In business language the firefighting mentality is not meant as a compliment. Instead it refers to poor strategic planning and a disjointed organisation that is spending it’s time fighting unnecessary issues that could’ve been prevented with better management practises.
I’ve always felt uncomfortable about this accepted “business definition”. My feeling is that whoever coined the term had no idea about the intricacies and complexity of real-life firefighting. At first I thought that maybe I just don’t get what is meant in a business sense, so I kept quiet about the fact that I completely disagree with the analogy.
However after this week’s devastating fires that swept through the Southern Peninsula and yet again observing the firefighters at work I need to say this: Perhaps organisations need to develop a firefighter mentality.
According the business definition a firefighting mentality is one where the organisation’s members are frantically rushing, making impulsive decisions; applying “Band-Aids” to problems without in-depth investigation, suppressed problems with short-term solutions. According to the business analogy if you are proactive you won’t have many fires to fight. I disagree. In both nature and business, fire is a natural occurrence, it happens despite measures to prevent it. There are always uncontrollable forces that organisations cannot influence. So rather expect the fire, be prepared, train and vigilantly monitor for fires.
The business definition ignores how firefighters actually do their job. Organisations can learn some principles on teamwork and decision-making from firefighters.
The REAL firefighter mentality
- Preparedness. When not actively firefighting, fire fighters are preparing for the next fire. If you visit a fire station you will find that the gear is ready and checked first thing on the shift, the vehicles are ready, fire suits ready, the control room is manned. There is regular practise for emergencies and when the call comes in, everyone are trained and knows their role. There is no need to add to the complexity of a fire situation by figuring out task allocations or panic about readiness and what next. Firefighters know what is controllable and what is not controllable. Controllable is preparedness, uncontrollable is wind direction. By preparing for what can be controlled, decision-making during the fire is simpler and only targeted to strategies to deal with this fire now. The groundwork to enable this focus has been done way before the fire.
- Consistent communication. Close up to where the fire is being fought you can hear the fire fighters calling for more water, move closer, watch out, etc. They are constantly speaking and updating each other, nobody is left out of the communication loop.
- Implicit trust. During a major event the in-charge or commander are removed from the incident. Decisions with a major impact such as evacuation of homes or mobilisation and withdrawal of resources are made relying on the feedback and opinion from the persons on the forefront. Think about this….there is no time to check the integrity of a report, to micro-manage or to-do-it yourself. There is limited time to question; Fire chiefs trust their team with life threatening decisions in a way that few managers trusts their team with minor decisions.
- Team approach. Ever opened a fire hose? The water comes out at a high pressure and it’s advised to have a buddy standing behind you for support. Firefighters know that you can’t fight a fire on your own. A team is dispatched to a fire and not a lone firefighter or fire chief. Firefighters move together, they work together and they look out for each other, no one is wandering off doing their own thing.
- Strategic planning. Firefighters do not simply rush into a fire. They arrive prepared, they make a decision and then they execute it rapidly. What from the outside may appear as impulsive is actually an ability to stay calm under an immense pressure combined with experience and hours of simulation practise.
- Practise. Firefighters practised and simulate various scenarios so many times that when they arrive on scene they are not even aware of making decisions. If you are interested in reading more about how firefighters make decisions, Gary Klein has done fascinating research on how firefighters build a repertoire of patterns to help them frame a situation and make split second decisions. It’s a combination of tacit knowledge, intuition and experience.
- Courage and ability to remain calm under pressure. Approaching a fire is scary and firefighters put themselves and their team members at risk with each decision they make. It takes courage as well as physical and emotional strength.
- Humour during stressful situations. Firefighters and other emergency workers relief tension by laughing, joking and teasing each other during stressful times. I can think of plenty management moments where a smile, a joke or even just some friendliness could relief the tension.
To all the firefighters I salute you. Well done.
To see what these brave men and women at work during the Southern Peninsula fires: http://ewn.co.za/media/2015/03/04/inside-the-flames
To read some more about decision-making process of firefighters, ICU nurses and fire fighters:
Brockman, J. (2013) Thinking: The New Science of Decision-Making, Problem-Solving and Prediction. HarperCollins, New York.
Klein, G., Ross, K.G., Moon, B.M., Klein, D.E., Hoffman, R.R., Hollnagel, E. (2003) Macrocognition. IEEE Intelligent Systems. May/June 2003 pp.81 – 84
Klein, G., Hoffman, R.R. (1992) Seeing the invisible: Perceptual-cognitive aspects of expertise. Cognitive Science Foundation Instruction. pp 203 – 226