Charge the Line

Part 2: The Art of Leadership - Flight

By Josh Fowler

Other conditions being equal, if one force is hurled against another ten times its size, the result will be the flight of the former.

In Sun Tzu’s first calamity, the army is outnumbered 10 to 1 by the enemy. In the fire service, not all departments can afford the safety and luxury of NFPA-compliant staffing and must make the response work with what they have. Similarly, private organizations may be understaffed in other areas presenting challenges for day-to-day operations.

As the incident commander/leader, you must first recognize the situation and honestly answer the question, “Do I have the staffing and resources to safely mitigate this incident or handle this challenge?” There is no room for ego, here. If the plan doesn’t work, you need another plan.

In the fire service, if the answer is no or unknown, call for additional units and alarms. Call early; call often.

As leadership within your organization, how can you best position yourself and your company to overcome the obstacles in your way. This may require collaboration with other organizations and some preparation.

Next is the personnel’s muscle memory when it comes to their respective skill sets. If they are confident and sharp in their craft, you will never have to worry about hesitation let alone flight. This doesn’t simply happen on the day of the event. This is something that is prepared for well ahead of time. Our business is never if, our business is when.

However, there is more to flight than just being outnumbered or, in our circumstance, understaffed. Defined, flight is the act of fleeing or attempting escape. Now this calamity is not something that is often seen in the fire service; however, it does happen, and it is held in utter contempt.

Outside of the fire service, flight could simply be avoiding a problem or issue that is toxic to your organization. This could be people, products, processes or a combination of all three.

Many times, over, the odds are against us. However, we press on, striving to accomplish the mission at hand. While cowardice does unfortunately happen on the fireground and in daily operations, that is not the direction I am going.

Consider the posture that is assumed as a firefighter when arriving to a fully involved fire in a building that is known or thought to be abandoned. Do we make an aggressive attack on a structure that may or may not be tenable, or do we assume a defensive posture from the street?

In private organizations, what is your response to issues or problems that aren’t really issues or problems? Is this something that warrants my immediate attention?

Now, being in a position where my decisions as a chief can be the difference between personnel going home to their families or making their final alarm, I’m not as quick with my decision making when it comes to size-up and I am fully aware of those that I lead disagreeing when my decision is to go defensive (stay out of the structure). As firefighters, we know fires in vacant and abandoned structures with no utilities simply don’t start themselves aside from acts of nature. However, does the risk outweigh the benefit? The oath, after all, was life and property.

Perhaps your immediate decisions for your organization may not be life and death, however they will have an impact as well as a ripple effect.

What is needed to avoid the pitfalls of the decision-making process is a robust operational risk management policy that will assist commanding officers and organizational leaders, alike by increasing their effectiveness in identifying, assessing, and managing risk. Having a standardized process increases not only the fire department’s ability to make informed decisions, but private companies and organizations as well.

As a fire department, if you currently have a standard operating procedure (SOP) on risk management that states something along the lines of, “We will risk a lot to save a lot… We will risk a little to save a little… We will risk nothing to save that which is lost….” and this is what you consider to be your risk management plan, then it’s time for an update.

As a private company, do you have a risk management policy and plan that correlates with your organization’s particular business?

Consider the word “plan.” As a noun, a plan is a method of acting, doing, proceeding, making, etc. As a verb (particularly an action verb), a plan is to arrange a method or scheme beforehand. If your risk management plan is the above, then there is no plan. There is no methodology. Your risk management “plan” simply rests on the decision-making skills of the officer in charge or leader within your organization which equates to: You have no “plan.”

If the above defines your current system, what you have in place is random and individual dependent. Officers and leaders are expected to use common sense, which can be left up to individual interpretation. Decisions become uniformed and reactive. However, if you as a department or organization adopt a systematic approach, decisions become methodical, informed, and proactive. Operational risk management is nothing new. There are many resources to help you create a system that best works for you and your organization.

The next installment will look at the second calamity, Insubordination.