Tailboard Talk: Failure is Not an Option…or Is It?

By Craig Nelson and Dane Carley

The fire service has a very tight-knit culture. You don’t just show up one day and expect to be a full-fledged member of the team. You must first earn your place on the team by showing that you are dependable, that you can be trusted, and that you can perform to an acceptable level. This is obvious; much of what you have to do on the streets can involve life safety, both for yourself and for those you are sworn to protect. You take great pride in doing your job to the best of your abilities.

Along the way, it is instilled in you that, as part of the company or team, failure is not an option. During an emergency response, you can’t just give up if you are tired, cold, or hungry. You can’t give up when someone is trapped in a vehicle or when a fire is burning bigger and bigger. You must have a mental toughness, a mindset where failure is not an option, because in emergency situations, failures can be costly. This is why you do your best to minimize failures/mistakes by training, practicing, and learning about how to respond to any type of emergency you may encounter.

Failure is an area where I have plenty of experience because I chose to learn the large majority of my childhood lessons the hard way. It usually involved a lot more work and pain, but it also made sure that I never forgot most of those lessons; life lessons which now help guide me to this day.

“Failure is not an option” is a great attitude to have in the fire service; in fact, this attitude is pretty much a requirement. But the reality is that failures/mistakes do and will occur no matter how much you train and practice. It doesn’t matter if you are a firefighter, an engineer, a company officer, a training officer, or a chief; eventually, you will encounter a failure/mistake. It may or may not be caused by your failure/mistake. For some, it may happen while operating a piece of equipment or while encountering an unforeseen hazard. For others, it may be related to policies or budgets. The type of failure/mistake you are likely to encounter depends on your role, but all failures/mistakes have one thing in common, they provide an opportunity to learn. Why is this important? This is important because how you react when a failure/mistake occurs has a large influence on the future of your own and your department’s success. If you use it as an opportunity to learn, you make yourself and your organization better. Do you openly address failures/mistakes, using them as an opportunity from which to learn? Do you share with others what you learned to prevent it from happening again? Do you learn from failures/mistakes as Thomas Edison supposedly did when he was working on a practical version of the lightbulb? There are different versions of the story, but they all involve the general idea that others thought he had failed many times. Edison looked at it as learning of the many ways that a lightbulb didn’t work. Do you find the root cause, develop a real solution, and proactively train to prevent it from happening again? Or, do you (and/or your organization) simply dole out punishment and make a new rule saying not to do it again?


Typical Reactions to Failures/Mistakes (*These are all reactionary)

  • Cover it up, sweep it under the rug. Our culture inadvertently encourages this to avoid embarrassment and/or punishment.
  • Make a new rule not to do it again. 1) New standard operating guideline (SOG), standard operating procedure (SOP), and so on, seems like a solution, but it is a temporary fix and often unnecessarily adds to an already too long list of SOGs. If your SOGs are so long that you can’t remember them all, then they are not doing you much good. 2) Think seat belts: We all have rules/laws saying we have to wear our seat belts, but that does not mean we always wear them. Thus, simply adding rules doesn’t truly solve a problem/failure.
  • Punish the person who made a mistake. We are all human. Thus, we all make mistakes. What does the punishment accomplish? What is it supposed to accomplish? Does it help a person learn or build their confidence? Unless the mistake was purposeful, then punishment often makes a mistake/failure worse because it doesn’t help prevent it from happening again.


Successful Organizations Reactions to Failures/Mistakes

  • Make sure the failure is brought out and shared so others can learn from it.

            o  This allows those who were not present to hear about and learn from it too.

  • Find out why the failure occurred.

            o   There are typically many causes behind even the simplest failures/mistakes.

  • Develop training that teaches how to avoid, handle, or circumnavigate the failure.

            o  After finding the root causes, you can develop training and exercises that will teach your organization how to proactively deal with it, preventing it from happening again.


Things You and Your Organization Can Do to Learn from Failures/Mistakes

  • Review all failures/mistakes. Do not do this by patting each other on the back and it should not involve personal attacks or ridicule.
  • Review successful operations to reinforce them. Essentially, review all incidents.
  • Discuss how the failure/mistakes can be avoided in the future.
  • Discuss all of the factors that contributed to the failure/mistake.
  • Share the information with other crews.
  • Trend the reporting of failures/mistakes to find the source of most of your problems.
  • Use the trended information to develop training, which addresses the most hazardous and/or most common areas of your failures/mistakes.
  • Train using realistic scenarios, where you have the opportunity to practice with the areas the failures/mistakes are likely to occur.

How do you handle your failures/accidents/mistakes? How does your organization handle them? It is not a matter of whether failures/mistakes will occur; it is a matter of how you handle them when they do. Every firefighter has made a mistake at some point because all firefighters are human. Successful organizations recognize mistakes and failures will happen. Successful organizations take this information and capitalize on it using it as a learning opportunity so their organization and their people can grow and develop.


Discussion Questions:

  1. How do you handle mistakes/failures? Are others benefitting from it?
  2. How does you organization handle mistakes/failures?
  3. What prevents people from sharing failures/mistakes?
  4. How should you or your organization look at failures/mistakes?


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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