Get Better at Something in 2011: Resources to inspire you to safer & better fireground performance

Get Better at Something in 2011
Resources to inspire you to safer & better fireground performance
By Billy Schmidt

Firefighter safety and performance has been a topic of discussion for years now, but many previous conversations and training were focused on practicing reactionary responses, not elevating the behavior and culture of our organizations to achieve safer and better performance. Instead of practicing what to do after the unexpected event occurs, we should focus on why it happens, how to prepare and be ready for it before it happens, and then what to do to realize a safer and better outcome when it does happen. Remember Helmreich’s Error Management Model: Avoid, Trap, Mitigate.

I noticed a change in 2010. I read more material, and attended more classes and hands-on training, that spoke of improving an individual’s ability to think and perform safer and better. There was more said about situational awareness, decision-making, task management and the “thinking” side of performance. It has influenced most firefighting conversations I’ve witnessed this year—as it should.

Following is a selection of short takes and additional observations on safer and better performance that I discovered in 2010.

Firefighters must remain flexible and adaptable to the changing conditions of the fireground. Photo Brian Bastinelli

The most important factor when you find yourself in the “fog of chaos” is to be working with reliable team members. Photo Matthew Strauss



Multi-Tasking & Task Overload
Lord Chesterfield, a British statesman and man of letters in the 1700s, wrote in one of his correspondences to his son, “There is enough time for everything in the course of the day, if you do but one thing at once, but there is not enough time in the year, if you will do two things at a time.” Chesterfield knew then that task management was a practical way to structure one’s time.

Task management is about flexibility and adaptability. It includes establishing priorities, remaining aware of overload and under-load, eliminating complacency, managing available automation and human resources, and using checklists and operational procedures. Here are some resources related to these topics:

  • You Can’t Do Everything at Once: Multitasking on the Fireground.” In this column I addressed completing tasks in dangerous and complex environments. Firefighters are only as effective as the results from the actions they take. 
  • Fire Fighter Near-Miss Reporting System. The Near Miss site lists task allocation as a contributing factor on several reports (Fire Emergency Events-92, Non-Emergency Events-9, On-Duty Activities-8, Training Activities-7, Vehicle Events-3, and Other Events-2).
  • You Have Too Much Mail.” In this Wall Street Journal article, author and psychology professor Chris Chabris explains how our brains, overloaded and distracted now, evolved from a much simpler environment. His insight into technology can be applied to operating in dangerous and complex environments, or just getting things done around the station.
  • The 4-Hour Workweek. Limiting multi-tasking is essential, says Timothy Ferris, author of this bestselling book.
  • Are You In the Present?” Listen to Justin Lewis in a video he posted on Firefighter Nation, suggesting that we should think more about being “in the present,” especially when it comes to our family. It’s good advice on the job and at home.

Situational Awareness & Task Management When Operating in Large Structures
In “Size Matters: Operations in large structures put situation awareness & task management to the test,” I reviewed the different challenges and demands that come from working in and around large, complex buildings, as opposed to our “bread and butter” operations in single-family homes. Here are some additional resources related to this topic:

  • Remembering the Worchester 6.” The article reminds us of the uniqueness and difficulty of operating in large and complex buildings.
  • The Windsor Building Fire.” What’s the story on tall buildings collapsing under fire? Ongoing debates challenge why, how and when tall buildings experience either partial or full collapse. Here’s an analysis on the Windsor Building fire in Madrid, Spain, in 2005 that compares the collapse time of that building with that of the Twin Towers in 2001. The Windsor experienced a partial collapse after burning for several hours, unlike the Twin Towers, which, as we know, fell much quicker. Situational awareness and building construction and design is even more important when you have dozens, or hundreds, of firefighters and occupants inside of a large and complex structure. 
  • Preventing Enclosed Structure LODDs.” Disorientation can be a problem anywhere, in any size structure. But disorientation in large and complex buildings creates an added dimension to getting out alive. Retired San Antonio (Texas) Fire Department Captain William Mora describes in an “Everyone Goes Home” newsletter why disorientation happens. Mora explores several underlying factors that contribute to disorientation and suggests reasonable tactics for operating in enclosed structures of any size or design. 
  • A Long Stretch.” Size and design really do matter when applying firefighting tactics like stretching hoselines, searching for victims and deploying equipment. FireRescue magazine contributor Greg Jakubowski relays the unique tactical challenges found when operating in buildings with complex designs, particularly schools, warehouses and industrial buildings. He reminds us that “big buildings require big thinking.” 

Becoming a “Reliable” Firefighter
The most important factor when you find yourself in the “fog of chaos” is to be working with reliable team members. Anticipation and resilience, and the ability to prepare for, respond to and rebound from the unexpected are what it takes to be a reliable team member. In my column, “Reliable Firefighters: Wisdom from Other High-Risk Professions,” I reviewed four books that offer insight into a diverse group of high-risk professions that face similar challenges as the fire service. Following are other sources of information for becoming a reliable firefighter:

  • High Reliability Organizations. What’s the definition of a “high reliability organization (HRO)?” Is it something new? The HRO website studies the experience of individuals and the intersection of technology, human performance and social interactions. The HRO site features a host of researchers and authors, including Dr. Karl Weick, who in his 1993 article, “The Collapse of Sensemaking,” provided a detailed analysis of the breakdown of reliability in the case of the Mann Gulch wildland fire disaster.
  • Five Minds for the Future. How can we succeed in an increasingly complex world? In this book, Howard Gardner suggests that the fast-paced future will demand that we master the following “five minds:” the disciplined mind, the synthesizing mind, the creating mind, the respectful mind and the ethical mind. Gardner explains how the five minds can help us think better for better performance, and become more reliable. I would suggest that the complex and dynamic environment that firefighters work in also demands the use of Gardner’s Five Minds.
  • In Extremis Leadership. Leadership is an essential element of crew resource management. How do we provide effective leadership under challenging conditions? In his book, In Extremis Leadership, Retired Army Colonel and West Point professor Thomas Kolditz describe the key characteristics required for leadership when lives are placed on the line so that others may live (in extremis is defined as “at the point of death”). Leading in dangerous conditions is directly related to the individual’s attitude and level of competence. The most compelling evidence of leading in extremis comes from the words and the deeds of the followers. Better leadership on the fireground leads to better reliability.

Final Thoughts
What does it take to get better at something? This struggle to perform better affects each of us in our own way. But nowhere is it more important to do better, and to make better decisions, than when lives are on the line. The fire service must continue to focus on thinking and performing better. And it begins with asking ourselves, “How can we do better?”

In 2011, I’m going to continue to work hard to bring you sensible information and knowledge on managing multiple resources in dangerous and complex environments, and how to think and perform better.

Until next time, get prepared, be ready and stay safe!

Billy Schmidt is a district chief assigned to the 3rd battalion with Palm Beach (Fla.) County Fire Rescue. An adjunct instructor for the department’s Training and Safety Division, he has a master’s degree in organizational leadership, a bachelor’s degree in human resource management and an associate’s degree in fire science. He’s a member of FireRescue magazine’s Editorial Board.


Copyright © Elsevier Inc., a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved. SUBSCRIBE to FIRERESCUE


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