Tailboard Talk: Is the Fire Service Highly Reliable?

By Craig Nelson and Dane Carley

Your crew responds to a working fire. You review the building’s preplans en route to the fire. You establish command as the first-arriving unit. You assign tasks such as fire attack, rescue, and ventilation. You also maintain accountability and the rapid intervention team (RIT) throughout the incident. After the incident ends successfully with no firefighter or civilian injuries or deaths, you return to the station and fill out a National Fire Incident Reporting System (NFIRS) run report. Later, the crew fills out a near-miss report to make sure others learn from a small but critical mishap during the incident.

That is how a typical fire incident works for many departments. Not everyone may fill out a near-miss report yet, but hopefully that will be the norm in a few years. In the meantime, hopefully there is at least a critique of the incident. Although good systems are nearly invisible, this is an example of using systems to increase the odds of success at almost every incident. Think about the previous abbreviated example of a fire incident. How many management systems do you count? We count eight systems in the short example we used:

  • Communications
  • Preplans
  • Incident command
  • Accountability
  • RIT
  • NFIRS reporting
  • Firefighter Near-Miss Reporting System (or a similar internal version)
  • Training

How many of these systems do you use? Have you ever noticed that when things go wrong it often involves a breakdown in a system?

We use systems because well-designed systems help our operations function more effectively and accomplish our goals safely. The business world recognizes how systems make their business better and uses them to add to their success. For the success to take hold in their organization, they must incorporate the systems into their procedures and processes, integrating them into everything they do. In fact, the business world has even evaluated one of our systems that we use in the fire service–the incident command system. They are using it to manage their daily operations because of its higher reliability traits (Bigley & Roberts, 2001). However, as important as systems are to success, there are two major pitfalls. The first is that, if used improperly, systems can lead to complacency. The second is that they can become too complex to be useful (Oakley & Krug, 1994). This is why the higher reliability trait of constantly learning is so important; it helps us recognize areas of improvement with the systems we are using. Essentially, it helps us make them useful to our operations.

From here on out, we are going to talk about fire service systems in the context of higher reliability organizing (HRO). You have read about the five HRO Principles and the eight Reliability Organizing Employee Behaviors that we have previously written about. Now we will show how the systems incorporate these concepts.

What is the significance of connecting the two? Well, if we know why something makes us successful, then we can apply it to our operations and continue being successful in different situations. This is important in an HRO because working toward being an HRO never ends; there is no magic point when a department can say, “We have met all of the items listed on the HRO checklist.” Being an HRO is a lifestyle; it is about developing a certain type of organizational culture that always wants to learn about new ways to apply what we already know more effectively.

Tailboard Talk: Is the Fire Service Highly Reliable?

Fire Service Systems

We will take the systems we are talking about and split them into two categories–systems we use and are familiar with today and systems that will likely be used by successful fire departments in the future. You may not have realized it because we do not always refer to or think of what we do as system-based. Yet, you probably use many systems daily if you are active in the fire service. Do you remember when you first heard about or began using the systems that you are now comfortable with? Systems like the Incident Command System (ICS) and RIT initially took some adjustment because at the time they were an unfamiliar change (or new), but now we would never think about going back to the old way. Initially, like most of us, you were probably skeptical and did not like ICS and RIT systems until you actually began to use them. With time, they became comfortable and proved to be effective. Successful fire departments constantly try new ideas and systems to see which work well even though they are uncomfortable at first. They know change will happen and want to take an active role in it rather than allow an external force eventually push it upon them.

The systems we use today help us understand how we work together, why we use them, how they came about, and what makes them HRO systems. Our look at systems in the following months’ columns also gives us a place to make comparisons between the familiar systems that we currently use and the emerging systems. It is natural that emerging systems will make us uncomfortable at first since they involve the unknown and change. But it is also likely these emerging systems will be used in one form or another by successful fire departments in the future. We talk about emerging systems because, like an HRO, we should always be trying to learn to be successful.

In the next few articles, we will discuss these systems in depth.

These are examples of systems we already use and have become pretty comfortable with:

  • ICS
  • NIMS
  • Accountability
  • Near-Miss Reporting
  • RIT

These are emerging systems that are newer to the fire service so we are still building our level of comfort:

These systems will seem second nature to the fire service in the future. As we mentioned, remember when you and others first learned about the systems you are now comfortable using (e.g. ICS)? Like most other types of change, your initial reaction was likely resistance because they were new systems (this is not any different than our reaction to change often is). So, as you look at these current and emerging systems with us, keep in mind that your initial reaction may involve hesitancy or resistance. If that is the case, force yourself past this initial reaction to weigh the merit these systems may hold for you and your organization because your success as an organization could very well be impacted by how well you receive and act upon new ideas and systems. You will notice that some of the systems are on both lists. This is because change does not generally happen quickly. Change often takes years and cycles through a few times before gaining wide acceptance.

Case Study

Our regular readers know that we normally include a case study related to the month’s topic in this section. We take the near miss report from the Firefighter Near-Miss Reporting System. However, we may not have that option if the Firefighter Near Miss Reporting Systems disappears. The Firefighter Near-Miss Reporting System did not receive Assistance to Firefighter Grant (AFG) approval. The evaluation process for the AFG grants is too shortsighted to see the benefit this system provides to the entire U.S. fire service. The near-miss reporting system has many affiliates and partners including the International Association of Fire Chiefs (IAFC), Fire Fighter Close Calls, Fire Rescue Magazine, and Fire Engineering Magazine among others. Fortunately, the IAFC has stepped up to provide interim funding while the near-miss system attempts to secure alternative funding so the system is available…for now. As firefighters, we need to show how important this data gathering process is to our safety. One of the best ways we can think of doing this is by using it. Please use the system to report near misses you experience so that the rest of us can learn.

Discussion Questions

1. What systems does your fire department use for emergency operations?

2. What systems does your fire department use to communicate on a daily basis (not at an emergency scene)?

3. Take a look at the resources available at the National Firefighter Near Miss website by clicking here.

4. How does your department ensure communication up the chain of command is as fluid and reliable as communication down the chain of command?

Where We Are Going

Our last article introduced educate, the eighth of the eight Reliability Oriented Employee Behaviors (ROEBs) developed by Jeff Ericksen and Lee Dyer of Cornell University (2004). Educate is part of a behavior of ongoing improvement. This month’s article transitions us from the eight ROEBs by introducing current and emerging fire service systems incorporating HRO concepts. Next month’s column will begin our discussion on how a specific system uses HRO principles and ROEBs to encourage effective performance. We would appreciate any feedback, thoughts, or complaints you have. Please contact us at tailboardtalk@yahoo.com or call into our monthly Tailboard Talk Radio Show on Fire Engineering Blog Talk Radio.


Bigley, G. A., & Roberts, K. H. (2001). The incident command system: High reliability organizing for complex and volatile task environments. Academy of Management Journal , 44, 1281 – 1300.

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

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

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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