Tailboard Talk: Not Bulletproof But Close — A Commitment to Resilience

By Craig Nelson and Dane Carley

Our last article discussed a sensitivity to operations, which refers to being sure that what you think should be happening is not clouding your opinion of what is actually happening. Whether on an emergency scene or discussing fire department operations, this means that those at the top of the department attempt to understand the operations at the street level by gathering input from companies applying the administration’s procedures. This also means that operational personnel realize that they may not have available to them all of the information that administrators use to make decisions.

The first three principles, like the one above, attempt to prevent failures. Now, we move on to reacting to failures that do occur with Principle #4: A Commitment to Resilience.



HRO Principle #4 A Commitment to Resilience

A commitment to resilience involves three core components:

1. Seeking employees with deep and varied backgrounds capable of improvising. Resilience is about adapting. A fire service-specific background provides the important technical skills necessary to perform the job. Nevertheless, members with varied backgrounds bring new ideas from outside the fire service box that help us adapt to unexpected failures. Since it is human nature to draw solutions from previous experiences (recognition-primed decision making), combining critical thinkers with a fire service-specific background and critical thinkers with a different background can bring new solutions to a problem. This increases a crew’s or department’s adaptability to inevitable problems.

2. Developing employees through ongoing, scenario-based training that challenges decision-making processes. Psychologist Gary Klein describes an interview with a senior curriculum developer at the National Fire Academy in which the interviewee said, “To be a good commander, you need to have a rich fantasy life.” (Klein, 1998) A rich fantasy life refers to imagining how a future fire might burn in a building and various ways to attack it or imagining how an active fire is behaving and evaluating ways to mitigate the emergency successfully. Realistic, scenario-based training provides crews the opportunity to experience many different situations in a controlled learning environment where they can practice and build adaptability, decision-making and situational awareness skills similar to a “fantasy life,” which builds their repertoire of solutions when confronted with an emergency.

3. Maintaining sufficient resources on scene to react to unexpected emergencies. This third component is likely controversial because it is resource-dependent. However, the third component also becomes an issue because of our assumptions. For example, we may assume that we do not need any more resources; we may assume we can send resources back early; or, we may assume that we can handle it without more help. (We all know what “ass u me” means.) Maintaining sufficient resources plans for the worst and hopes for the best. We should

  • have a sufficient number and types of resources on an initial dispatch
  • have the resources arrive in the timeliest manner possible for your response area (e.g. auto-aid agreements)
  • ensure those resources remain on scene throughout the incident. Many accidents happen as firefighters fatigue and/or become complacent with their increasingly familiar surroundings
  • ensure the resources are rehabbed and prepared to act while on scene
  • recognize that people need sufficient rest during a shift to improve decision making.

Questions to ask to begin measuring a fire department’s commitment to resilience include the following:

  • Does your department use scenario-based training to develop crew adaptability, decision-making, and situational awareness skills?
  • Does your department maintain sufficient resources on scene to adapt to unexpected events until all tactical operations are complete?
  • Does your department encourage employees to seek outside resources, education, and training (from such inspiring sources such as Tailboard Talk at FireEngineering.com)?
  • Are employees encouraged to discuss mistakes in a near-miss reporting or after-action review process in a learning atmosphere?

Case Study

The following case study is from www.firefighternearmiss.com. The near miss report, 10-0000010, 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

It was after lunch and our station was alerted for a reported house fire. The dispatch report was fire in a second floor bathroom. The area is not serviced by a municipal water supply so tankers were added at the time of dispatch. I was the officer on the truck company and arrived behind a chief officer, who was on scene about one minute prior to our arrival. His report advised a larger single-family home with the occupant outside and nothing evident. The truck was able to position in the driveway on the Alpha /Delta corner. We met briefly with the homeowner who advised us she thought the fire was on the 2nd floor in a bathroom. My tiller man and I entered the structure from the side Delta entrance. There was a light haze of smoke. When we entered the living room area, I made a transmission over the radio that the house was full of “junk” and for all units to use caution. The homeowner was a hoarder and there was no visible floor. Magazines and papers and boxes were all over the place.

As we proceeded to find the fire, there was still no IDLH; however, the smoke was a little thicker in the living room but only about one foot from the ceiling. I heard command start placing units in service from our assignment to run another fire in a bordering company’s area. I made a transmission that we definitely had a fire in this house and we haven’t found it yet so don’t release anybody.

My tiller man and I did a complete primary of the house and found increasing smoke conditions but no fire. It was obvious to us the fire was on the first floor. We closed windows and watched were the smoke was coming from. In the living room, the smoke increased so we focused our attention there. I have to add there were two hose lines in place at this time, one at the main entrance and another one at the side Delta entrance.

Neither hose line was advanced into the house because we didn’t know where the fire was and, due to the hoarding, the thought was once you went in and got in place you were stuck. There was no room to move around or re-position a hose line.

I was standing in the middle of the living room and using the thermal imager started to scan the area. I saw an area of high heat on the Charlie/ Bravo corner of the living room. I directed my tiller man to the area and he opened up. The area was a door and when he struck it with his pike pole, the room was free-burning. We attempted to shut the door but the fire escaped so fast we were unable to shut it. The room went from some visibility to zero visibility and high heat. We as a team recognized immediately we were in a bad situation and scrambled to exit. We were able to make it back to our initial entry point. I made a transmission to the crews at the front door were the fire was.

We were met by another crew in the kitchen. The fire was coming through the door right behind us. We were able to shut that door enough to keep the fire from entering the kitchen area. We then exited the kitchen onto the porch on the Delta side and made it to the exterior.

Lessons Learned

A hose line should have been in place prior to opening up any walls or doors when heat was present.

Be aware of your surroundings. Had we not had the opportunity to see the house with a light haze of smoke prior to the conditions deteriorating we may not have had the opportunity to escape.

Discussion Questions

1.   This case study gives us an opportunity to review sensitivity to operations and transition to a commitment to resilience. What interaction between the company officer and the incident commander is an example of a sensitivity to operations? The company’s delay in finding the fire is not a failure; however, what actions allowed the incident commander to react effectively to the fire once it was found?

2.   What assumptions did the incident commander make to come to the decision to release units before finding the problem? Is this something you may see in your department?

Possible Discussion Answers

1.   The company officer’s action of noticing the incident commander’s decision to return the other units and suggesting not doing so is an example of sensitivity to operations in action. The units remaining on scene pulled lines and prepared for a fire attack even though the initial signs did not indicate a serious fire, which is an example of a commitment to resilience.

2.   Releasing units prior to finding the problem assumes there is not a significant problem based on the signs. Our profession requires making many decisions based on little information; however, we may become complacent in our decision making and forget to consider possible problems that could be uncovered by further searching.

Where We Are Going

The next installment of this column discusses the fifth HRO principle–deference to expertise. We would appreciate any feedback, thoughts, or complaints you have. Please contact us at tailboardtalk@yahoo.com .


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

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.

Previous Articles

No posts to display