3 Fire service leaders must equip themselves with knowledge, tactics, and information from past incidents and current studies to lead an effective firefight.

In addition, leaders always carry the weight of the welfare of the firefighters they are assigned, which sounds counterintuitive because firefighters are regularly given assignments that will expose them to serious injuries or worse. To address fireground dangers, leaders must wisely manage the risks to which personnel are exposed and decisively dismiss those that are clearly unnecessary. Leaders need to be alongside their crews as they carry out assignments to direct operations, observe surroundings and conditions, and offer support. Fire officers would have a difficult time convincing anyone that they are effective leaders if they are physically absent when their crews go to work.

All the right traits are meaningless if the leaders cannot lead personnel in all challenging situations. Major Winters offered some practical objectives that provide a clear focus for leaders, not just in the military but also in all high-consequence professions, to direct their efforts to successfully intervene during critical times. The adage “A problem defined is half-solved” certainly applies to the fireground, where reconnaissance of a developing incident through a fireground size-up is used to analyze the tactical situations facing personnel, and although experience contributes to a leader’s size-up abilities, preparation provides essential reference points.

Furthermore, factors identified during the size-up are instinctively matched to prior similar experiences, enabling leaders to combat rapidly developing situations. Additionally, prioritizing firefighting tactics based on fireground needs using the RECEO-VS method provides an uncomplicated system that can easily be applied to complicated situations. But, leaders whose actions consistently match their attitudes by accomplishing the mission, taking care of people, and maintaining visibility lead by personal example through their character and ideals. Everyone on the fireground has a job or an assignment that contributes to bringing the incident under control, and each of these assignments has objectives associated with it that must be accomplished. Leadership responsibilities are no different. Leadership objectives provide points on which to focus efforts in the practical application of leadership.


1. Winters, D. (2006). Beyond Band of Brothers: The war memoirs of Major Dick Winters. New York: Berkley Caliber Books.

2. Layman, Lloyd. (1953). Firefighting Tactics. Boston: National Fire Protection Association.

3. Foch, Marshal. (n.d.). Firefighting Tactics, 1953 (L. Layman, Trans.). Boston: National Fire Protection Association. (Original Work Published-unknown).

STEVEN MILLS is a 20-year veteran of the fire service and a battalion chief in the Ridge Road Fire District in Rochester, New York. He has an associate degree in fire protection and a bachelor’s degree in organizational management.

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