So You Are In Charge - Part 3: Make a Decision

You may remember that our last article was about Do Not Assume; hopefully it invoked some thought on your part about what that means. The next action we will review is Make a Decision.

Make a decision is one key action that if you do not implement, your leadership will be marred and probably unrecoverable. Hard working and aggressive firefighters love working for a company officer that is willing to make a decision and take action. Good company officers make sound and consistent decisions based on prior experience and knowledge then implement those decisions by taking the lead. For those of you who were not fortunate enough to have worked for a good company officer lets discuss what kind of decisions they would make and how they made them.

One decision a good company officer makes is to determine what each member of their company's strengths and weaknesses are. After identifying each individual's strength and weaknesses, the company officer can design drills that have multiple functions and facilitate learning by every member. These drills can be as simple as working with ground ladders and hand lines out back of the firehouse or as complex as multi-company drills in the drill yard. The bottom line here is the company officer and his company should end their tour of duty having practiced or learned something new every day.

Another decision a company officer has to make is how to recommend discipline for a company member. This is the most trying issue for a company officer to make and must not be taken lightly. First, remember everyone has the right to due process and everyone must be treated fairly. Disciplinary issues must be kept confidential. This is important to remember because if it gets around that a company officer discussed confidential issues with others, no one will trust that officer. Next, the punishment must fit the crime. Good officers propose discipline in a progressive fashion and makes sure it's handled at the lowest level possible. The mark of progressive discipline is when no one knows it's occurring except for those involved. An example of a decision made on the fireground would be the offensive versus defensive decision. This will require a quicker process for determining the right course of action. The decision you make in the first minute will set the tone for the next two to three hours. If you're right, you're back at the firehouse preparing for the next alarm. If you're wrong, you're overseeing construction of a new parking lot.

Making a decision occurs under different conditions and generally can be either autocratic or democratic. As a company officer you need to understand when to use the proper method of decision making. Autocratic is defined as "the leader makes all the decisions for the group." Democratic is defined as "participative leadership style." Arriving first due at a 2 1/2-story residence with heavy smoke showing is not the time to ask "who wants to catch the plug", or take a poll of who wants to continue the interior firefight on a vacant residence that is about to collapse? These are the kind of questions you will be asking if you use democratic instead of autocratic properly. Clearly, you can see the differences between autocratic and democratic decision making. Remember, you are in charge and that requires you to make a decision. The democratic leadership is what earns you the label "a good and fair officer to work for." Autocratic leadership is what earns you the label of a "competent and aggressive officer on the fireground." Simply put another way, democratic earns friends, autocratic earns respect!

A quick process to use when making a decision is

  1. Define the problem
  2. Identify solutions
  3. Choose the best option
  4. Monitor the results and make changes if necessary

Using this for responding to a residential fire would go as follows; you arrived on scene and have a two-story wood frame residents with smoke showing from side 2 of the top floor, (problem defined). Advancing an attack line on an aggressive interior attack, begin defensive operations, wait for someone else to make a decision, (identify solutions). Based on a rapid size up you decide to make a decision and advance the attack line (choose best option). Your company advances into the residence and finds a small fire in a bedroom and extinguish it with out incident (monitor the results and make changes if necessary). Had you initiated an interior attack then find the fire had started in the basement and traveled to the second floor, you might make a change in your attack plan based on what you found. This process must move rapidly for fire ground incidents. Make sure you base the decision on the best information you have at the time. If you have time to investigate for additional information, do so if it contributes to a better solution.

Basing your decisions through a sound process will help ensure you make consistent and competent decisions. Now that you are promoted you must continue your education and be willing to pass that on to your company. It is up to you to train and motivate your company into an effective firefighting company and making a decision does both. Consistently using a quick process to make your decisions, will help you define the problem, find solutions, implement the solution and then monitor the results and make changes if necessary. Remember, if you do not make a decision, someone else will!

Good luck and stay safe!