Tailboard Talk: The Fire Service Does This Better Than Anyone, But Do We Recognize It?

By Craig Nelson and Dane Carley

Incident managers respond from across the country to a forest fire in the Idaho mountains to form an incident management team working within the Incident Command System. The fire spreads across six mountains with 4,000 firefighters on scene. A front moves through the area, changing the direction of fire spread. The team works together to move crews to alternate locations for a better fire attack and safety. The management team works together successfully. This epitomizes this month’s subject. According to Klein, the ability to organize a team for a specific incident and that team’s successfully adapting to an emerging situation is a phenomenon unique to the fire service, even when the fire service is compared to higher reliability organizations such as nuclear power plants’ responding to crises.

These incident managers did not know the call to respond was coming, but the fire service instilled in them certain behaviors to help them be successful. Likewise, when the tones go off at your station, do you know to what type of incident you are responding? You are going regardless of what type of problem is awaiting because that is what you do. Do you have the right tools, training, and equipment? Most of the time, yes; however, there is not a tool for every situation we see. Granted, some departments are better equipped than others, but, in general, we still mitigate the majority of problems we encounter successfully with what we have–even when there is no tool or training to fit the situation.

We are problem solvers and fixers, and we do not quit until the situation is resolved. When Plan A does not work, we simply move to Plan B. Are there any other professions or industries where people are expected to respond to critical situations with which they may not be familiar and have little time to research a solution? We cannot think of any–except for the military. You would be hard-pressed to find another industry in the world that excels at this to the level the U.S. fire service does. Firefighters do this day in and day out; it is part of our daily routine. These traits of adaptability are unique to the culture of the fire service and to its members.

Our last article discussed “showing initiative,” the third of the eight Reliability Oriented Employee Behaviors (ROEBs) developed by Jeff Ericksen and Lee Dyer of Cornell University (2004). Showing initiative involves recognizing a developing problem and reacting. This month, we look at the fourth of these important employee behaviors, the ability to deploy–reacting and adapting well to solve problems, something we excel at every day.

Although reacting is part of the deploy behavior, it is not the important part, because everyone reacts to a problem (admittedly, some of our reactions have been more knee-jerk and less planned.) It is important to note that there is a reaction part to the behavior. Therefore, while discussing “deploy,” we are focusing on how we adapt to the reaction. Previously, we discussed the first half of an event by describing how ‘initiating’ is about recognizing a problem exists and beginning to form a reaction. With deploying, we discuss how the reaction adapts to the specific problem, which is the second half of what we as humans or firefighters do in an event.

Even when firefighters appropriately address the problem, we are well-trained to recognize when Plan A is not working and to adapt by moving on to Plan B–never giving up until all avenues have been explored. The fire service excels in this behavior. We develop it and instill it in almost all of our firefighters; it is our culture. Although we are already great at this behavior, it is still important that we continue to recognize is importance and continue to teach it to our members so we can ensure this behavior remains and important component of our culture.

Tailboard Talk: The Fire Service Does This Better Than Anyone But Do We Recognize It?


Like the other HRO principles and behaviors, this behavior is applicable to emergency scene operations and administrative problems. At least for us, it is often easier to understand the material when it is put into an example; therefore, following are some “good” and “bad” examples of how we deploy during line operations and on administrative levels.

We often adapt to problems so effortlessly that we do not even realize we are doing it. Because of this, we have countless examples of operational adaption in our daily routine.

  • En route
    • Changing a response route because of traffic, trains, construction, or updated information
  • On scene
    • Changing from offensive to defensive during a fire attack
    • Changing from forcing a door, to a dash lift, to a roof removal in an evolving extrication
    • Striking a second, third, fourth, or fifth alarm to provide more resources
    • Changing from providing oxygen to performing CPR as a patient’s condition deteriorates
    • Moving interface strike teams from one street to another as a fire advances
  • Post incident
    • Critiquing the call and discussing different ways to improve the next response to a similar call.

Assessing the current political climate, recognizing the challenges, and adapting to the public’s service desires are examples of deploy at an administrative level. The goal of administrative adaptation is to provide effective and efficient services.


  • Building mutual-aid or automatic-aid agreements in place of a new station or additional personnel
  • Using more three-person crews instead of fewer four-person crews
  • Dispatching additional resources to maintain an acceptable number of personnel on scene
  • Increasing service life expectations of equipment (engines, ladders, boats, gear, and so on)
  • Seeking out more grants
  • Providing a solid operational analysis supporting increased personnel to continue providing the expected service level.


  • Planning for new fire stations in the jurisdiction’s growth areas
  • Planning ways to maintain service in contracting areas that cannot support a station any longer
  • Changing equipment types as new technology emerges (e.g., water vs. CAFS)
  • Increasing education and prevention efforts to address changing population demographics
  • Analyzing run data (e.g., response times, run volumes, and incident locations) to find areas needing increased coverage.

Human resources

  • Adjusting to new public expectations and competition levels for department education and training requirements
  • Ensuring hiring and promotional processes work effectively by using a merit-based process instead of the good ‘ol boy network
  • Understanding and adapting to the younger generations’ expectations
  • Recognizing that many of our work rules are discretionary and that they can be tweaked to improve the work environment when employees request the change, which improves performance and morale:
    • Moving workout times from afternoon to morning
    • Flexibility in uniform standards
    • Objective-based performance

Although the fire service deploys (reacts and adapts) well, how do we ensure that we continue to develop this in our employees and our culture? Following are some way to do this:

Develop a can-do attitude.

While a can-do attitude can lead to problems if not kept in check, the fire service cannot adapt without this attitude. We need firefighters capable of solving any problem with constructive focus and direction from an officer.

Seek out diverse backgrounds.

Diverse backgrounds give us different ways of solving the same problem. When put together into a solution, they give us an endless adaptability. Diversity comes from life, work, training, and educational experiences.

Promote from within.

In a bit of irony from out last point, promoting from within contributes to organizational memory and skill-specific experience. It is important to have a diverse workforce that includes people from outside the fire service to bring new ideas combined with open-minded fire service people to blend the ideas into the culture.


It is important to develop a cohesive group, which depends on group stability. This leads to trust, which enhances communication.

Encourage ongoing training and education.

Adaptability is already an aspect of fire service culture. We pass this culture on to younger firefighters through ongoing training and education. It is important to engage all members in this activity so that the senior firefighters can pass this trait down through experiences and stories. Also, more knowledge provides adaptability. It is like driving. When you drive to a city 500 miles away every couple of months, you know other routes exist but really know only one route well. However, you probably know five routes to the grocery store five miles away and adapt to weather, time of day, traffic, whether school is in session, and other factors.

Encourage open communication by building trust.

We have spent a lot of time talking about building trust to enhance communication because it is the foundation of solving problems and preventing group think. Communication is the delicate mediator between diversity and stability.

# Tailboard Talk: The Fire Service Does This Better Than Anyone But Do We Recognize It?

Figure 1: Effective and constructive communication is the balance needed to take full advantage of those promoted from within and those in the service with more diverse backgrounds.


Case Study

The following case study is from www.firefighternearmiss.com. The near miss report, 10-0000442, 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

Note: Brackets denote reviewer de-identification.

We were dispatched to a car fire at a busy intersection.  Upon our arrival, the first due engine was on scene and the crew was pulling hose and their [extrication] tool.  The crew went to cut the car hood and the [extrication] tool wouldn’t operate properly. On top of that, we had a new engineer driving the engine and he was struggling to get water. At this point, my crew was dismounting the apparatus. By now, the crew was trying to open the hood with pry bars as water was being applied and command established.  The first due crew and my crew were trying to open the hood of the car and it was taking too much time as the fire was progressing. We got the hood opened enough that we could see the locking device. I went and got bolt cutters and cut the U-Ring and we got the hood opened and the fire was extinguished.

Lessons Learned

The generator for the [extrication tool] was not working and the engineer never realized it. This is a communication issue. Know the equipment.  Teamwork: work more efficiently as a team. Training: adapt to conditions when things don’t go your way.

Discussion Questions

1.   List three examples of operational adaptations from your experiences.

2.   List one example of an administrative adaption in your department.

3.   We talk about a “can-do” attitude, but what can happen if it goes too far?

4.   How do diverse backgrounds help us adapt?

5.   How did a different point of view (diverse background) help solve the problem in the case study?

Potential Discussion Question Answers

1.   This question is specific to the reader and crew working on these questions. The goal is to help us realize just how often we adapt to an evolving situation.

2.   Again, this question is specific to the reader and crew working on these questions. The goal is to help us realize how this concept applies to administrative decision making as much as it does to operational problems.

3.   The “can-do” attitude is absolutely necessary for the fire service to be successful. However, it is just as important that the energy and know-how are focused on goal attainment. Not focusing the energy can lead to “moth-to-the-candle” syndrome, machismo, and poor decision making.

4.   Diverse backgrounds bring a different perspective to a problem–both operationally and administratively. A lack of a diversity leads to status quo and groupthink. However, too much diversity leads to indecision and a lack of direction.

5.   First, the first-arriving firefighters adapted to their situation by trying different tools to open the hood. However, the first-arriving firefighters focused on opening the hood at the expense of using a temporary measure to knock down the fire while working on the lock. This case study illustrates adaptation but also the importance of a diverse background.

Where We Are Going

Next month’s column studies the fifth reliability-oriented employee behavior, coacting, focuses on accepting diverse points of view during problem solving. We would appreciate any feedback, thoughts, or complaints. Please contact us at tailboardtalk@yahoo.com or call into our monthly Tailboard Talk Radio Show on Fire Engineering Blog Talk Radio.


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.

Klein, G. A. (1998). Sources of Power: How People Make Decisions. Cambridge, MA: Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

Craig Nelson & Dane Carley: Tailboard Talk

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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