Business Lessons from the Fire Service, Part 1: “High-Performance Crisis Leadership”

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

Fire officer pointing to the left in front of fire engine.

It’s 2:30 in the afternoon and you hear the tones go off, “Engine 33, Engine 54, Engine 111, Tower 14, Battalion 5, respond to the reported structure fire at 192 Washington Avenue”. You are the first arriving officer on the scene of what turns out to be a building fully involved in smoke and fire.

In the space of a few brief minutes, you are responsible for performing a quick “size-up” of the situation, transmitting an arrival report to all responding units, assigning tasks to those units, performing a “360” (a walk-around inspection of the structure), establishing a water supply, formulating an Incident Action Plan (IAP), and putting that plan in motion.

You are immediately considering whether you have to initiate a “vent-enter-search” rescue, activate EMS, commence a fire attack, ladder the building, protect exposures (adjacent buildings), or a combination of all the above. You must instantly evaluate: Do I have enough inbound resources (apparatus, personnel, and equipment), or do I need to request more?

While you are doing this, you are bombarded with information from bystanders, radio traffic, messages from dispatch, and arriving firefighters.

In the midst of what seems to be complete chaos, you must make quick, critical decisions while facing dynamically changing complex situations. The phrase that’s looping in your mind goes:

“The first five minutes of any fireground operation set the tone for the remainder of the incident.”

Arm with watch in front of a house on fire.
How do you know when you have enough information to make critical decisions? How are you delegating the tasks that are necessary to safely mitigate this incident?

Studies have shown that fire doubles in size every minute.

Using mental modeling, you are tasked with the question: Where will this fire scene be in the next 5 minutes? 10 minutes? 30 minutes? If we do X, what will the impact be now, and what are the implications for the future?

[See reference article: “The First Five Minutes” by Mark van der Feyst in FireEngineering.com]

You may be wondering, what is mental modeling? … Mental modeling helps create an approach to solving problems by simplifying the complexity of the situation through reason and prior experience. By using a representation of how something works, mental modeling allows you to make better overall decisions, especially in the face of crisis, by organizing understandable chunks.

Have you ever experienced critical moments of crisis like this in your business? Look at our current situation, in the light of COVID-19, and all the uncertainty around you. Have you had to ask: Where will this situation be in the next 5 minutes,? 30 minutes? Week? Month? 3 months? A year? If we choose to do X, how will that impact us in the short-term, and what will be the implications for the future?

Can you see the parallels?

Despite what appear to be insurmountable challenges presenting in a very short amount of time, Incident Commanders and firefighters can be very successful in bringing extreme situations under control, while prioritizing the safety of the public and themselves.

So, how then can lessons learned from the fire service be applied to high-performance crisis leadership in the business world?

Group of 6 people in a business meeting.

Let’s break this down …

Step #1: Defining Clear Role & Responsibilities

To achieve success when mitigating an emergency, firefighters combat chaos with a solid IAP carried out by well-trained firefighters, led by company officers being supervised by chief officers. The role of the firefighter is task-oriented and encompasses a skill set that includes stretching hose, throwing ground ladders, and operating the fire apparatus.

Their responsibilities include mastering firefighter skills and taking direction without hesitation.

The fire officer’s role is that of an immediate, effective supervisor who must be knowledgeable, experienced, and confident. Equally important is their responsibility to have a thorough understanding of department policies and procedures, while effectively integrating them into the decision-making process.

The role of the chief officer is to take command at emergency incidents and to develop a plan to mitigate the incident. The members operating under their leadership expect chiefs to make knowledgeable decisions producing the highest benefits with the least amount of risk.

In business, it also is crucial to understand the “chain-of-command” when faced with crisis situations (e.g., what role do executives play in terms of PR, communications, and decision-making; what role does HR play in managing employee culture and benefits, what role does marketing play in sharing information with clients, etc.).

Depending on what type of crisis or situation presents, a thorough understanding of roles, responsibilities, and the appropriate chain-of-command process helps to stabilize or neutralize “hot” issues quickly and helps to effectively navigate necessary communication and next steps.

Creating an IAP for any team is critical to ensuring tasks are properly assigned, gaps are closed, and the situation has the right resources assigned to it.

Step #2: Creating Process-Oriented Tasks

As a paramilitary organization, the fire service provides a structure for performing an inherently dangerous job and provides a set of cogent processes to help keep firefighters safe. Safety and outcomes are improved by using an established process, designating a set of rules to follow, and evaluating progress at regular intervals.

For example, fire officers are often trained to follow an 8-step process for managing hazardous materials (HazMat) incidents. Steps such as identifying the problem, managing Information, and coordinating resources can provide officers with a consistent management structure.

Often, creating a well-thought-out process to address crisis situations and unexpected ‘fire drills” in business is only considered after the crisis has occurred, which often leaves teams scrambling and feeling disoriented. This leads to not being able to properly mitigate risk and apply crucial problem-solving to create the right tasks to resolve.

By being proactive, and again applying mental modeling to create an effective crisis management strategy, an organization provides a greater sense of trust and confidence to front-line leaders and employees. Thus, the process then allows for critical thinking to override emotions and impaired judgments when the crisis hits.

2 people in a business meeting looking at post-it notes.

Step #3: Using Predictive Behavior as a Means to Improve ROI

Firefighters use Recognition Primed Decision Making as a means to improve outcomes in recognized situations. During the size-up, the officer will ask himself, “Have I seen this before? What did we do before and what were the results? If we execute Plan A, does it have a reasonable chance for success?” If the answer is yes, Plan A will be implemented. If there’s no reasonable chance for success, we will modify Plan A or choose Plan B, C, or D.

This approach to evaluating critical situations provides thoughtful and proactive strategies for organizations, as well … where leaders and employees are equipped to respond from a place of clarity, focus, confidence, and courage, versus one of reactionary emotion and uncertainty.


Frequently, we can boil down the success of the operation to a “sound byte.” For example, for most fires, the single most important action which can improve everything is to:

“Put the wet stuff on the red stuff.”

Fireman battling a fire with water hose.
There are a thousand things we can accomplish with ladders, saws, fans, …. But heat, smoke, and the ease of operating inside the structure improve dramatically by flowing water (“wet stuff”) on the fire (“red stuff”).

And, oftentimes, we forget the simplicity of how we can address crisis in any situation. Sometimes, it’s as easy as “put the wet stuff on the red stuff”, a proactive response that comes from experience and common sense.

Can you size up your next crisis like a firefighter and make quick, effective decisions to put out those fires in your organization?

In Part 2 of this series, we will explore “The 3 Ways to Size-up a Crisis Situation” … be sure to join us for that one as well!

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