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Business Lessons from the Fire Service, Part 2: “The 3 Ways to Size-up a Crisis Situation”

By David Dachinger, Career Fire Lieutenant & Co-founder Mind Health, LLC
and Candy Barone, CEO & Founder of You Empowered Strong

Fire officers putting out raging fire on building.

In this article, we’ll demonstrate how the fire service implements fireground strategies, and how they can be applied to crisis situations in business.

In the fire service, we activate a procedure called “size-up” upon arrival at an emergency incident. This is a fundamental step in the crucial process of information gathering which starts well before our actual response. Proactively, we gather information in advance by visually inspecting buildings and create “pre-plans” for those locations. This data includes layouts and important information we will potentially need during an emergency.

We gather information from the dispatcher who relays what the 9-1-1 caller reports along with additional information we obtain at the scene.

On scene, the size-up enables us to decide which of the three main strategies we will utilize to fight the fire. The Incident Commander (IC) must decide whether to employ an Offensive, Transitional, or Defensive fire attack.

The 3 types of operational strategies are:

  • Offensive – we take direct action to rectify the problem.
  • Transitional – we quickly put water on the fire from the exterior, changing strategies once conditions dictate.
  • Defensive – we stabilize an incident to ensure it does not get any worse.

Activating The Offensive Strategy

Fire Service:

At fire scene #1, we arrive at a house with smoke and flames showing from the first floor. A neighbor reports that a family may still be inside the residence. Our number one priority is the preservation of life, and we are willing to “risk a lot to save a lot”.

We don’t observe any signs of catastrophic danger such as building collapse or flashover (a sudden event involving a significant increase in fire growth). Based on our initial risk assessment, and because there is a reasonable chance that occupants may still be alive inside, we choose an Offensive attack.

This is where we aggressively enter the house with hose lines to knock down (extinguish) the fire while searching for the occupants.

Business Leadership:

In business, there are crisis situations that demand immediate action, or an Offensive strategy, to put out “fires” before they cause too much damage. For most organizations, the goals are to salvage their brand, reputation, and bottom line.

When an organization takes an Offensive approach to crisis management, the strategy is to make a statement and apply immediate “damage control” to the overall brand. It is a powerful stance to show they are not willing to back down.

Organizations react when they feel their backs are up against the wall or they’re being attacked (think David and Goliath).

Businessman showing clenched fist to camera.
An Offensive strategy is all about putting the “fire” out fast.

It’s not about resolving the situation or looking too far forward. There are times when an organization needs to take a “we don’t take any crap” stance and just put the immediate “fire” out. For instance let’s examine what happened to Whole Foods when they were faced with a false accusation, a simple hoax to draw media attention, by Pastor Jordan Brown in 2016.

In this case, Brown claimed he had been discriminated against when picking up a cake that he ordered. He created a video that castigated Whole Foods. However, the organization had surveillance cameras in their stores that showed the allegations were not true.

(Reference: Whole Foods & Jordan Brown)

Whole Foods took strong and immediate action on the accusation, which ultimately led to Brown confessing to perpetuating a false claim against the company. Such Offensive strategies are usually spearheaded to resolve PR issues and to “save face” for the organization.

Activating The Transitional Strategy

Fire Service:

At fire scene #2, we arrive at a house with its attached garage showing a heavy volume of fire. We receive a credible report that occupants may be trapped on the second floor. The massive conflagration in the garage is an immediate safety concern for sending firefighters into the house, but we may be able to change it.

To slow the velocity of the fire and protect our firefighters, we choose Transitional mode. This allows us to soften the target from a safe distance, by putting water into the structure from the exterior. This creates a more tenable atmosphere for rescuers to proceed.

If effective, the Transitional mode of attack can lead to Offensive mode, the aggressive type of attack we talked about in scenario #1.

Later, if necessary, we can switch from Offensive to Defensive if fire conditions worsen and we need to withdraw our personnel from the building.

Business Leadership:

We see this type of size-up occurring in business situations as well. The key here is to create space to respond and evaluate the issue while considering all scenarios from multiple angles.

For most organizations, Transitional strategies are often deployed during change management, or when leaders are moved to higher-level leadership positions. They’re also deployed when new situations develop, but don’t appear to be creating imminent danger or risk to the organization. This gives leaders time to assess the entire matter.

Transitional strategies deal with specific aspects of what’s needed for employee reorientation, resource utilization, and task delegation. They ensure appropriate transfer of responsibilities, workflows, processes, and procedures, resulting in no disruptions to the business.

The biggest focus is to move from a reaction to a response.

What most companies are faced with during this COVID-19 pandemic is a good case in point about leveraging a Transitional strategy. While some decisions are generated directly from an Offensive or Defensive stance, most pandemic-related decisions are being made over a period of time. Waiting to see what new information emerges, leaders can then evaluate where the highest risk levels truly exist.

During this unprecedented time, many companies are finding themselves needing to establish new protocols, policies, procedures, and processes. They are taking multiple dimensions into effect before deciding which course of action to take. When they feel enough information has been collected, they can create Offensive and Defensive strategies to address problems.

For the most part, organizations are doing their best to move from a strictly reactionary to a more thoughtful and responsive state.

When a company moves from a reactionary state to one of response, they create space to methodically size-up the condition of the crisis. Within this space, leaders can evaluate the crisis in the context of the company’s priorities, anticipate potential risks through analysis, and assign key decision points.

Activating The Defensive Strategy

Fire Service:

At fire scene #3, it’s 2 AM when we arrive at a row of vacant stores that are “fully involved” (fire burning in all parts of the structure). We size up, observing no cars parked outside, and find no obvious signs of occupants or other life.

We choose the Defensive mode because the structure is unsafe for firefighters to enter and no civilian lives can be saved.

The fire is beyond the control of smaller hose lines, so large exterior hose lines are deployed, and we focus on preventing the fire from extending to adjacent buildings.

In a worst-case Defensive scenario, we will employ “surround and drown” tactics, flowing massive amounts of water just to put the fire out.

Business Leadership:

Let’s look at JetBlue’s response after a week-long operational breakdown in 2007 due to an ice storm. CEO David Neeleman took the opportunity to write a public letter of apology to clients and employees, while never blaming the weather for the crisis. The proactive approach mitigated greater risk and the company found themselves able to bounce back, even more focused on customer service.

Remember, offense sells tickets, but defense wins championships.

When an organization is positioned to take a Defensive strategy, they are more inclined towards creating solutions for long-term impact. By evaluating and preparing for the worst-case scenarios, a company is able to proactively assign roles, tasks and resources across the organization, and dial down the greatest level of risk.

As mentioned in our previous article, Lessons from the Fire Service: Part 1, the fireground and the business world are dynamically changing environments, requiring regular assessments of conditions. Today, leaders are presented with unique challenges and opportunities as they navigate through crises like COVID-19. Currently, in business organizations, the most desirable outcomes are those where we emerge from crisis with greater clarity, deeper connections, a richer culture, and value-add to clients and stakeholders.

In Part 3 of this series, we share inspiring real cases where a business leader applied firefighting strategies to successfully navigate his organization through major crises.

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