Know What You’re Doing…Its Expected

“Leaders have to be knowledgeable and proficient all the way around, day and night and in all areas. That knowledge, or the lack thereof, is easily read by all followers. My basic point with being tactically and technically proficient is that leaders must know their job, know their people, and be physically involved with them; this helps the followers to know what is expected of them and what to expect from their leaders.” –Col. Wesley L. Fox USMC (Ret.)

Our own history, like the military, is well documented in photos and drawings, but not necessarily in word.  Lesson are often lost.  Photo believed to be public domain.

Our own history, like the military, is well documented in photos and drawings, but not necessarily in word. Lesson are often lost. Photo believed to be public domain.

I love military history. One of my favorite legends of leadership in combat is the tale of the 7th Cavalry. Not the horror story of the Little Bighorn and George A. Custer’s disastrous campaign, but the far less well known Vietnam War battle in the Ia Drang Valley, where Lt. Col. Hal Moore and his battalion of the 7th fought for their lives and lived to tell about it. Unlike Custer…

Col. Moore’s and Joe Galloway’s excellent book, “We Were Soldiers Once, ..and Young” is a textbook of leadership amidst chaos. Many in the fire service are no doubt familiar with the title due to the movie that Mel Gibson made of the spectacular combat story. But not being a generation that reads much print, many have not heard of the second part of the story. There was another battalion of the 7th engaged in combat, fighting for survival. Their story is not one of victory, but of a lack of command. The leadership in that battalion was not the same caliber. And although Hal Moore is gracious in the telling, it is obvious that there was a drastic difference in what happened to the different commands within the 7th over those few days in 1964.

What was the difference? Why would it matter to fire fighters? Well, just perked a new pot, pour a cup and take a seat on the tailboard. Let us chew on this a while. The meanderings of my mind will play out here and make more sense with a good brew.

You see, this is another area that causes me no small amount of irritation when it comes to leadership issues. We can file this one under the category of being “Tactically and Technically Proficient”. One of the 11 Principles of Leadership I have been wandering my way through. This one is fairly critical. You’ve simply got to know what you are doing…

Colonel Hal Moore USA (Ret.)  co-author of "We Were Soldiers Once, And Young"

Colonel Hal Moore USA (Ret.) co-author of “We Were Soldiers Once, And Young”

Hal Moore knew his business. He stayed up late at night studying his enemy, studying his predecessor’s failures and faults, asking himself the tough questions. He trained himself and his people to an excessively high standard, demanding that the man below knew how to do the job of the man in charge, demanding that leaders be out in front, visible. He made sure that his young officers knew and understood the tactics of the new helicopter landing zone strategy and how they were to be applied and carried out. These are many of the reasons that his battalion survived to the degree that it did in that fateful moment. This was not his Battalion’s only action in Vietnam, but it was one of those moments that comes only rarely in a single man’s lifetime. He and his people were ready for it. Tactically, his NCO’s and Officers understood what was being asked of them. They knew their jobs. The leadership in the other battalion of the 7th engaged in that fight was not up to this standard and unfortunately the men of that command paid the price for it. To make a long story short, the Vietnamese were able to create mass confusion and separate leaders from their commands and the result was devastating. And therein lies the issue on my mind. Both at Little Big Horn and in the Ia Drang fight, leaders who did not understand their enemy or the appropriate tactics to face that enemy ended up sacrificing large numbers of their people in combat. I don’t care how slick you think you are, if you aren’t dialed in to the situation you have on hand, your people are gonna pay the bill for it.

Unlike the military, our battle is fought out rapidly with little build up to the issue, usually within minutes all the action that requires decisive thinking is done. There is little time to react, let alone think about changing tactics. Yet it is imperative that we challenge ourselves to do this. At a recent house fire where we had a report of a possible rescue, I made the decision to deviate from SOP’s and modify tactical practices in order to make the building more tenable for our rapid entry. With a front room fully involved, fire aggressively attacking the roof above the windows and eaves I needed to put the heat production in check in order to buy a little time to go get the victim who was somewhere in the home. With no one else on scene but my Quint and the accompanying Medic unit, I made the choice to order my nozzleman to shoot the involved roof and exposed window, just momentarily, then we lunged for the open door. Having knocked the heat from the fire, we were able to make short work of the engulfed room, changing the environment within the house dramatically. I deviated from the SOP and hit the room from outside that I intended to enter because I was pursuing an occupant that had re-entered the home. It was clear to me that with few resources on scene if I was to have a chance at finding the victim, I needed to buy time, even if that meant steaming the room a bit. Hard right on the nozzle, “tap, tap, to the right!” and minimal steam is created, lots’a knockdown power! It had the desired result.

To make that tactical decision I pulled from information I had studied from the recent UL and NIST testing on ventilation of fires in enclosed structures. I had listened to lectures when the info was released officially at FDIC and earlier pre-release info at FRI for three years prior. Both the lectures and written material available have convinced me that while the information in the studies may not be earth shattering to observant students of the profession, it has provided hard information and data that can be used to further our methodology. We may not agree with it all, but it will be the yardstick used when we neglect to account for its affects on our people.

Here’s what I’m really getting at..

I made a decision based on the newest information, to the degree that it jived with my own experience. That led me to deviate from SOP with confidence in my actions. It all took placed within less time than it takes to say it. That is how all of us make our decisions on scene, especially when a life is being threatened and we have to intervene, …now! So most of us are also aware that with that fateful moment in mind, our training should prepare us so that we will default to prescribed behavior. But most of the time, it doesn’t..

How many officers do you know of that are constantly preparing themselves for that moment? That one critical moment? I hope you all do yourselves and know of a few more, but I doubt that to be the case. I know many good men and women that fill the role of fire officer, that are truly good people and are truly good at many things. Fortunately for many of them, their natural aggressiveness and inherent courage means that they carry the day on most fires they encounter first due. I doubt that the Colonel in command of the 7th’s ill fated Battalion was a bad man, nor do I believe he was not capable. From what I have read, he failed to recognize that he was meeting an enemy that required more of him than he had prepared himself to give. I think that is often the case with fire officers who are defeated by the fire within the building. I don’t know about you, but I have never wanted to be that guy..

It would be easy here to attack the establishment. I have done so in the past, because I believe that it bears part of the blame for a lack of officer training and proficiency. But when it comes to tactical proficiency, I believe it is your responsibility to become educated. Some fire officers I have known have been blessed with departments that have clearly defined policies and educate their fire officer and even their firefighter ranks on those policies. Others give it lip service. Others do nothing, … except hand out bugles like popcorn. But many, if not most of us have to find the education on our own and not only that, we have to apply it to our own battlefield. I do not fight fire on the South Side of Chicago. Nor do I deal with the refined fire codes of the Western Coast. I fight fire in a small city, in the middle of no where. One fire marshal covers an area bigger than two Texas’s and when it comes to building construction, …..anything goes. I can deal with that one of three ways:

This was a house fire that demanded some creative thinking, at -40 below temps, built like an arch, with stilts on a steep grade.  The fire behaved according to the structure it was confined to.  Photo by Author.

This was a house fire that demanded some creative thinking, at -40 below temps, built like an arch, with stilts on a steep grade. The fire behaved according to the structure it was confined to. Photo by Author.

1. I can say the rest of the fire service has no clue of what I deal with and ignore its efforts at education and the flood of material that is constantly being produced for my benefit.

2. I can say that we don’t get much fire here and what we do get can be handled by the training I recieved as a probie. I read Essentials. If the department is not going to make it worth my while to attend advanced training, then it isn’t going to happen.

3. I can say that while our fires here are not easily fit into the simple categories that everyone else seems to be comfortable with in the rest of the U.S., fire is fire and its methodology will behave in a predictable manner. So will gravity and construction. I need to stay current and understand these things and act accordingly when I arrive on scene.

Maybe I have oversimplified the viewpoints I don’t agree with. But here’s a thought for you…

This past year, at two separate Conferences, over 3000 miles apart, both well attended, I gave lectures on leadership and leading the younger generation. In both classes, I brought up the new research by UL and was stunned at the lack of awareness my students possessed on the subject. This research has been going on for more than just a year or two.

Need to be informed?  check it out here...

Need to be informed? check it out here…

And it wasn’t that they had no opinion, they simply hadn’t heard of the research! Its not that I find the information conclusive, …far from it, I believe there are many questions yet unanswered. But I do believe that anyone unaware of the studies is demonstrating a severe lack of situational awareness. For a fire officer charged with the welfare of his or her people. It stunned me, because I tend to think that everyone spends time wondering what they will do at the critical moment and wouldn’t you prepare yourself for that moment? And if that moment could come at any time in your career, would you not spend your career preparing for it?

In his landmark work, “The Face of Battle”, English historian and author John Keegan wrote of the British Officer’s education at Sandhurst Military Academy, (warning – the following quote has a distinctly English compliment of commas, but bear with it) “..battles are going to happen…For by teaching the young officer to organize his intake of sensations, to reduce the events of combat to as few and as easily recognizable a set of elements as possible, to categorize under manageable headings the noise, blasts, passage of missiles, and confusion of human movement which will assail him on the battlefield, so that they can be described – to his men, to his superiors, to himself – as ” ‘incoming fire’ , ‘outgoing fire’, ‘air-strike’, ‘company-strength attack’, one is helping him to avert the onset of fear, or worse, of panic and to perceive a face of battle which, if not familiar and certainly not friendly, and need not, in the event, prove wholly petrifying.” This is the essence of our need for constant training. To help us remain able to communicate our decisions and actions to those we lead, those whose orders we obey and to our own mind, clearness of thought and purpose in a massively confusing environment. Fighting fire is very similar to combat in its most intense moments.

"one is helping him to avert the onset of fear, or worse, of panic and to perceive a face of battle which, if not familiar and certainly not friendly, and need not, in the event, prove wholly petrifying."  Photo by Author

“one is helping him to avert the onset of fear, or worse, of panic and to perceive a face of battle which, if not familiar and certainly not friendly, and need not, in the event, prove wholly petrifying.” Photo by Author

As a leader of firemen, it is imperative that you remain “Tactically and Technically Proficient” in your understanding of CURRENT practice, previous practices, knowledge, skills and abilities that you and your people are expected to be solid on! How could you be satisfied with anything less? If you stay on the line, your abilities will be tested at some point, someday. The failure to do so can have very negative effects, like others lacking confidence in your leadership and ability.

We have all witnessed or heard stories and have told stories of some other officer’s lack of command presence and general inability to make decisions that are effective. Not only does the leader suffer for this, but so does the company and at times, even the department as a whole. Do not be found lacking! Even in the little things.

Remaining proficient in tactical and technical areas of firefighting and in leadership itself will earn you the respect of those you lead. You can be one hell of a tyrannical ogre in the firehouse, but if you keep your people alive and produce results they will respect you for it and sometimes even overlook a lack of leadership ability in the personnel department with a little pride that they have survived working with you. But failure to be proficient in personnel skills can lead to your removal from the line, in spite of any gifted fireground skills you might display.

Spinning the table here, you might be very good at leadership in the firehouse, but lack common sense on the fireground or be reduced to a wide eyed idiot when asked to make a decision…it happens. Perhaps produced by drinking tea instead of a proper beverage like ….well coffee for example..

A Little Application

There are ways to tackle this proficiency issue, and I borrow here from the Marines again and added a few of my own thoughts as well.

1. Seek a well rounded fire service education by attending service schools, like the National Fire Academy or local community colleges; doing daily independent reading and research; taking correspondence courses, colleges, or correspondence schools; and seeking off-duty education. This should include getting yourself off to a training venue that might cost you some dimes, but is well worth the investment. Many firefighters, once beyond the initial requirements to get the promotion, never crack a book or journal again. Once the “cert” is in hand…they ARE DONE…

2. Seek out and associate with capable leaders. Observe and study their actions. Literally soak up the nuggets from these people. The ones worth listening to are few and far between, keep your mouth shut and your ears wide open!

3. Broaden your knowledge through association with members of other fire departments across the area, the region and the country. I have learned much from other firefighters outside my own territory. You have to apply some regional criteria to their information, to fit it to your first due, but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t have value. There is much to be learned from experienced military personnel as well, especially in the area of organization and communication.

4. Seek opportunities to apply knowledge through the exercise of command. Good leadership is acquired only through practice. Among a certain group, stepping up and being the leader the boss is looking for can get you labelled. But those people are loud in complaint and small on production, they expose themselves to the group pretty quick. Your performance can speak for itself. Leap at opportunities to demonstrate and apply what you have learned. Be prepared to take responsibility.

5. Prepare yourself for the job of leader at the next higher rank. You should strive to be a master of your former position and the positions of those you lead, a expert at your current position in the line and a constant student of the position you aspire to.

Well, we should wrap this up I ‘spect. But I want to leave you with a parting thought. The North Vietnamese Army lost thousands fighting Moore’s hundreds, because they wanted to probe U.S. strategy and tactics. They were learning the enemy they had never fought before. Maybe not the most humane way of doing it. But although they didn’t defeat Hal Moore, they did win the war. They learned their enemy. Being “proficient” in your job can take many forms these days. Paperwork, reports, diversity, budgets, etc. But none of that matters a hill of coffee beans if you can’t put a fire out, fast. Get water on the fire in a calm, quick efficient manner. The enemy is not knew to us. One day, it may be a critical moment in your career when you make the decision HOW to apply water to the fire. The greatest disasters in military history and pointedly, in fire service history often do not hinge on the quality of the education, but on how that education was applied and whether it was current with the times.


  • Robert Shaw says:

    Very good article, well thought and well written

  • H Babler says:

    Great post as usual, it provides a lot of thought for those of us who are young in the fire service and desiring to learn more and move up. I especially appreciated the application section.
    Stay safe.

  • Derek Flemon says:

    Another great read, Captain! Proficiency is the key… being proficient leads to efficiency and tactical deciciveness. I especially liked “A Little Application” “2nd Bullet”, Seek Out and Associate with Capable Leaders. I have always thought if we surround ourselves with those of knowledge, expertise, an unwavering presence… that is what we become.

  • Roland Louis Miller says:

    As always Ben on time and on target. And your points apply in ANY public safety setting IMVHO.

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