Saving Our Own: A Paralysis of Initiative

The flag captain, finally acting on his own initiative in his bid to save the ship Victoria, ordered full astern on both propellers but it was already too late.June 23, 1893, was another clear and dazzling day in the Mediterranean. The British naval...

The Victoria-Camperdown incident is legendary in naval history as a stunning example of what can occur when officers fail to act aggressively in situations where they know that pursuing a particular course will likely result in serious and unnecessary danger to operating forces. It also definitely proves that the most brilliant incident commander is capable of making fatal blunders and that clear communication, even when it includes a strong dissent from junior officers, is the only way to protect troops.

The Victoria incident also underscores that blindly and mechanically completing maneuvers in a rote fashion sets up a dynamic where risk will not be evaluated, at least in real time. In the profession of firefighting, this is particularly true in the area of conducting occupant searches in buildings where there is a very low likelihood of either locating anyone or locating anyone alive and the automatic deployment of a hoseline into a clearly marginal area where, again, the only life safety challenge is to the firefighters themselves. If we took the time to add up all the firefighter fatalities directly attributable to blind obedience and the completion of rote tasks, the Victoria's 358 lost would be a bargain. We need to change that.

Questions For A Training Discussion:

  1. What kept the other officers from speaking up?
  2. What level of risk is appropriate for a training exercise?
  3. How can an incident commander ensure that they are receiving critical information and feedback?
  4. What are some ways to ensure that risk is evaluated in real time?

ERIC LAMAR lives and works in Washington, D.C. He has been involved in the fire service for 30 years. To read Eric's complete biography and view his archived articles, click here. You can reach Eric by e-mail at