The fire service has many common interests internationally, among them the issues that affect our ability to complete our mission, the issues that affect our ability to protect our members, and the issues that affect our self-development and leadership. Addressing all of these in one brief guest editorial would be a fool’s errand and the use of this page ill-served. As a member of the team tasked with the Fire Department Instructors Conference International, we focus on all of these issues in a conference that spans six days and has been continuously attended for 90 years. The main focus of our efforts at FDIC international is the successful completion of the mission. To that end, we exert a large portion of our efforts in the training and preparedness of our members in the areas of grand tactics, applied tactics, and minor tactics.
We do so assured that the continuous evolution of our tactics and the continual replenishment of our ranks at all levels demand our review, enhancement, and diligent attention to all areas of tactics continuously. Part of that attention is focused on the importance of the building of teams. It is critical that we pay attention to the importance of the opportunities agencies must provide to their members. Firefighters, men and women of nobility who have freely chosen to strive together in highly dynamic and complex situations where the slightest variance can have catastrophic and lethal consequences, deserve nothing less.
We believe that the legendary French General Ardant duPicq was correct when he said this regarding small-unit operations:
“Four brave men who do not know each other will not dare to attack a lion. Four less brave, but knowing each other well, sure of their reliability and consequently of mutual aid, will attack resolutely.”
This statement was true in the 1800s when the good general first wrote it, and although we have evolved socially and technologically, correspondingly the threats we face have increased in their complexity. The truth of the good general’s statement may be more important to those faced with ensuring the survivability of firefighters today than it was of his soldiers in his day. Complexity makes the human element even more critical and more fragile in highly dynamic hazardous situations.
Ours are inherently hazardous systems; we accept that, and although we make tremendous efforts at applying standardized work rules and practices, the truth is that anomalies, randomness happens all the time. This necessitates even more trust and cooperation among members of those teams. Accepting local rationality as a given, one must look sympathetically and empathetically at the limitations our practitioners have in highly compressed time frames where uncertainty and conflicting priorities are the rule, not the exception.
We begin with an understanding of the consequence of “context” where we do our work. The context of the fireground is defined by limited information, high-stakes decisions, very limited time to make those high-stakes decisions, limited resources, and conflicting goals. Added to that context the system we work in generally places one firefighter in that decision maker role, albeit a trade-off for perceived organizational benefits. This underlies the first basic rule of leadership in the fire service. Number one: Be a good officer; if you don’t know what’s expected of your people and you don’t know what they go through, you don’t know what you’re doing.
Those of us with skin in the game know systems can come together in ways we cannot predict and things that never happened before are happening all the time. Seasoned practitioners live with reality, complexity, and randomness. Although we may not fully understand the concepts, we live, work, and function with them every day. Understanding the randomness and volatility of our context, we plan, train, drill, and prepare as best we can for the unexpected. We also understand when forces come together and good men and women are injured under circumstances that, without the fog of the fireground and befitting from hindsight, appear common or familiar to the uninitiated. To us who live within this hazardous system, the potential dire consequences are known only too well.
And so we continue with more of the good general’s advice. He recommended the following as a guideline for a “wise” organization. “A wise organization ensures that the personnel of combat groups changes as little as possible, so that comrades in peacetime maneuvers shall be comrades in war. From living together and obeying the same chiefs, from commanding the same men, from sharing fatigue and rest, from cooperation among men who quickly understand each other in the execution of warlike movements, may breed brotherhood, professional knowledge, sentiment, above all unity… Unity and confidence cannot be improvised. They alone can create the mutual trust, that feeling of force which gives courage and daring.”
We believe that providing opportunities to drill will help our firefighters to grow in confidence and skill, which will not only improve their chances for survivability but also improve their ability to trust in and cooperate with one another when necessary. The building of teams necessitates that one knows of and can compensate for the limitations of the other team members. It necessitates that one is aware of and can capitalize on the capabilities and strengths of the others. It necessitates that all three disciplines are adhered to continuously: the discipline of perception, the discipline of action, and the discipline of will. Only well-trained and intimately familiar teams can embrace these three disciplines under pressure and threat.