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The Journey: Mistakes and Decisions

There is an expression that teachers use with their grade school children:"Mistakes are good, they help us grow, they teach us what we need to know." That expression may be good for grade school, but in the fire service mistakes can be deadly. It does however have truth to it. A fire service leader needs to know when he doesn't know something. Everyone is not a technical specialist in everything. Especially as the role of the fire service has expanded to include the delivery of a greater variety of service, such as EMS, hazmat, technical rescue and weapons of mass destruction. It could even be simpler than that. Do you think a "city slicker" can set up a tanker shuttle or fight a silo fire? Real experience will be the key for an officer when faced with difficult decisions; we will discuss experience in our next segment.

The purpose of this article is to provide some insight in to the decision making process to make you a more effective leader. Most of the decisions an officer will have to make will be routine in nature. The day-to-day interactions between you and your members will build trust. Trust in your judgment is necessary for effective leadership, as I discussed in the last article.

But as fire officers we need to know when we are capable of making decisions. This is a time when we cannot let our ego cloud our judgment. I have not heard of one fire chief who ever received "total enlightenment" when they received their white helmet, but I have seen many that operated as if they had! That, of course, does not mean that firefighters or fire officers will not make mistakes. We are human. We will make mistakes. The key to mistakes is to learn from them. All mistakes made for the sake of an education are good, except when they are learned at the cost of people's lives.

Training provides an opportunity to make mistakes in a controlled environment in order to reduce their negative effects. This is one of those times when you need to "step up to screw up." Firefighters on the journey to leadership need opportunities to learn. When you are pushed past your comfort level by a challenge you either rise to the occasion or make mistakes and learn from the experience. If mistakes are made during training, the training must continue until the skill is perfected. We cannot ignore poor performance, because we will do as we train.

Mistakes on the fireground continue simply because we get away with them. "Hey it worked the last time." Did it "work" or did we "get away with it?" Innovation is a hallmark of the fire service, we pride ourselves on our ability "get-er done." This can lead to big mistakes from flawed decisions. No bad decision was ever made without good intentions. We also know what paves the way to hell.

Mistakes must be addressed in a positive manner, what did you learn from this? By addressing things positively you create a sense of self-improvement, not condemnation.

This positive approach will lead to greater compliance, which is what we want in the first place. Mistakes may need to be addressed in a punitive manner, but use it with a positive spin. When you have spoken to a member for the third time about properly wearing his bunker gear and you suspend him, what did you learn from this? It is the officers' responsibility to protect their members. The officer would not be doing their job if they didn't correct it. Bulletins on fire service management state, "any officer that tolerates poor performance suffers the consequences from the poor performance that continues."

The fear of making mistakes should never prevent a fire officer from making a decision. Indecision is in and of itself a decision. If you make up your mind not to do something you have made a decision. This can limit your options later.

"Lets wait and see" is never a good approach to fireground situations. On the fireground you need to have a plan and a back up plan and maybe a plan for a few "what ifs". By having a plan you can overcome mistakes or react to a changing situation. The sign of a good leader is how quickly mistakes are recognized and corrected.

Admitting you have made a mistake or at least a miscalculation is a trait that makes an effective leader. All too often leaders lack the ability to admit they have made a mistake or blame others for the error. Both of which are character flaws. This is most likely the case with leaders who have fragile egos. This is not just a fire service issue; it affects politicians, corporate executives and many other "powerful" individuals. Laying the blame off on someone else only demonstrates how ineffective you are as a leader. If you are a leader you take full responsibility for the actions of your people. Good and bad!

If some error occurs because a company officer failed to tell you something, you need to train that officer so that he/she is aware that that is something you need to know, not blame them for the event. Most bad things happen on the fire ground as a result of a series of small seemingly insignificant events. The "domino effect" of all these events causes the catastrophic failure. Just as the removal of one domino will break the chain reaction that causes the whole house to fall, if any one event did not occur the tragedy would also not occur.

This is why we need to be truthful in our ability, and our vulnerability to mistakes. Recognizing them, admitting them and being able to correct them will distinguish us as leaders in the fire service. Consider the Marine expression "the only unforgivable mistake is the one you made before". Make every mistake a learning experience. We will discuss experience in our next segment.

Questions and comments are welcomed, send them to:

Look for the next article, "The Journey: A Matter of Trust."

Stay safe.

CHRISTOPHER FLATLEY, a Contributing Editor, is a 20-year veteran of the FDNY and a lieutenant currently assigned to Ladder Company 21 in Manhattan. Chris has twice served as chief of the Blauvelt, NY, Volunteer Fire Company and is currently the assistant chief and training coordinator. He is a nationally certified Fire Instructor 1 and is an instructor at the Rockland County, NY, Fire Training Center and holds a degree in fire protection technology. He is a Master Exercise Practitioner on the Exercise Design Team through the Center for Terrorism and Disaster Preparedness. You can reach Chris by e-mail at: