Leading From the Hot Seat

Daniel LohmanBy Lieutenant Daniel Lohman

GEORGIA SMOKE DIVER #869
COBB COUNTY FIRE & EMERGENCY SERVICES

On a seemingly calm night around 12:30 in the morning, my unit is woken up and dispatched to a house fire. We quickly throw on our gear, jump into our seats, and buckle up. The dispatcher tells us there are multiple incoming calls describing flames showing. The hairs on our necks stand up and our heartrates increase because this usually means it’s a working fire and we have serious work ahead of us. Based on the territory, I can tell we are going to be the first unit to arrive on scene. I tell my crew so they can mentally prepare. When we pull up, there are flames coming from the back of the house, reaching 20 feet over the roof, touching the trees above. I will need to quickly paint a picture over the radio to let everyone else coming know what to expect and what we will need. This key moment sets the stage for the remainder of the incident. I try to slow my breathing so I can clearly talk over the radio.

Successfully leading my crew and the others arriving hinges on several factors. I need a foundation of solid decision-making skills. I need to be able to effectively communicate my decisions. Finally, I need to be able to detach from my brothers and trust them to perform the individual tasks assigned. Remaining disciplined in these will allow all personnel to build on the success of each other throughout the incident.

Decision-making is a skill that many people take for granted. It needs to be practiced so it can be done while neighbors are yelling “Hurry up, why are you moving so slow? My baby is in there!” In the fire service, we use a four-part decision-making model called the OODA Loop: Observe; Orient; Decide; Act. It is a constant, recurring cycle that we need to move through rapidly. We are taking in our surroundings and making split second decisions based on our ability to prioritize issues.

I observe a split-level home on a basement with 20-foot flames lapping against the trees above the back right corner of the home. Not knowing exactly where the flames originate, I need to do a lap around the home to orient myself to the scene. While making my lap, I must stay controlled and move methodically so I can properly survey the scene. It would be easy to get caught up in rushing around the home, but then I may miss something – a person trapped at a window or fire hidden in the basement. I finish my way around and decide to have a hose stretched to the front door so that we may attack the fire on the main level, since no sign of fire in the basement. We have no idea if anyone is inside the house, so I decide to have the next unit perform a search for potential victims. As the third unit arrives, I decide to have them stretch an additional hose to provide more protection for people that may be inside. In the first two or three minutes of arrival, I act on all the information I have gathered and begin making assignments.

Clear communication is paramount to the success of a leader. If I work through the OODA Loop and never state the pertinent information to everyone, they will not know what they are doing or why. When we are pushed to our knees under 600-degree temperatures and thick black smoke, all while moving the weight of a 200-pound hose, there is no room for interpretation error. There is so much noise, loud noise, inside of a house fire. I must ensure the crews can hear me over all that ambient noise, not to mention the adrenaline pumping their heartbeat in their ears and amplifying their breathing. I use direct, concise statements of what needs to happen. I remove unnecessary verbiage and keep it to the most pertinent information; I am mitigating issues, not adding to them.

In order to lead on scene, I need to trust my people to perform the task they were assigned. If I become overly involved with the crew performing the work (micromanaging), it becomes difficult to see anything outside of that area. Detachment and delegation give me a broader view of the incident and the ability to make predictions on what may happen if left unmitigated. I cycle through the OODA loop on more information, allowing me to make better decisions for the entire incident.

Leading under pressure requires adequate training prior to the introduction of stress. When under duress, we all fall to our lowest level of training. We must practice regularly without outside stressors, so we have a solid foundation to fall back on when a son is screaming that his elderly mother is still inside on the second floor. I train with my crews so we can eliminate errors on the incident scene. Experience shows us that well utilized down time breeds more success in stressful scenarios.

Decision-making skills, clear communication, detachment and delegation are crucial to the leader’s success under pressure. We start our OODA loop and begin prioritizing the tasks that provide the greatest good. Then, clearly communicate the necessary information so operations are most effective. We must remain far enough removed to continually survey the situation; our head is on a swivel while planning our next move. All our preparation allows us to trust our people to perform the work they are assigned. The leader’s adherence to these principles will ensure a team’s ability to prevail, especially when lives hang in the balance.