Will the Fire Service Court-Martial Our “Billy Mitchells”?

By Frank L. Frievalt

So, who is Billy Mitchell? As some of you may know, Mitchell was a military leader who served in WW I, eventually leading the air branch of the United States Army in Europe. You may have even heard of the WW II B-25 “Mitchell” Bomber. As the only bomber aircraft to be named after an individual, this would suggest he served with honor and distinction. Indeed, history has proven Mitchell did indeed serve the military and nation remarkably well through his recognition of airpower as an emerging fulcrum point in warfare to the point of being referred to as the “father of the modern U.S. Air Force.”

In addition to time served for his country, he also advocated the use of aircraft in fighting forest fires. What many of us do not know is that the military also court-martialed Mitchell, and that he resigned from the military under the weight of regular and high-level criticism.

What happened between burgeoning executive leader, court-martialed cast-off, and posthumous recognition as the father of the modern air force? He challenged the accepted (military) doctrine of his day, insisting, and then proving (do an Internet search for “Project B” for the more details) that the capitol battleship was obsolete because they could easily be sunk from the air with 1/100th of the resources. Although his own military leaders scoffed at his theory, the British and Japanese military leaders applied it with brutal success in the aerial attacks on naval fleets in Taranto, Italy, and Pearl Harbor, respectively.

To challenge a “doctrine” is to challenge the entire economic, political, organizational, and leadership infrastructure that supports a doctrine; it becomes personal to people in positions of power within the doctrine. This necessarily creates a cabal of enemies against the change, regardless of its ability to better serve the mission, even something as important as national defense against foreign enemies.

If this is your first introduction to Mitchell’s history, you may understandably shake your head at the obtuse response from military leadership to his insight; he was clearly and rightly turning the page on military doctrine. But, are we guilty of similar thick-headedness in our present day when “our” fire service doctrine is challenged?

If you are devoting time to reading articles in our professional publications, you are certainly able to conjure up a few examples of our resistance to change; there is some uncomfortable truth behind the depiction of the fire service as “200 years of tradition unimpeded by progress.” In our line of work, it is prudent to go with what has been proven, where mistakes are swift and unforgiving. To be fair, we do accept change—especially tactical changes—if we can be convinced of the tactical benefit. The most recent example would be the fire service response to the National Institute of Standards and Technology’s (NIST’s) studies on flashover; the evidence was compelling enough to see the likes the Fire Department of New York and the Los Angeles County Fire Department change ventilation and interior attack tactics, nearly overnight.

What got Mitchell court-martialed was not the tactical use of airpower. So long as his contributions supported existing doctrine (i.e., support of land battles), he was a brilliant “up-and-comer”; when his contributions challenged existing doctrine such as air supremacy over battleships in sea battles, he became an insubordinate “down-and-outer.” It will be interesting to see what the half-life is of the NIST studies once the irrefutable tactical findings begin to beg the obvious strategic implications.

What’s in play when an interior firefighting doctrine is changed to an exterior firefighting doctrine? To what extent are our policies, equipment, and staffing justified through the “necessity” of an aggressive interior attack mindset? Indeed, there is an argument that we’ve allowed a tactic (aggressive interior attack) to become a strategic doctrine because it has served the purpose common to most bureaucracies which, in this case, includes labor, management, and volunteers: expansion. It’s only a matter of time before administrators and elected officials eventually start connecting the dots of the NIST studies (just as members of congress did on the heels of the Project B results) and start asking strategic questions. Will we, like the established military of Mitchell’s day, start putting fences around the application of those studies?

So, what can fire service leaders do to make our profession receptive to challenges and, if warranted, changes in accepted doctrine? Perhaps their first contribution would be to apply a revelation that came to the youngest judge sitting on the court-martial of Billy Mitchell: “…that a senior officer should not be silenced for being at variance with his superiors in rank and with accepted doctrine.” That young court-martial judge was none other than Douglas MacArthur. The decentralized fire services cannot court-martial anyone in the literal sense; we accomplish it through assassination of character and marginalization. Others better equipped than I have and will continue to wrestle with questions about fire service doctrine such as “Do we have a national fire service doctrine?”, “Should we have a doctrine?”, and “What is it?”

This article is not about promoting the NIST studies into some founding doctrine; those findings are simply an example of paradigm-changing information. There are other examples. When this article was initially submitted, I pointed out as an example the work of DARPA (http://www.darpa.mil/newsevents/releases/2012/07/12.aspx) where they were extinguishing fires with sound and electricity. DARPA has a reputation for theorizing, experimenting, and making operational an impressive list of technologies, so I suggested that we not write off their work in “sound” suppression of fire as science fiction. Recently, two George Mason University students, with about $600 of gear, demonstrated a hand-held device that was a fraction of the size and cost of the DARPA unit just three years earlier (read more HERE). What will they be able to do in another three years?

However, this article is not about sound technology; it is about executive leadership response to changes in accepted doctrine.

I encourage us to be willing to go where the facts and findings of honest inquiry take us to better serve the mission of protecting life and property; even if, especially if, it separates us from a doctrine to which we’ve become accustomed. Can you imagine having been a member of Mitchell’s court-martial for insubordination in December 1925, subsequently promoting to a senior leadership role at Pearl Harbor by December 7, 1941, and then looking overhead in abject horror at the consequences for silencing him? Let’s not be those guys.

As new information, technology, and social changes develop, the fire service will have other Billy Mitchells emerge, and they will suggest changes to accepted doctrine that will better serve the mission. Will we cling to our policies, equipment, and staffing the way senior military leaders did in Mitchell’s day? Will we be willing to downsize or shudder the thought and turn in our glorious engines and trucks if a better way actually emerges? I’m not advocating we do that, but I am asking if we would be willing to for the sake of the mission. Are we, figuratively speaking, driving yesterday’s battleships? When they emerge, will we court-martial our Billy Mitchells? 


Frank L. Frievalt is the assistant fire chief for the Mammoth Lakes (CA) Fire Protection District. He has 35 years experience in city, county, state, and federal fire services from the ranks of firefighter to assistant chief. He has a bachelor’s degree in fire administration, a master’s degree in fire and emergency management, and is currently working on a Ph.D. in political science.


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