Tailboard Talk: More PPE or Improved Fire Behavior Training?

By Craig Nelson and Dane Carley

Where We’ve Been

Our last article discussed deferring to expertise, which essentially means using your most capable firefighters regardless of their rank or seniority. This is the last of the five HRO principles as outlined by Karl Weick. These five HRO principles represent the operations side of an HRO. However, these principles do not work without people applying them. So our next series of articles is on reliable employee behaviors.

This month, we introduce the eight Reliability Oriented Employee Behaviors (ROEBs), developed by Jeff Ericksen and Lee Dyer of Cornell University (2004). Ericksen and Dyer did not study the fire service specifically, but we believe the behaviors complement the fire service environment and the HRO concepts we have written about over the previous months. We believe that begs the question: Does the fire service have the right people in the right positions modeling the right behaviors?

Tailboard Talk: HRO Principles for Firefighters

Where We Are

For the fire service to operate as an HRO, we not only need the right people in the right places, but we also need those employees to model the right behaviors. The eight ROEBs identify behaviors to watch for in our fire personnel. They also provide a measure by which to design education and training for our fire personnel. We need to find the right people and put them in places to model and teach the behaviors to others. What behaviors are we trying to measure, model, and teach?

These behaviors, listed below, will be discussed in future columns, when they will be transitioned into fire service terms and behaviors.

  1. Ascertain
  2. Communicate
  3. Initiate
  4. Deploy
  5. Coact
  6. Improvise
  7. Learn
  8. Educate

For now, let’s consider the concept of system vs. human emphasis. We have used the term “symptomatic” solutions in other articles. It is important to differentiate between symptomatic and root cause solutions (see table below). System solutions are often symptomatic; human behaviors are root causes.


Root Cause

Wear seat belts


Do not speed


Wear advanced PPE


As an example, the fire service adds new technology to our personal protective equipment (PPE) arsenal every year. This is an example of improving the system or symptomatic part of making our firefighters safer. But would our firefighters be better served by providing for them an equally increased level of scenario-based training in how fire behavior and building construction interact with each other? This is an example of improving the human or root cause part of firefighter safety. We support improving our equipment, but we also believe that we focus too many of our solutions on the systems part of the equation, which causes only a small portion of our accidents. If this is the case, then, should we not improve both but focus more on the human aspect because the human part causes the vast majority of incidents and accidents–in some cases 70-80 percent? (Putnam, nd).

Let’s look at fire attack. The fire service has added self-contained breathing apparatus (SCBA); full-length, triple-layer turnout gear; flash hoods; the incident command system; accountability; rapid intervention teams; improved nozzles; and compressed-air foam system pumps to fire attack. Yet, the human using these tools still makes the decisions of when to attack, how to attack, and how long to attack at every single fire. Our equipment is improving, but are we improving our behaviors that are tested less often as the number of fires drops? The eight reliability-oriented behaviors that will be discussed in future columns emphasize the study of behaviors in conjunction with principles and systems.

The following case study is taken from www.firefighternearmiss.com. The near miss report, 11-0000332, 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.

Case Study

Event Description 

Note: Brackets denote reviewer de-identification.

The individual involved was a passenger in the front seat of a [brush truck] with a skid pump unit in back. Both the driver and passenger were the rank of firefighter. A third passenger that was sitting in the rear on the passenger side holds the rank of captain, which is specifically a supervisor in the department. The captain was texting while the incident occurred. The crew was fighting fire, specifically the front seat passenger, from the vehicle while it was moving and unknown if members were seat belted. Bad choice of vehicle use in tactical fire suppression and no SOG/SOPs in place addressing brush vehicle use led to the accident. The Captain, who was not paying attention to the hoseline, allowed slack to fall to the ground, which resulted in being run over by the rear dually. The nozzle was yanked back, which resulted in pinning the firefighter’s arm between the “B” post and the hose.  This caused a loud thud, which alerted the driver, who stopped the vehicle.  The injury sustained was a contusion.

Lessons Learned 

The action for the tactic, specifically fighting fire from the front seat, is unsafe and should be prohibited. A policy should be implemented to address general tactical procedures as well as the use of cell phones in vehicles. Communication should be maintained one hundred percent of the time. We all make mistakes, so striving for perfection in safety at all times possibly helps to make the mistakes we do make have less of an impact.


One last item is that this is not the first time it has happened. The other specific incident involved me, and I sustained injury to my hand.

Discussion Questions

1.      Which is more important, addressing symptomatic solutions or root causes? Why?

2.      What percentage of solutions that are symptomatic vs. root cause do you believe the fire service currently focuses on?

3.      What percentage of each should we focus on (remember, 70-80 percent of accidents occur because of human behavior)?

4.      List examples of symptomatic solutions and root cause solutions?


Possible Discussion Answers

We wrote these possible answers in general terms. Apply the ideas to the case study for a specific example for crew training.


1.      It is important to address both. However, we feel our energy is better spent on the portion causing the largest number of accidents, which is root causes (human behavior).

2.      We’re guessing, but our experience says that the numbers are flipped. We believe 70 percent of the energy is spent on symptomatic solutions and only 30 percent on root causes.

3.      We advocate focusing 70 percent of our energy on root cause solutions and only 30 percent on symptomatic solutions.


Symptomatic Problem Solution Examples

Root Cause Solution Examples


Know yourself


Know your crew

Stop at red lights


Wear your seat belt

Study HRO


Scenario based training


Where We Are Going?

Next month, we will address the first reliability-oriented employee behavior: ascertain. The fire service equivalent is ongoing size-up, which is the angle from which the topic will be discussed. We would appreciate any feedback, thoughts, or complaints. Contact us at tailboardtalk@yahoo.com, or call into our monthly Tailboard Talk Radio Show on Fire Engineering Blog Talk Radio.

Tailboard Talk: Craig Nelson and Dane Carley

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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