Tailboard Talk: Do Your New Firefighters Think They Know Everything? Deference to Expertise

By Craig Nelson and Dane Carley

Where Weve Been

Our last article discussed a commitment to resilience, which essentially means ensuring enough resources exist to handle unexpected errors. We have finally reached the fifth and final principle of a higher reliability organization (HRO)–deference to expertise. Have you ever had a new firefighter give an idea or suggestion about “improving” the way the department operates? What was the reaction? Was the firefighter told to keep his or her mouth shut and ears open? Or, was the suggestion discussed based on its merit regardless of the seniority or rank of the person suggesting it?

This month, we talk about doing just that by deferring to expertise regardless of the seniority or rank of the person. Everyone in your fire department, whether they are brand new or the most senior members, has special skills. Deferring to expertise takes advantage of each individual’s skills and uses them in the situations in which they fit best. Generally, the fire service says that our people are our most valuable resources, so we should demonstrate a commitment to that idea by engaging and using our people–our resources.

The first three HRO principles we covered attempt to prevent failures. Last month’s and this month’s principles cover reacting to those errors when they occur, which includes deferring to expertise.

Where We Are: HRO Principle #5 Deferring to Expertise

We understand that many situations in which we work do not allow for lengthy discussions, especially on an emergency scene. Our work environment necessitates making decisions under tight time constraints, high workloads, dynamic situations, and with a lack of information. These factors give us a sense that seeking out expertise is unrealistic. However, these factors are the very reasons seeking out these resources is so important.

If an officer knows the crew’s areas of expertise, then seeking out expertise is not a time-consuming task. Officers will be able to quickly identify the persons who have the best skill set to handle the emergency and put them in a position to begin solving the problem more effectively.

For example, the fire service practices deference to expertise as a part of normal operations when dealing with hazardous materials or medical emergencies. One reason this happens in these situations and not as often at fires is that firefighters learn early in their training to slow down at these emergencies. However, we can still access these skills during time-constrained emergency scenes (e.g., a fire) if we know our crew’s skills and talents. This starts at the fire station before an emergency by getting to know each other and by encouraging all crew members to speak up on scene when something important or hazardous arises. Then, we can start using it en route by asking questions while sizing up the situation.

Another way of looking at this might be a company officer’s informing incident command of a unique skill one of the crew’s firefighters has that would aid in resolving the situation. This provides the opportunity for the incident commander (IC) to gather specific, relevant information to improve decision making and resolve the incident more effectively–leading to increased safety and reduced property damage.

It is important to understand why it is important to push decision making to the lowest possible level. An (IC) develops situational awareness of the entire scene to ensure units do not perform conflicting operations. However, those performing the operation have a better understanding of the immediate problem affecting them and the possible solutions.

The fundamental variable often lies in communication. Information is filtered for various reasons as it passes up the chain-of-command so that the message an IC receives may not resemble the original message (ever play Telephone and pass a message around a circle?). Therefore, rank and seniority sometimes become disconnected from expertise in dealing with the specifics of an emergency. Forgoing rank and seniority, when necessary, in exchange for the expertise of those with specialized skills improves the probability of success because of the synergy created by using a “collective brain.” (Ridley, 2010)

Pushing decision making down and engaging those with expertise is a win-win situation. The incident ends more successfully: improving the IC’s reputation for solid scene management, rewarding the firefighter who feels engaged by being sought out as an active resource at an emergency, and enabling the incident command system to work as it was originally designed, from bottom to top and top to bottom.

Case Study

The following case study is from www.firefighternearmiss.com. The near miss report, 11-0000216, is not edited. We were not involved in this incident and do not know the department involved, so we make certain assumptions based on our fire service experience to relate the incident to the discussion above.

Event Description

We were dispatched to an attic fire in a single-family home.  Initial arrival was an on duty engine and ladder truck with two firefighters and one officer, who gave an on scene report of a two-story wood frame residential structure with heavy smoke showing from the rear.  The officer announced command and told all traffic to go to fireground.  After seeing three sides of the building, the officer (myself) ran around to back side and found heavy flames venting from the second floor gable end off the rear of the structure.  At the time it was not known if this area was an attic over a first floor addition or a room on the second floor.

The officer decided a quick interior search and fire attack, pushing the fire out the already vented hole, would be the initial strategy.

The ladder truck was parked and the firefighter, officer, and an arriving part-paid firefighter donned full gear while the engine operator pulled and charged the initial attack line, set up PPV to the first floor, and gathered hand tools.

As the initial entry to the first floor was made, the next arriving on duty rescue and engine arrived on scene with two firefighters and one officer.  Other part-paid firefighters were beginning to arrive on scene.  The second arriving officer took command.

After searching the first floor and finding no stairs, the initial team exited the first floor and went to the rear of the structure where an exterior stairwell was found to the second floor.  On initial size-up, the stairwell and two mailboxes on the house were missed, causing approximately a one minute delay to fire attack.

Upon entry to the second floor, conditions were a light haze with complete visibility of the occupied area.  Entry was made into a bedroom, which was adjacent to the first floor attic area on fire.  Upon entry I noticed a mattress on the floor and a small window just above floor level.

A small pike pole was used to breach the wall while the nozzleman stood ready and the third firefighter moved hose.  After an area between the studs and about two feet tall was opened, the attack line was discharged.  Conditions went from almost clear to black and steamy instantly.  After spraying the nozzle for less than 30 seconds (maybe even sooner) the room became to hot to occupy.  All three of us announced we had to get out, almost at the same time.

The nozzleman and firefighter supplying hose went out the door to the bedroom.  As I tried to go out the door, heat and flames prevented my departure.  I felt the mattress at my knee and went for the window I knew was adjacent.  I opened the window, thinking I did not want to break it because I knew others would be working under/near it.

I hung out the narrow window from my waist up.  I radioed immediately asking if the other firefighters who were with me made it out, and announced I was at the window and OK.  I thought to myself, “I’m OK, I just need a ladder to get down.”

When I opened the window, other arriving part-paid firefighters recognized the situation was not right and immediately began bringing a ladder outside of Incident Command’s direction. He was directing others in pulling secondary lines, etc.  Firefighters recognized immediate action was required and took it.

While bent over the window sill, flames began coming out the top of the window.  When the ladder was placed at the base of the sill I slid out head first holding the rails.  The window was to narrow to attempt to turn around and the heat was building behind me.  Another firefighter came up the ladder from the ground to help brace me on the descent.  Once my feet cleared the window, I did an arm hook, swung my feet below me, and climbed down the ladder. 

Almost the same time I reached the ground, the room and windows became fully engulfed in flames.

Lessons Learned

The greatest safety lesson that came from this was to be aware of your surroundings and maintain situational awareness. Train so that when you have to react you just do it, and do it calmly.  We have done save your own/save yourself training which included quick ladder bailouts.

Take that extra time to read a building (even your average house fire where that quick initial attack will do the job).  As an officer in a department with limited full-time staff, the first arriving officer has to wear many hats.  Take the extra time to read the roof lines.  In this case, when we opened the wall and then the nozzle, we were hitting a knee wall and not the main body of fire.

Discussion Questions

1.   What are the skills and talents of each of your crewmembers on your shift at your station?

a.   What types of emergencies do those skills apply to?

b.   How could their skills be applied (specifically) at those scenes?

2.   We are NOT encouraging freelancing, which this may initially appear to be. How does someone at the bottom of the ICS chart make sure this does not become an example of freelancing?

Possible Discussion Answers

1.   The answer is dependent on your crew’s knowledge, skills, and abilities.

2.   ICS originally allowed for some variability in the actions performed. The key is to communicate any of those actions up the chain of command. Therefore, someone involved in rescuing the firefighter needs to pass that information up the chain of command. Why, you may ask? Doing so will prevent the IC from committing additional crews to interior search–a crew highly committed to success since they are searching for a fellow firefighter.

Where We Are Going

We started our higher reliability organizing column by describing the major components of an HRO. We have described the basics of the fundamental component of constantly learning. This month’s column finishes describing the five HRO principles as described by Karl Weick and Kathleen Sutcliffe. We have tried to tie each of these ideas into examples and many of those ideas tied to the people in our departments. We are now going to look at eight specific behaviors an HRO should try to develop in their employees to support the five HRO principles. These same behaviors are used in the systems building an HRO (e.g. ICS). So, our next installment will begin describing the eight “Reliability Oriented Employee Behaviors” identified by Jeff Ericksen and Lee Dyer. We would appreciate any feedback, thoughts, or complaints you have. Please contact us at tailboardtalk@yahoo.com .


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

Weick, K. E., & Sutcliffe, K. M. (2007). Managing the Unexpected: Resilient Performance In an Age of Uncertainty (2nd ed. ed.). San Francisco, CA: Jossey – Bass.

Craig Nelson (left) works for the Fargo (ND) Fire Department and works part-time at Minnesota State Community and Technical College – Moorhead as a fire instructor. He also works seasonally for the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources as a wildland firefighter in Northwest Minnesota. Previously, he was an airline pilot. He has a bachelor’s degree in business administration and a master’s degree in executive fire service leadership.

Dane Carley (right) entered the fire service in 1989 in southern California and is currently a captain for the Fargo (ND) Fire Department. Since then, he has worked in structural, wildland-urban interface, and wildland firefighting in capacities ranging from fire explorer to career captain. He has both a bachelor’s degree in fire and safety engineering technology, and a master’s degree in public safety executive leadership. Dane also serves as both an operations section chief and a planning section chief for North Dakota’s Type III Incident Management Assistance Team, which provides support to local jurisdictions overwhelmed by the magnitude of an incident.

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