You Can’t Do Everything at Once: Multitasking on the Fireground

You Can’t Do Everything at Once
What you need to know about multitasking & how to control it on the fireground

By Billy Schmidt

How can firefighters complete several important tasks—safely, effectively and in a timely manner—while working in the challenging fireground environment? The answer lies in understanding task management and multitasking. Firefighters are only as effective as the results from the actions they take. In this column, I’ll discuss some factors that apply to task management, including prioritizing tasks, ensuring proficiency, and recognizing and preventing task saturation.

At a fire such as this one, it's easy to get overloaded with the many tasks waiting to be completed. The key: knowing what you and your crew can accomplish based on their skills and abilities. Photo Bill Eisner

A Challenging Event

Here’s a situation for you: On a cold morning in December, an engine company responds to a residential structure fire at an apartment complex. The building is occupied with sleeping residents, the fire is moving quickly through a common attic—threatening several potentially occupied apartments—and a water supply may or may not be available since hydrants didn’t work at a previous fire at this complex earlier this year.

As the first-arriving engine approaches the fire scene, the crew witnesses a congested and chaotic event that will test their ability to multitask. A heavy volume of fire is venting from the front door and the windows of one apartment on the second floor. Thick black smoke is pushing from the overhangs of the entire building. People are running everywhere—on the second floor near the fire and through the parking lot.

The first-arriving crew has several significant tasks to complete, the first and most important of which is to save lives. Because the first engine is staffed with three firefighters, and has arrived 6 minutes before the next unit, they’ll have to do more with less—less people, less equipment and less time. The crew must prioritize their tasks to match the resources currently on hand. It’s the challenge that most firefighting crews face today.

Limiting Factors
Just as a firefighter’s ability to manage tasks will vary daily with their mental and physical state, a fire crew’s ability to manage tactical assignments is different every day. The difficult part is to recognize this in advance, which includes assessing and knowing individual and crew limitations in job performance.

A firefighter’s daily level of task management proficiency is established from their baseline knowledge, skills and abilities. Newer firefighters are more easily challenged because they possess only basic knowledge of fundamental tasks and essentially little or no firsthand experience performing in a real-time, chaotic environment.

Other factors that can affect task management include current levels of experience (including whether they’ve performed that task recently), understanding the mission and outside distractions (weather, fire conditions, etc.). All of these factors can contribute to how well firefighters will perform at an emergency event.

Prioritizing Tasks
To effectively manage the overall strategy for this fire event, the first-arriving crew must quickly identify their objectives and “bring them to life” through a tactical plan. The tactical plan is based on current resources, but takes into consideration other resources yet to arrive.

Task saturation is the perception, or the reality, of having too much to do with not enough time, tools or resources to accomplish the mission. As task saturation increases, the potential for mistakes increases and performance decreases (for more, see “From Multitasking to Task Overload,” Many firefighters faced with task saturation begin to “channelize” or “fixate” on one task, possibly jeopardizing the actions of the crew and the overall operation. To combat task saturation, firefighters must incorporate a structured method to prioritize tasks.

Based on the conditions found on arrival (a fast-moving fire in an occupied apartment building) and the limited resources available (one engine staffed with three firefighters working by themselves for the first 6 minutes), what’s the initial strategy, and which tasks can be attempted first?

In this situation, it’s not easy to 1) know the number and significance of the tasks that need to be completed, and 2) understand the fire crew’s current ability to perform those tasks. The key is to recognize and accept what can and cannot be done. The real test is to prioritize those tasks that can actually be accomplished.

Workloads can be classified into three categories for task response:

  1. CRITICAL: Firefighters must do something immediately in order to prevent a catastrophe (example: laddering a second-floor window and rescuing an occupant before the fire reaches them).
  2. IMPORTANT: Firefighters must do something soon before the event or conditions worsen (example: containing the fire before it spreads to another part of the building).
  3. ROUTINE: Firefighters need to complete normal tasks that, if left long enough, could become an important item, or ultimately a critical one (example: establishing a water supply). Sounds simple, but there are many stories and case studies of firefighting crews trying to do everything at once, and not getting much done.

Here are three questions that may help to prioritize this apartment fire event:

  1. What’s there? An apartment building under attack from a fast-moving fire; numerous occupants trying to evacuate and other occupants who may still be in their apartments.
  2. What does the situation need? The objectives are simple: Remove the civilians from danger, and contain and control the incident. The strategies are less clear-cut and may include: begin an evacuation process to remove the largest number of civilians from danger; initiate a search and rescue operation that clears the apartments closest to the fire; deploy a handline to protect exposures and egress, enabling occupants to exit the building; or attack the fire in hopes of containing it and providing time for occupants to escape and other resources to arrive.
  3. What have we got to work with? One fire engine with tank water, and maybe another water source (if hydrants work or a drafting location is nearby), as well as three firefighters with different levels of experience and task abilities.

Picture you and your crew at this event. What would you do? What are your objectives? What tactical plan would you put into operation? What tasks do you attempt to accomplish first?

Recognizing Task Saturation
Firefighters don’t always have full control over their task workload. The event may be growing faster than firefighters can respond to, or command may be assigning too many tasks. Firefighters must recognize the effects of task saturation and be ready to take action. Everyone will differ in their capabilities, and those capabilities will vary with the complexity of the tasks, outside factors and personal characteristics of each firefighter.

What happens to firefighters experiencing different workloads? At an optimum workload, which is the goal, everything works well. There are enough resources to accomplish the tasks, and firefighters are challenged enough to remain alert, but aren’t overloaded.
If the workload is too low, firefighters aren’t challenged and can become bored; complacency can set in. The potential for mistakes is high because firefighters aren’t focused on what’s really happening.

A high workload can trigger many behavioral responses. Firefighters will try to work faster to keep up. Their overall view of the operation (strategy) will become smaller and they’ll lose sight of the “big picture,” causing the purpose of the mission to suffer and increasing the potential for mistakes or inappropriate operations. All of these behavioral responses can lead to a sudden loss of judgment, irrational responses to unexpected events or problems, or exhaustion.

Preventing Task Overload
Avoiding task overload can be accomplished with three simple job rules:
  1. Know what your job is;
  2. Be proficient at your job; and
  3. Be disciplined at your job.

When firefighters arrive to work each day, they should know what their jobs are, possess a clear understanding of the mission priorities and understand what and how many tasks they may be expected to accomplish.

This leads to the next measure for preventing task overload: proficiency. To be proficient, and able to perform the tasks assigned to them, firefighters must practice and prepare. Developing good habits through consistent training on the right tasks will help firefighters work smarter, not harder. “Training like you work,” every day, will have a direct influence on a firefighter’s performance on an emergency scene. Skilled firefighters, through practice and repetition that reinforces good behaviors, move from managing tasks on a conscious level that’s focused and time-consuming, to an unconscious level of competence, which is the highest level of proficiency.

Last, but equally important, personal discipline helps firefighters prevent task overload. Professional and well-prepared firefighters have an intimate knowledge of and passion for their job; they understand the dangers of their job, practice situational awareness, conservatively respond to unexpected events and accept and use standard operating procedures. These firefighters will be the best prepared to handle heavy workloads and to quickly adapt to dynamic situations.

Developing Adaptable Firefighters
The fire service must create and nurture adaptable firefighters who can handle the changing face of emergency operations. Firefighters aren’t robots, they’re people, and they need to be adaptable. They need to be able to think and possess the confidence—through training, education and experience—to achieve a desired outcome when performing tasks, rather than simply following a prescribed method, technique or procedure. Understanding “why” a task is needed, instead of just “how” to complete the steps of the task, is the key to improving task management in a complex environment. Developing adaptable firefighters often means developing critical decision-making skills, which will be discussed more in future FF-360 columns.


For firefighters, the art and science of task management involve understanding and controlling their individual ability to handle multiple, complex tasks. Everyone’s task management ability is different, and it varies from day to day. A firefighter’s job is to recognize those limiting factors that apply to task management, have a method for prioritizing tasks, remain proficient in performing tasks, recognize and prevent over-tasking, and become adaptable enough to execute the most important tasks needed for a safe and successful outcome on an emergency scene.

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.

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Comment by WestPhilly on February 19, 2010 at 4:13pm
Cooking, cleaning, birthing babies, taking care of the man-of-the-house........... The list goes on and on.
Comment by WestPhilly on February 19, 2010 at 2:43pm
I figure Kali can do at least four things at once.

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