Tailboard Talk: Write More Rules or Empower Your Firefighters?

By Craig Nelson and Dane Carley

Two firefighters are injured in two different fire departments. Each of the firefighter’s administrations sits down in a meeting to address the events leading up to those injuries in very different ways.

The first fire department sits down in a meeting to review policies and procedures in place to prevent such incidents. Of course, they find that they need to add rules to the current list of policies and procedures to cover the “new” variation of the incident. This attempt to address the recent “situation/problem” that popped up during a shift is now resolved in this administration’s mind. The entire agency can read the new policy/guideline and know not to “do that” ever again. If it does happen again, someone can be punished quickly for breaking the newest policy/guideline in the already metropolitan phonebook-sized document. They move on feeling good that the “situation/problem” was “fixed” quickly and is now in the rear view mirror.

The second fire department approaches the “situation/problem” by attempting to find the true cause(s) of the incident. They plan to take this information and produce proactive training evolutions to prevent this incident from happening again. This values-based philosophy recognizes two things. First, the department expects employees to make decisions; second, decision makers are more effective when following commonsense guidelines based on an established fire department philosophy. In this environment, decisions are only wrong when they are counter to the department’s values and operational philosophies, which obviously encompass firefighter safety. The employees are not expected to remember an endless list of rules, but rather use their good judgment, which is instilled by the department’s training and culture. Personnel rely on training, experience, and common sense when they encounter a situation that could lead to a problem. The department expects crews to base their decisions on the department’s established service philosophy because guidelines and policies cannot possibly be written for every scenario they will encounter.

Our last article introduced “coact,” the fifth of the eight Reliability Oriented Employee Behaviors (ROEBs) developed by Jeff Ericksen and Lee Dyer of Cornell University (2004). Coacting is the action of training with other agencies that we may encounter during our emergency operations in an effort to make incidents flow more smoothly (examples might include law enforcement, EMS, and utility companies). In this article, we discuss the employee behavior called” improvise,” which is the ability to find a solution using innovative techniques based on information that may be received, in part, from coacting.

Tailboard Talk: Write More Rules or Empower Your Firefighters?


The first fire department in the example above encourages rule-based decision making while the second is an example of encouraging value-based decision making. There is a difference between rule-based and value-based decision making. Let’s break down these two methods of handling a problem into pros and cons lists so we get a good visual sense of how dramatically different they are.

Method one The Quick Fix

  • Pros:
    • Quick
    • Easy
    • Many use it because it is easy.
    • Provides sense of finality to problem
  • Cons:
    • Does not completely solve problem; only masks it while the root cause continues to develop into a larger, more serious problem
    • Leads to a list of standard operating guidelines (SOGs) so long that it gives a major city phone book a run for its money
    • Is reactionary; “knee-jerk”
    • Does not find the true root cause of problem
    • Often singles out individuals
    • EMPLOYEES MAY LOSE THE ABILITY TO IMPROVISE because they are not allowed to make decisions.

Method Two The Obi-Wan Kenobi

  • Pros:
    • Proactive
    • Finds true root problem
    • No memorizing unrealistically long list of SOGs
    • Approach problems as a team
  • Cons:
    • Is more difficult
    • Never truly done solving problem; “always a work in progress”
    • Takes longer

Some readers may be thinking that in previous articles, “We’ve talked about how the fire service is good at adaptation; so why cover it again.” In short, adaptation focuses more on adapting known practices or problems such as forced entry or ventilation. Improvisation seeks out innovative solutions to uncommon or unknown problems (which seem to creep up in fire service operations daily).

Change may mean conflict but from positive conflict, we find new solutions

Another point to consider is that not all guidelines and policies are bad. In fact, we need some policies and guidelines to establish the department philosophy that will guide an agency’s people in their decision making. We just need to be careful to keep them from getting so large and detailed that we lose the ability to adapt and improvise during operations. Too many rules can tie crew’s hands, limiting their options to quickly and effectively deal with a situation. Also, if your list of rules to follow gets too long, it will be impossible for employees to memorize all of them. Employees must first be empowered to make the decisions for a department to see the benefits from improvising. This employee behavior can only be developed in an organization that wants to learn (an HRO cornerstone) and provides an environment in which learning can happen. However, this is a paradigm shift for most fire departments, because our operations have been rule-based for so long. Because this is all that we are familiar with, we often have a difficult time seeing and accepting other methods even when they have been proven more effective.

For example, the Orange County (CA) Fire Authority is harnessing a proactive concept of seeking innovative solutions in its Optimal Outcome program. It marries last month’s topic of coacting with this month’s topic of improvisation by bringing firefighters’ ideas up through the chain of command in a useful format. The format helps firefighters see the administration’s considerations (e.g., budget costs) while helping the administration see the street-level logic to the solution. This program helps develop a culture that promotes the employees’ commitment to improving service and learning, which seems based in a departmentwide philosophy of providing top-notch, professional services. OCFA employees who see an opportunity to improve the department’s ability to meet its service expectations have the tools to bring this to a chief’s attention.

The culture we are describing is developed by several components, but some of the key components include:

  • Respecting the validity of every firefighter’s idea regardless of rank or seniority
  • Setting an example as an officer of wanting to learn by admitting mistakes and explaining why they are mistakes (how do they diverge from the department’s values, philosophy, and mission?)
  • Providing communication tools to enhance people’s ability to contribute to the organization
  • Reacting to a situation or problem pragmatically, logically, and calmly instead of yelling, screaming, or instantly writing a new rule
  • Most importantly, except for basic game plans for initial fire attack or other emergency operations, write SOGs based on the expectation that employees are capable (because they are) of making logical decisions based on the department’s values, philosophy of operations, and mission
  • Provide employees the training they need to understand the department’s values, philosophy of operations, and mission (which assumes that the administration has taken the time to write these documents).

In themselves, these basic steps do not build a culture, but they are examples of ways to begin building the culture necessary. Mark Wallace does an excellent job of diving into this specific topic in detail in Fire Department Strategic Planning: Creating Future Excellence (2006). The following case study is a good example of a situation where there was not a guideline or policy to address the specific situation. It summarizes an incident where a guideline or policy may not be necessary or may not have done any good to help in this situation, but it is also an example of how our people need to be able to improvise on a daily basis.

Case Study

The following case study is from www.firefighternearmiss.com. The near miss report, 08-0000508, 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

Our department responded with police for a 911 call by the homeowner for a working structure fire (fire in the basement). Upon arrival at the scene, police found a 2-year-old child outside the front door and removed her from the scene. Smoke and fire were showing when the scene size-up was made. When the initial crews were setting up initial operations, gunfire was heard. Our first in engine was hit with gun fire four times, and several of our members were in the line of fire. Fortunately, no one was injured in this event. Once the gunfire ceased, entry was made into the residence and the fire was extinguished. Three bodies were then recovered. The scene has been ruled a murder/suicide, and the fire was intentionally set by the subject firing upon our crews. In retrospect, this was an ordinary scene at the onset. Reports from the initial crews on the scene show nothing to raise their suspicions about the events that took place. Our initial operations were being performed under the direction of incident command. Our initial response to this fire was 3 engine companies, 1 truck company, 2 ALS ambulances, and 1 Chief. Upon arrival and after the initial events, the response was upgraded to using 3 mutual aid engines to support our stretched resources, another Chief, and a call back of employees. We have no SOG regarding this situation specifically. The only policy on it we have is to have the scene secured prior to our entry. Unfortunately, police and fire arrived simultaneously, and then the gun fire began. Our members did their best to cover and conceal behind their apparatus.

Lessons Learned

The lessons we learned are again that every scene must be treated in accordance with current policies, but still understanding that any scene can change at an instant. We have no suggestions to prevent a similar attack as this was a very unusual situation. Actions used to correct the situation are not something that we are really trained to do. We are not supposed to secure scenes of violence. Again, without any clues this was going to unfold in our crews being shot at, there is nothing else we could do. We have no SOG regarding this situation specifically. The only policy on it we have is to have the scene secured prior to our entry. Unfortunately, police and fire arrived simultaneously, and then the gun fire began. Our members did their best to cover and conceal behind their apparatus.

Discussion Questions

1. Should this department have or create an SOG for this situation?

2. Can/should an SOG be written for every situation? Why?

3. Broken rules often result in discipline; does this solve the problem? Why?

4. When is it correct to discipline?

Potential Discussion Question Answers

1. No, they shouldn’t, because we cannot possibly create an SOG for every situation we may encounter in the fire service.

2. No, because they are not meant to address every specific situation; they are meant to be general “guidelines” to help crews make their own specific decisions addressing each situation.

3. Discipline does not usually help a crewmember who has made a mistake. It often drives them away and undermines their confidence, leading to more problems. It also does not prevent someone else from making the same exact mistake, which may even be more serious when it re-occurs in the future.

4. There is a time for discipline, but it should be reserved for intentional misconduct, which is rare in the fire service. When it does occur, it is serious and must be dealt with.

Where We Are Going

Next month’s column studies the seventh reliability oriented employee behavior of learning, something we do often in the fire service through training. 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.


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

Wallace, M. (2006). Fire Department Strategic Planning: Creating Future Excellence (2nd ed.). Tulsa, OK: PennWell Corporation.


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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