The Emergency Model of Management

The Emergency Model of Management

An organizational structure that the fire service can relate to.

Current models of management and organizational behavior do not account for the complexity of modern fire departments. There are two traditional models of organizational structure —the mechanistic structural form and the organic form. The mechanistic structural form is similar to classical bureaucratic and military models: There is little participation in decision making—decision making is centralized and authority is concentrated in a steep hierarchy; rules and standard operating procedures are abundant and their use emphasized; workers are specialists, able to perform one particular task well; work does not have much variety; the same tasks are performed each day in the same way; and workers do not exercise judgment. Mechanistic structures, according to theory, are appropriate for tasks and environments that are routine, certain, and predictable.

The organic form, on the other hand, is fluid and flexible: There is considerable participation in decision making; the hierarchical structure is flat and decentralized, with authority widely dispersed throughout the organization; there arc few rules and standard operating procedures and little emphasis on using existing ones; workers are generalists, able to perform a variety of tasks; tasks vary from day to day, not necessarily performed in the same way; and workers exercise judgment. Organic structures are most appropriate for tasks and environments that are uncertain and unpredictable.

The problem with attempting to apply such models to fire departments is that departments perform a variety of tasks, and they perform them in turbulent environments. In addition, they perform routine and safe tasks as well as uncertain and dangerous ones using essentially the same management structure. For example, individuals who fight fires under a variety of circumstances may also maintain apparatus and equipment and keep fire prevention records. In contrast, most organizations assign different personnel to different tasks—even hospital emergency rooms assign some staff to handle routine tasks such as insurance and billing and others to handle incoming injured.

Another distinction between the fire service and other organizations in terms of operations is the element of danger. Fire department tasks are often dangerous, and thus traditional management theories based on industrial and organizational settings do not apply.

Such differences—namely the performance of dangerous and vastly different types of tasks by essentially the same personnel—make traditional management models inappropriate for capturing the distinctiveness and energy of fire departments. It was the recognition of these differences and shortcomings in the traditional models of management that prompted my study.


The study involved numerous fire departments (Los Angeles City Fire Department, El Segundo Fire Department, Menlo Park Fire District) and benefited from the input of faculty from the University of Michigan, UCLA, and the University of Redlands in Redlands, California. Critical information about fire departments came from numerous fire departments in California, from chiefs to firefighters. (A detailed description of the study and acknowledgment of contributors are cited in my book Uncertainty, Danger and Organizational Structure, University Microfilms International, 1988.)

In the research, a panel of firefighting experts identified more than 100 fire department tasks and situations that varied in uncertainty and danger. (“Uncertainty,” as used in the study, is measured by the following: Did exceptional and unusual things occur, and if so, were they easy to handle or solve? Thus routine and low-uncertainty tasks involved few exceptions, and if the unusual occurred it was easy to handle. Conversely, high-uncertainty tasks involved many unusual occurrences that were difficult to deal with. “Danger” was simply assessed by how likely accidents could occur to firefighters.) The panelists narrowed the list to 36 situations and then ranked them from least to most uncertain and dangerous (see Figure 1 below).



Division 3 of the LAFD was the primary site for the survey portion of the research. Located in the San Fernando Valley and Santa Monica Mountains, it governs an area of more than 250 square miles and provides service to a growing population of more than one million residents. Division 3 deals with residential fires, high-rise fires, commercial and industrial fires, brush fires, and hazardous-material incidents.

There are approximately 750 firefighting personnel in Division 3The division is organized into five battalions, each comprised of approximately seven fire stations. Of these, 21 were single-engine companies and 14 were task forces. We sampled all ranks and grades within a station proportionately. For example, a task force, which has a total of 30 personnel assigned to the station (10 individuals working on each of three shifts), was sampled in an exact two-thirds proportion by rank (two out of every three captain IIs, four of the six engineers, and so on). Only fire protection personnel were surveyed (singlefunction paramedics were excluded as were firefighters with less than six months experience). We surveyed a total of 465 people and received 350 responses.

Each survey participant received five questionnaires. The top of each questionnaire identified an incident or situation (for example, a high-rise structure fire at night) and asked subjects to answer a series of 29 questions about uncertainty, danger, and organizational behavior. The first four questionnaires identified situations with different degrees of uncertainty and danger chosen from the list in Figure 1. The fifth questionnaire asked subjects about incidents that occurred in their first alarm district.

Respondents were asked about different aspects of organizational structure, including:

  • Centralization—how authority was distributed among different levels of the hierarchy, who had how much influence on what occurred at the incident, whether participative decision making was used, and the total amount of hierarchical control.
  • Formalization — the use of and emphasis on rules and standard operating procedures and the structuring of behavior.
  • Complexity — specialization (whether people performed the same

Figure 1

Situations Increasing in Uncertainty and Danger

  1. Maintenance of facility or quarters.
  2. Maintenance of firefighting equipment—hose, tools, and SCBA.
  3. Maintenance of apparatuspumper or truck.
  4. Fire prevention records.
  5. Training in hoselays and/or ladders.
  6. Company fire prevention.
  7. Training in special equipment for hazardous-material incidents.
  8. Grass fires—low humidity.
  9. Rubbish fires.
  10. Garage, shed, fence, or outbuilding fires.
  11. Small-dwelling fires (less than 1,500 sq. ft.)—day.
  12. Car fire in a structure.
  13. Patient extrications from vehicle.
  14. EMS responses—patient condition unknown.
  15. Large-dwelling fires (more than 1,500 sq. ft.)—day.
  16. Small-dwelling fires (less than 1,500 sq. ft.)—late night.
  17. Small commercial fires—common cockloft (attic).
  18. Large-dwelling fires (more than 1,500 sq. ft.)—late night.
  19. Multicasualty—20 or more patients.
  20. Large commercial fires—common attic—after operating hours.
  21. Industrial building fires—manufacturing and processing—closed.
  22. Large commercial fires—common attic—open.
  23. Industrial building manufacturing and processing fires—open.
  24. High-rise office building fires— weekend.
  25. Habitational occupancies, apartments and hotels, fires—day.
  26. Large shopping mall complex fires.
  27. High-rise apartment or hotel fires—day.
  28. Large collapsed structure—human occupants.
  29. High-rise office building fires— weekday.
  30. Refinery fires.
  31. Overturned tanker truck spill and release—no ignition.
  32. Hazardous-material spills and release—with ignition.
  33. Habitational occupancies, apartments and hotels, fires—night.
  34. High-rise apartment or hotel fires—night.
  35. Airplane crash—large commercial aircraft.
  36. Wildland fires, brush—low humidity and high wind.


  • task the same way every time and whether the incident called for a variety of skills rather than a few), process complexity (the need for judgment and ability to discern, and the need for horizontal communication), and training.


The results confirmed that uncertainty and danger are closely linked in firefighting. In general, when tasks are highly uncertain they are also dangerous, and vice versa. Although it is possible to identify tasks that are relatively safe but uncertain, these two variables are, in most situations, menacing companions.

As tasks shift along the continuum of relatively safe and certain to the extremes of danger and uncertainty, the organizational structure of the fire department changes. What emerged from the research was a structural form that was neither organic nor mechanistic. I have labeled this structural form the emergency model.

As uncertainty and danger increase, participation in decision making by lower echelons of the hierarchy decreases. Upper echelons become more influential: Captains, who occupy middle levels in the formal organizational hierarchy, become the praxis (the main line of motion or development) around and through which command is exercised; battalion chiefs may perform this function in many instances. In 25 of the 36 incidents identified, captains had the greatest amount of control or influence; in the 11 incidents in which they did not have the greatest amount of control, they were only superseded by battalion chiefs —their direct superior.

As upper echelons (battalion chiefs, assistant chiefs, and occassionally deputy chiefs) become more influential in the larger incidents, they do not acquire their control at the expense of lower echelons. Firefighters, apparatus operators, and engineers do lose some authority as upper echelons assume command, but their loss of influence is not significant and they do not lose as much influence as the upper echelons gain. Power is not a fixed pie at extreme incidents; in fact, it’s an expandable pie. It has to be— there is more to be controlled. Everyone must have influence.

Decision making is polycentralized in the emergency model: Everyone has substantial influence on what happens at highly uncertain and dangerous incidents, but captains and battalion chiefs have more influence than others. They are the link and conduit by which higher hierarchical echelons, when involved, are able to command and direct lower levels.

Another outcome of this polycentralized distribution of control is a net gain in the total amount of control for the organization. It is of no small consequence that one of the strongest correlates of organizational effectiveness is control. The more control or influence an organization has, the greater the organization effectiveness. At larger and more extreme incidents there is more to be controlled; thus to deal effectively with larger incidents, there must be more organization control and ability to influence.

Increasing the total amount of control throughout the organization does not mean that commands are not followed—quite the contrary. As incidents increase in uncertainty and danger, participation in decision making decreases significantly, and because time is of the essence, decisions are less subject to question, alteration, or deviation by lower echelons. Nonetheless, the total amount of control and influence is increased by having highly trained personnel who are able to use judgment, react and adjust to the actions of others, and bring influence to bear on each other and on what happens at the incident. Lower echelons may be told by command what to do (strategy), but they must know how to do it (tactics).

The study data on formalization— the use of and emphasis on rules and standard operating procedures—and the structuring of behavior are not as clear and straightforward as the other findings. There appears to be a modest decrease in the use of and emphasis on rules and SOPs at extreme incidents, but again, this does not mean that rules and SOPs are not followed. Rather, rules and SOPs become less important in structuring behavior relative to the importance of command. Simply put, regardless of the quality or quantity of rules and SOPs, they are no substitutes for quality leadership and command. At extreme incidents, what is critical is the capability of command and the effectiveness of the total command system (which includes all personnel). Upper echelons need well-trained personnel and competent company officers for effective firefighting efforts. Rules and SOPs have an important place, but they do not and cannot replace quality command and effective, welltrained firefighting personnel.


I do not want to minimize the importance of adhering to safety rules and SOPs. Nevertheless, when uncertainty and danger are high, command is more important to guide and direct firefighting efforts. At the most uncertain and dangerous incidents, where problems are difficult to solve and incalculable sources of peril and danger are present, command needs flexible and adaptive firefighting individuals and teams. During such incidents many rules and SOPs may not apply and new ones cannot be made up and internalized on the spot. Rather, command personnel must provide a strategy to deal with the unusual and guide behaviors that are unspecified by rules.

In extremely uncertain and dangerous situations, specialization decreases, meaning that the actions required may not be limited to those specialized tasks normally performed under less dangerous situations. Firefighting personnel must have and capably use a variety of skills. They may not perform the same job at every incident: Engineers may become members of search and rescue teams and captains may become involved in ventilating roofs.

Such incidents also involve coordination between individuals involved and coordination of oneself—the use of “brainwork.” Personnel must horizontally and vertically communicate, react and adjust according to what others do, and be able to exercise judgment and discern complexities. For dealing with the more uncertain and dangerous incidents, there is, of course, a greater need for training of individuals and a greater need for team training for firefighting teams.

Firefighting personnel should assess and discuss the organizational structural form that appears to characterize their department. Conduct such analyses for a variety of circumstances and incidents (such as the ones listed in Figure 1), and conduct them throughout the department— the view of one level is not sufficient, since there often are different perceptions about the structure of the organization depending on the hierarchical level. Once members understand their organizational style over a number of circumstances, they can decide if it is the most suited to and most effective for their emergency tasks *

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