Nine ways that business leaders can put out any fire

“If firefighters ran the world, everything would get done.”

The contemporary business environment is often described as “dynamic and fast-paced,” especially when compared to earlier decades.  But to a firefighter, the environment faced by business leaders is relatively static.  Compared to the experience of fighting a fire, business leaders dealing with a changing environment have substantial time to strategize and plan.  Fire Captains have only a few short minutes to pull together their teams, develop an action plan, and bring all team members up to speed.  Firefighting has developed dramatically in the last several years and today a very clear set of structures and principles exists for team performance in a dynamic and hazardous environment.  Business leaders can implement these same principles to build the performance of project teams quickly and effectively.  This article provides nine lessons for business leaders based on firefighters’ principles of incident management.


Firefighters’ Five Principles of Incident Management

Contemporary firefighters follow the Basic Incident Management System, which includes five key principles: simplicity, flexibility, communication, meritocracy, and accountability. Adhering to these principles allows team members to co-ordinate their work relatively seamlessly.

The following scenario shows a typical firefighting response to an incident:

When firefighters hear the warble tone and see the alarm lights, they stop what they are doing to listen to the incoming message. The Captain chooses the route and while en route develops an action plan. All communications include standardized radio terminology so that both the sender and the receiver understand the message in the same way. Clarity is critical so each receiver repeats the initial message to ensure understanding. Here is an example:

[Engine 9:] 765 – Engine 9 

[Dispatch:] Engine 9 – 765

[Engine 9:] Engine 9 is on scene of a two-storey home with smoke and fire showing from the second-floor bedroom.  Engine 9 is going to advance an attack line for a search/rescue and fire control.  Engine 9 will be Notre Dame command in the offensive strategy. [Dispatch:] Engine 9 on scene, two-storey home with smoke and fire showing from the second-floor bedroom.  Engine 9 advancing attack line for search/rescue and fire control.  Engine 9 is Notre Dame command in the offensive strategy

The above example communicates several key pieces of information.  First, the Captain has provided his “sitrep”, which is the initial assessment of the incident.  This communication is critical because it provides all incoming units with a clear mental picture of the situation before they arrive.  Next, the Captain has explained his execution plan, an offensive attack, which means he will be sending a team into the building to control the fire and search for/rescue any people who might still be inside.  (When a situation is too dangerous for firefighters to enter, a defensive attack from the exterior is utilized). Third, as first responder, with greatest level of expertise for handling the situation, the Captain of Engine 9 has taken command of the incident.  As other responders arrive, they will know who is in charge of the situation so that everyone’s actions can be coordinated effectively, illustrating unity of command.

Shortly after, the Captain transmits a second report, which includes a personal accountability reporting (PAR) system – a key piece of the information management system. The PAR system co-ordinates and records the action taking place as well as maintaining control in case of emergencies.  Individual firefighters don’t do anything until they are given a task by the commander so that their actions can be coordinated and communicated on the PAR board.  An officer is in charge of monitoring who is going in, where they are going and what they are doing.

Meanwhile, the Chief is listening to the radio communication as he travels to the scene.  He hears and records in writing which crew is doing which task so that when he arrives he already has a mental picture of the action.  His job upon arrival is to take command as the most experienced and expert person available on site.  He then begins transfer of command with the goal of improving the quality of command by reassigning to a chief officer. It is only done once to avoid unnecessary complexity, fulfilling the principle of simplicity.  Unity of command is maintained, and everyone knows who is in command through the communication echo from dispatch.

Each Captain routinely provides conditions, actions and needs (CAN) reports to update everyone on the situation and their team’s status.  As the Chief receives CAN reports from the different incident teams, they put the fire out, ventilate the smoke, and check to ensure the building is unoccupied.  As progress is made, the Chief starts taking out the pieces, benchmarking over the radio the things that have been done, checking that the fire is under control on the first floor, primary search is complete on the first, second, and third floors, and the team is ready to progress with overhaul (pulling down ceilings and walls to see if there are small fires that need to be extinguished).  The modularity and scalability of the system allow that as the demands of the incident decline, the Chief is able to send the teams from Engine 3 and Engine 12 back to their stations so that they can be prepared when the next call comes in.


How the Principles Resemble a Pyramid Model

Successful implementation of the Basic Incident Management System requires several factors to be in place: equipment, training, standards, policies/procedures, and experience.

These factors can be conceptualized using the Pyramid Model as a metaphor.  A pyramid has four triangle-shaped sides and a square base.  In this metaphor, the four sides of the pyramid include equipment, training, standards and policies/procedures.  Experience forms the base upon which the other four elements stand.  The deeper the experience base, the stronger the pyramid and the more effective the team is likely to be.  Here’s how the factors come into play in firefighting:


People need the right equipment for their jobs.  For instance, in the “dark ages” of firefighting, only Captains had radios, which meant firefighters could not communicate new developments at an incident site unless they were standing right next to the Captain.  Today, all team members are equipped with radios to allow for a free and continuous flow of communication and information.


People must be trained to use their equipment properly.  For example, firefighters today use a Self-Contained Breathing Apparatus (SCBA).  While the SCBA air supply indicates the amount of time it can be used, in reality, no two people will use an identical SCBA and receive the exact same operation time from the air supply.  The stress and pressure of the situation mean that air can be used up far more quickly than expected based on the supply indicator.  Firefighters need substantial training to remain calm under pressure and maximize their working potential during emergencies.


Recognized agencies such as the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA), Underwriters Laboratories, American National Standards Institute (ANSI), and the Canadian Standards Association (CSA) develop standards for training, performing work tasks and other behavioural factors to ensure safety and effectiveness.  These agencies design standards by bringing together experts from multiple perspectives, such as fire officials, government representatives and business leaders, to get the best problem-solving possible.  As exemplified in the TV show “Mayday,” the standards teams investigate past failures in order to develop new practices to prevent similar failures in the future.

Policies and procedures

Policies and procedures help with co-ordination between both team members and multiple teams.  The Basic Incident Management System needs to be so well-rehearsed during training that it is second nature in the event of a real emergency.


The foundation of the pyramid is the firefighter’s level of experience.  There is a substantial difference in capability between a firefighter with 28 years of experience and one in the first year or two of the job.  The first learning curve is getting comfortable with the equipment and developing the tactical skills of fire control.  Over time, when the firefighter is comfortable with these capabilities, it becomes easier to maintain a mental image of each incident as it unfolds and changes, to allow for strategic thinking and planning ahead.  With experience, firefighters learn to recognize the symptoms of change and respond more proactively.  Fire is dynamic and firefighters need to recognize that things can change quickly, for instance, a flashover or backdraft situation can develop.  Recognizing the warning signs allows firefighters to change their operations in order to prevent disasters. 


Lessons from Firefighters for Business Leaders

Business leaders can draw several lessons from firefighters regarding how to mobilize teams to address dynamic business problems.  Consistent with Edmondson’s suggestion that organizations require capabilities in “teaming” to handle the pace of change in the business environment, firefighting demonstrates methods for launching disparate teams together to face down an organizational challenge. 

Teaming is “…flexible teamwork.  It’s a way to gather experts from far-flung divisions and disciplines into temporary groups to tackle unexpected problems and identify emerging opportunities.”[1]  The principles of firefighting provide business leaders with a template for action regarding how to build teaming capabilities within their organizations.  Each of the principles of firefighting supports teaming processes by providing structure, allowing for improvisation, and managing team members’ mental models of the situation and the team’s activities.  These principles can be applied to improve the quality of team-building in business organizations.[2]

  1. Simplicity – While the problems for which cross-functional project teams are pulled together are complex, the teaming process should not be.  A relatively simple structure provides all team members with a shared mental model of how they will work together from Day One.
  2. Flexibility – Flexibility allows adjustments to a changing environment.  Teams should not be required to do each task exactly the same way in every situation, rather, guidelines need to be broad enough to allow action to unfold organically in response to the specific situation.
  3. Standardization – Having a common approach to and understanding of team functioning is critical.  Training in teaming skills and norms creates a common understanding of the attitudes and behaviours required for effective teaming among all team members.
  4. Modularity and Scalability – Allows leaders to add resources to teams facing growing challenges while demands are high, and scale down resource investments as the problem comes under control.
  5. Unity of Command – Means that one person takes on the leadership role and everyone in the team knows who is in charge.  Importantly, command is determined by expertise, not rank.  When command can be improved, a dedicated transfer of command can take place, but too much leader turnover can confuse an already complex situation. Although the principle of unity of command places authority in the hands of a single individual, the principle of flexibility provides leaders with considerable latitude regarding the amount of authority leaders can delegate to team members.[3]
  6. Information management– Is essential to ensure teams collect the necessary information to deal with complex problems.  Like firefighters, business teams need to continuously collect information relevant to the problem.  Dissemination of information should be done in a timely and structured manner.  All team members are expected to share information about their own tasks and progress because rank does not dictate who might be the first to notice a critical change in the situation
  7. Accountability – Means that all functional areas and team members remain responsible for their own actions at all times during the project.
  8. Critique and debrief – When back at the station after each incident, firefighting teams conduct the process of debriefing.  The Captain or team leader begins by reporting on his/her own performance, underlining success factors as well as revealing flaws and areas for improvement during the next incident.  This openness is expected of all team members as part of the norm of building continuous improvement.  The ability to acknowledge personal errors is a strength because it shows people are confident enough in their own core competencies and achievements to admit their mistakes without worrying that they will be rejected by the team.  Leaders role model and train their team members in this strength to facilitate individual and team learning, which builds capabilities that the organization can utilize in the future.
  9. Interoperability and integrated communication – Allows team members from multiple levels and functions within the organization to work together seamlessly on large-scale, important business problems. 

If firefighters ruled a business organization, then all members would become experts in teaming.  As a result, the organization would develop the capabilities to handle most, if not all, of the complex problems that business must face in a competitive and dynamic global economy.   

[1] Quotation taken from Edmondson, A. C.  (2012, April).  Teamwork on the Fly.  Harvard Business Review.

[2] Bigley, G. A., & Roberts, K. H.  (2001).  The incident command system:  High-reliability organizing for complex and volatile team environments.  Academy of Management Journal, 44(6), 1281-1299.

[3] Bigley, G. A., & Roberts, K. H.  (2001).  The incident command system:  High-reliability organizing for complex and volatile team environments.  Academy of Management Journal, 44(6), 1281-1299.

About the Author

Alison Konrad is a Professor and Corus Entertainment Chair in Women in Management at the Ivey Business School at Western University in London, Ontario. Contact:

About the Author

Allan Braatz is a Senior Captain, City of London Fire Department with 28 years of experience as a fire fighter as well as experience developing a training/consulting company for safety in….
Read Allan Braatz's full bio

About the Author

Allan Braatz is a Senior Captain, City of London Fire Department with 28 years of experience as a fire fighter as well as experience developing a training/consulting company for safety in….
Read Allan Braatz's full bio