The Firefighting Dichotomy

When problems or crises arise in a business context, we often hear leaders refer to how busy their teams are firefighting. This paints a picture of chaos in the workplace, with overworked and stressed-out teams running from problem to problem, not addressing an issue before they are interrupted by the next predicament. Managers constantly juggle where to prioritize overworked people and often make rash decisions to try to put quick fixes in place.

According to the Cambridge dictionary, firefighting (in a business context) is “spending time on problems that need to be dealt with quickly, instead of working in a calm, planned way.” But in the real world of fighting fires, firefighting is far from chaotic and unplanned. If you think you’re firefighting, you’re not thinking like a firefighter. In contrast, firefighters are highly trained, dedicated, and coordinated teams who plan, practice, and prepare for a range of different crisis scenarios. They must — their lives and the lives of those in emergency depend on them being able to respond in an assured, controlled, and well-rehearsed manner no matter the disaster.

Photo by Matt Chesin on Unsplash

What It Takes To Put Out The Fires

I recently spoke with my new colleague Rockwell Scott, an experienced volunteer firefighter, to discuss these conflicting views of firefighting. When Rockwell was a teenager in rural Tennessee, the local rural fire service put out a fire at his home, saving him and his family. This motivated him to sign up, train, and gain certification as a volunteer firefighter as soon as he was old enough to do so. We agreed that the business world has much to learn from firefighters to be fully fit for any crisis or future scenario. Leaders must:

  • Build high-performance, focused teams. In a business crisis scenario, there’s often an adrenaline rush, with individuals striving to be heroes. However, there’s no room for individual heroics in the fire service. Firefighters operate as a high-performance, close-knit unit where everyone knows their responsibility and is expected to perform their role. The pump operator and frontline firefighters collaborate in unison to ensure a consistent supply of water at high pressure and with the right pattern to deal with the type of fire. There is no room for lapse of concentration or focus. When a firm faces a major challenge, it’s teamwork and collaboration that will pull you through — not individual heroics. Better to have a team of heroes than an individual superstar.
  • Establish clear communication and delegation channels. As you would expect, clear, consistent, and frequent communication in a fire emergency is critical. The incident commander is the ultimate decision-maker but is dependent on the flow of information and situational awareness from frontline teams. Decision-making is devolved to point of need. If the zone one commander at the front of a building fire says the structure is about to collapse, the zone one team will pull out. Equally, teams in other zones are notified to withdraw from the scene if they also face danger. Similarly, in our newfound hybrid working environment, senior leaders need to focus their attention on supporting frontline leaders. Frontline leaders need a clear channel for bidirectional communication with senior leadership.
  • Train their people for future scenarios. Firefighters must complete a rigorous training, qualification, and assessment probationary period. Volunteers complete the same training as full-time firefighters. Training does not stop with qualification. Regular scenario-based training is crucial for effectively dealing with different emergency situations — from high-rise building, aircraft, or tank fires to special situations involving flammable liquids. Undertaking frequent dry runs for different fire scenarios builds muscle memory so that for each situation, every firefighter is prepared. They know their role, what to expect from their colleagues, what equipment is needed, and what to do. Fire commanders monitor training progress through a cycle of continual, 360-degree feedback. Business and tech leaders must similarly ensure that their employees are prepared for any future scenario by developing a future fit learning culture. Rapid change is driving demand for continuous upskilling, and traditional training is not filling the skills gap. Success is achieved through embedding learning into work, performance goals, and a leadership coaching culture.
  • Ensure teams have the right tools and technology and that both are future fit. Reliable, fully operational equipment is the bedrock of the firefighter’s job. A firefighter will never go into a situation without being 100% ready. If people are worn out or equipment is not in proper working order, they will not respond. Each firefighter puts a lot of focus on testing, cleaning, and caring for their gear. They need to rely on their equipment as much as their colleagues. Standards play a critical role and ensure familiarity, consistency, and reliability. For example, every fire engine is equipped with two 150-foot cross-lay hoses, specified for the same pressure and minimum water flow. Technology executives must standardize and prune their portfolios. They must optimize the technology stack to become future fit and ensure teams have the right technology for future work.
  • Base decisions on facts, not gut reactions. When the firefighters arrived at the scene, they were greeted by a panic-stricken woman screaming “my baby is in there.” The crew at first assumed the worst — a young child was caught in the blaze, demanding immediate action. But training kicked in. The threat was less severe: It was her pet dog she was talking about. Often, technology teams are expected to drop everything and respond to a business owner’s “baby” — their project is critical, a higher priority over and above the rest. But with root cause analysis and proper criteria for prioritization, the facts often flag that is not the case. Additionally, when dealing with risk, we can prepare for the worst, but we should not overdramatize without all the facts. There may be smoke, but that does not mean the fire is flaming.
  • Be prepared to adapt. As much as firefighters prepare for different fire scenarios, they can often face a situation they were not quite prepared for. Rockwell told a story of when he was part of a crew called out to a fire at an abandoned house. This is not unusual. Often, homeless people occupying a building will light a small fire for warmth that then escalates into a house fire. The normal priority is to first check if it is safe to enter the structure and identify if any occupants have succumbed to smoke and are unconscious. However, in this situation, the team entering the building discovered that the owner, a farmer, was using it to store flammable propane in tanks. The farmer neglected to display notices outside, warning of the dangers of explosive gases being stored inside. While the team was trained for a flammable scenario, they entered the building unaware of this hidden danger. This left them with no option but to pull back, inform the wider crew that the situation was not as it seemed, and reequip for the changed situation. In business, we cannot anticipate every scenario but must learn to be adaptive. Adaptiveness is the key to business success. Adaptive enterprises continuously assess the environment, anticipating new customer-obsessed opportunities and demonstrating the ability to reshape their core business models and organizational structure.
  • Finish what was started, and capture learning before moving on. Contrast the chaotic business context of firefighting with that of the fire service. Imagine if a fire crew jumps into its truck ready to dash to another call without fully safety-checking the scene. What if there was an unchecked hot spot that caused the fire to rekindle? The fire crew ensures full closure, confirming that the fire is fully extinguished and that the situation is safe for the subsequent cleanup and overhaul process. After each incident, there is a full debrief to assess what worked well, what could have been better, and if there are any ideas or different equipment that would’ve made the job easier. It was this approach that led to the invention of the “jaws of life” hydraulic cutter to rescue people from crashed vehicles. This device replaced the previously used cylinder saw that was noisy, slower, dangerous, and caused extra distress to the trapped victim. Tech leaders are now learning from safety-critical professionals on how to improve incident management practices. They recognize that incidents, in theory, should drive follow-up analysis and corrective action once the fire is out. No incident should be left simmering.