Tailboard Talk: Should Firefighters Train More with Outside Agencies?

By Craig Nelson and Dane Carley

Your crew arrives on the scene of a reported apartment fire. You are a well-trained, well-organized crew ready to make a coordinated attack, just as you have many times on the training ground. The captain begins his walk-around to finish sizing up the situation. The driver positions the apparatus properly and gets ready to provide water while the firefighters grab the appropriate tools and begin to lay out the attack hoselines. The well-coordinated timing plays out beautifully as the driver charges the hoseline and the attack crew pushes through the entryway–but just as they enter the hallway of the fire floor, the whole plan unravels in a flash. A law enforcement officer just kicked in the door to the fire apartment, causing rollover to scream down the hallway behind a thick, developing cloud of black smoke. The officer, the crew, and the remaining occupants are now in danger. A single apartment fire has now turned into an apartment building fire with a rescue problem. You, of course, roll with it and adapt to the new developments because you are a firefighter.

Now, let’s imagine a similar scenario in a jurisdiction where fire crews not only work cohesively and coordinated with each other but also with their local law enforcement officers. You arrive on scene and begin your well-coordinated team effort. In this scenario, the law enforcement officer meets the captain during his walk-around, relays where the fire appears to be, where possible victims may be, offers to control the gathering crowd, and then asks if there is anything else he can do to help. The driver charges the line. The attack crew makes entry, finds a closed door to the apartment with the fire, opens the door, and quickly extinguishes the fire.

The latter example may seem a little cheesy, but its purpose is to provide just one example where working with others outside of your fire department may not only increase your safety but also that of your citizens. As firefighters, we recognize the value of a cohesive team effort. This is part of the reason we train together. By knowing what our roles are and how each of us will perform them makes us more effective at saving lives and protecting property. Are there other outside agencies, individuals, or businesses we work with that should also be included as part of the team when it is appropriate? Are there other departments or organizations that would not understand why it is imperative to work within a command structure in a coordinated manner? Shouldn’t those working at the scene with us know what the game plan is and how it will be coordinated?

We are supposed to do this with the Incident Command System (ICS) and the National Incident Management System (NIMS), but it seems that we do not always know how other agencies are operating at our scenes. More importantly (and more likely), other agencies do not know how we are operating. We are physically together, but are we actually engaging the other agencies in the decision making to come to the best solution? Many of us in the fire service practice these operations every day and become very good at them, but we cannot forget other departments, agencies, or entities that are there with us or that could be there to help us.

Our last article introduced deployment, the fourth of the eight Reliability Oriented Employee Behaviors (ROEBs) developed by Jeff Ericksen and Lee Dyer of Cornell University (2004). Deploying is about quickly forming ad hoc groups to solve a problem or about using everyone available to you at a scene. In this article, we’ll look at the fifth of these important employee behaviors, which is an ability to coact. For us in the fire service, this simply means that personnel engage others as necessary to solve problems. We are taking deployment a step further because we suggest engaging resources from outside organizations ahead of time instead of waiting until we are in the middle of an incident. Deploying and coacting seem similar–the key difference between the two is whom we engage. Coacting is about engaging those who whom we do not normally engage to help solve problems but may often be working on the same incidents with us.

When imagining coacting, imagine the difference between a high-performance, cohesive fire crew compared to a new crew or a crew whose members change frequently and are unfamiliar with each other. This same concept applies beyond the fire department to other agencies we work with in emergency operations. We understand the concept of cohesive crews, but we sometimes overlook opportunities to build similar relationships with outside agencies that we normally work closely with at emergency operations.

Tailboard Talk: Should Firefighters Train More with Outside Agencies?


Researchers go to the fire service to study time-compressed decision making because it happens frequently. Gary Klein identified the use of recognition-primed decision making as a primary tool for fire service professionals sizing up a scene during this research. However, Klein also explains that we build mental models and test their viability as we make sense of an unfamiliar situation: the sense-making phase. (Klein, 1998; LeSage, Dyar, & Evans, 2011) In these cases, would seeking information outside our normal realm improve our decisions and our service to the public? We are used to solving problems because it is such a common part of our job. But does this familiarity cause the fire service to overlook agencies or businesses with knowledge or skills that can help us provide improved services to the public? It may be something as simple as working or training more closely with our friends in law enforcement or building a partnership with a local hospital. Coacting is about engaging these sources of information that we may traditionally overlook or engage only when no other options exist. How would the following improve our relationship and, by extension, our operations with other agencies?

  • Developing working standard operating guidelines that complement each other’s processes
  • Getting to know each other on a personal level before the event
  • Training together regularly to reinforce the first two steps

We do these same things to build cohesiveness in fire crews to bring operations to a higher level and provide a better service to the public. It is important to remember that high performance builds cohesiveness instead of vice versa, so practicing together regularly builds cohesiveness. (Carley, 2009) When this can be accomplished, we are making it safer not only for others but also for ourselves. Imagine mutual-aid agreements–but not just with other fire departments.

Its better to be prepared for change rather than react to it after the fact

Engaging others is a fundamental aspect of an HRO because people exhibiting this behavior seek out new and different ideas and diverse opinions. This helps avoid groupthink and brings in new ideas to complex and difficult emergency operations. Engaging people with whom you normally would not engage opens you to ideas and solutions you would not normally hear.

Case Study

The following case study is from www.firefighternearmiss.com. The near miss report, 11-0000387, 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

The three-person EMS crew responded to a call dispatched out as medical unknown problem, patient in pain. The patient disconnected before any more information could be obtained. Upon arrival at the mobile home, the police arrived and approached the home with weapons drawn. One EMS person at the front door remained with the officer until his partner motioned for him to return to the ambulance. Once the police officer cleared the mobile home and found a subject possibly dead from a self-inflicted gunshot to the head, the officer motioned for the EMS crew to come in. He did not secure the handgun next to the victim. A request was made to secure it, but the police officer stated it would interfere with the investigation.

It was eventually secured, and the crew went in and confirmed death with the medical control approval. After investigating the call with dispatch and listening to the recorded 911 tape, it was determined dispatch did not recognize what a “45 lock and loaded” meant. They thought it meant a loaded gun, but locked in a safe. This information was never relayed to the EMS crew, but was given to the police officers.

Lessons Learned

Better communication would have prevented our crew from even approaching the scene until police officers cleared it. It is also important to note that our EMS crews should have pulled back the ambulance to a safe distance as soon as the weapons were drawn by the police officers. Our fire department has since implemented training with dispatch and police on proper use of priority dispatch for every call involving police. Police were refusing to follow priority dispatch due to time involved.

Discussion Questions

1. Information was available to improve the crew’s situational awareness (e.g., the officers’ drawn weapons). Why did the crews continue to operate in their normal manner?

2. What motivated the officer to leave the gun next to the victim?

3. In our March 2012 column (Tailboard Talk: Do Firefighters Talk Too Much or Not Enough?), we discuss the importance of communicating more frequently. Would increased communication between the dispatch center and the EMS crew have helped? Could the EMS crew have monitored the police frequency and/or talked with the police department directly (assuming the frequency was available to the EMS crew)? Is it likely that the EMS crew would have called PD on the police frequency?

4. Would any of the above questions be answered differently if the employees exhibited the behavior to engage others and/or the departments had previously engaged each other and trained to learn what helps the other provide a better service to the public?

Potential Discussion Question Answers

1. The crew was in sense-making mode. The information was there, and some of the EMS crew seemed to be building a better sense–building better situational awareness–than others on the crew. It is important to communicate constantly. This is a prime example of the importance of crew resource management, since it incorporates so many higher reliability traits. Since the crew was still developing situational awareness and communication was between EMS and dispatch, EMS and law enforcement, and among the EMS crew itself, the crew members operated in their normal mode. It may sometimes be attributed to complacency, but in this case it seems to stem more from a normal operational aspect: the crew is doing what it always does because the information has not yet contradicted their normal routines.

2. Like the EMS crew, the officer was following his or her department’s normal procedures based on law enforcement priorities. Remember, each of the agencies has different priorities, which is why it is so important to engage those around you to solve a problem. Normally, a short discussion can bring seemingly unmatched goals into a workable plan. FIRESCOPE ICS is a great tool for doing this, but even when we do not use ICS, engaging those around us for solutions is important.

3. The obvious answer to these questions is that increased communication would have helped. Some information may not make sense to one person, but, put together, all the little bits of information form a picture. We cannot say it enough: communicate, communicate, communicate. Ask others what they are seeing and hearing if they are not volunteering the information. Unfortunately, we often do not use the other agencies’ frequencies when they are available to us because we feel they are “their frequencies.” Even if using them is not an option because of procedures or rules, then listen to them while en route to pick up additional intelligence. Our experience has been that the law enforcement channels tend to have much more communication early in an incident (e.g., while en route) than the fire channels.

4. We believe the answer to this question is a simple “Yes.”

Where We Are Going

Next month’s column studies the sixth reliability-oriented employee behavior of improvise. Improvising focuses on adapting to a situation instead of “mindlessly using existing policies and procedures.” (Ericksen & Dyer, 2004, p. 14) 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.

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.

Previous Articles

No posts to display