How to train fire officers to slay wicked problems

Firefighters and officers are often wrongly taught to use decision-making processes for tame and critical problems on the more complex wicked problems


By Thomas E. Poulin, Ph.D.

Fire officers at all levels in all organizations are expected to deal with the unexpected, in both crisis and routine circumstances. Over their careers, problems will come and go, and they must deal with them on an unending basis.

There is a great deal of information on decision-making, focusing on authoritarian (executive level) approaches, collective (consulting) approaches and collaborative (shared decision-making) approaches.

Oddly, there is limited information on assessing the problem in terms of basic complexity before determining how to address it, and being able to differentiate between critical, tame and wicked problems can be essential to success.

Here’s a closer look at all three of those problem types.

Critical problems

A critical problem is one that must be addressed, and it must be addressed quickly. There is usually limited time to analyze the problem and weigh alternative solutions.

Instead, we must use an almost instinctive approach, commonly referred to as naturalistic decision-making, which is based upon our previous training, education, experience and situational awareness.

For example, imagine walking into a fire station kitchen and finding an incipient fire on the stove that is starting to spread to the cabinetry. It is an older fire station, so there is no range hood system. You do not see the extinguisher. The kitchen sink is filled with dishes.

There are no cloth towels nearby to smother the flame. The only material readily available for extinguishment is a pot of soup on the front of the stove. Picking it up, you toss the liquid on the incipient fire, leaving a sodden mess and a gap in the lunch menu.

Critical problems are often addressed using imperfect means, based on the presumption that it is sufficient to meet the needs of the moment. As first responders, we are comfortable with such approaches.

Decision-making for critical problems is typically associated with an authoritarian approach characterized by one individual rapidly making a decision. Based on the time constraints, it is accepted that the decision may not be perfect and the time necessary to consult with others may be prohibitive, which in the end, may not lead to a better decision.

Much of the training provided to fire officers is incident-related and focuses on solving critical problems. We apply a tactic, we monitor it and we adapt, but there is little, if any, discussion involved in the decision-making process during most incidents.

Tame problems

A tame problem is one where we have time to analyze and address the issue. The solution is usually technical, and the problem-solving approach is usually linear where discussion, planning and some level of experimentation is possible.

Tame problems are also ones that can be addressed without affecting other aspects of your system.

For example, imagine you have a five-station fire and EMS department. Each station must have a staffed engine, and you have a total of seven engines, with five in front-run status and two available in reserve. If one of the front-line engines requires significant repair, it is a simple matter to remove it from service, replacing it temporarily with a reserve unit.

The problem does not require that we change basic operations, and the change does not change the entire system. In fact, it is possible to address many tame problems in such a manner that many in the organization may never know a problem existed.

Tame problems are often addressed using any of the three primary decision-making methods. The deciding factor is not so much the time or the problem, but the information available.

In the example above, the problem may be so commonly encountered that everyone is familiar with the process. In such a case, the internal and external factors are well known, so the decision is relatively straight forward.

In other instances, a problem might be tame based on the knowledge of a single individual. Consider how an operational officer might perceive the process to replace a piece of broken equipment.

Given their unfamiliarity with the process, they may not know how to approach the problem. However, to an officer tasked with logistics, the process is very commonplace, requiring no special efforts with few surprises likely.

Consequently, before we state a problem is wicked instead of tame, we need to make sure that we understand it, or that someone deeply involved in the decision-making understands the problem fully, regardless of whether a collaborative or consulting decision-making model is used. There may be a very straightforward remedy available.

Wicked problems

A wicked problem is one that is comprised of many components, influenced by both internal and external factors, some of which we might not recognize, and capable of influencing factors external to the primary problem, like ripples moving outward from a pebble thrown into a pond. There is usually no perfect approach, and any approach to resolution is not linear. 

In the end, we may find we have missed significant issues in our considerations; emergent issues will have to be addressed later, as they are recognized. For example, consider your five-station fire and EMS department.

Because of some serious structural issues in one facility, you must temporarily cease using one station for an indeterminate amount of time as major building repairs are transacted. You may be able to find temporary quarters nearby, but that will take some time.

In the interim, you must move the engine from that station to one of your four remaining operational stations.

Physically moving the unit is but one task. We must find bay space for it. We must find lockers, beds and facilities to support the increased staffing in the station.

We must decide what comes out of the station being repaired. Of the materials that come out, where do we put it — the other station or in storage?

We must find a temporary means of dispatching the closest unit, which means developing temporary policies and training individuals on how to implement them. This may require coordination with another agency, if we do not have our own dispatching function.

We will have to face the inevitable interpersonal friction that occurs with two independent crews sharing a single station, especially if the quarters are cramped. 

With a wicked problem, there is no single clear issue to be addressed. We identify a problem, then a solution. The solution creates new problems, or makes visible ones not previously noted. We find new solutions, but this simply creates new problems.

Clearly, not all of these problems will be significant, but they all make the resolution of the wicked problem more complex for all involved. One might use an authoritarian approach to such problems, but it is likely to be limited in effectiveness, often contributing to other problems down the line.

If the authoritarian approach was used in frustration by a senior officer, especially if there was some anger perceived in it by lower-ranking officers or firefighters, it might increase hesitancy to identify other problems that emerge, contributing to lasting, sub-optimal results.

Wicked problems are difficult to handle, often have imperfect resolutions and may have long-term negative effects on the organization.

How to face wicked problems

In many fire and EMS organizations, officers are selected based on critical and tame problem solving skills. Promotional components focusing on incident-related issues tend to be reflective of critical problems — what do we see now, what needs to be done now, what do we look for next and what might we do next.

We then monitor and adapt as necessary. It is an incremental approach well-suited for a crisis setting when information is limited and time pressures are significant. Fire and EMS organizations tend to do well in preparing people for these functions.

Likewise, we tend to prepare personnel for tame problems. We have policies and procedures for checking equipment, scheduling training, cleaning facilities, disciplining subordinates and ordering supplies, among a host of other topics.

In many organizations, we see routine training on these tasks, as well as promotional components based on a knowledge of how to handle routine, linear or technical issues, where there tends to be only one best way (or only one approved way) to move forward. What we do not tend to see is preparation of personnel for wicked problems, but it can be done.

To prepare personnel to deal with wicked problems takes commitment, time and trust. Organizations need to commit to developing these higher level decision-making skills early in the careers of fire and EMS personnel.

In the past, most have had to develop the skills on their own, usually through failure. This seems to be problematic, given fire and EMS organizations tend to be single-tier entry systems, where everyone must work their way up the command structure.

Organizations should prepare personnel for wicked challenges as they make their way up the organizational structure, making them more prepared to meet the challenges that come with formal positions of leadership and management.

Organizations need to provide time for developing personnel to handle wicked problems. Time to learn how to conduct needs assessments, gap analyses, cost-benefit studies and other processes used to analyze and evaluate complex issues, usually in a collaborative approach.

There is a great deal of training on pulling hose and setting up ladders, but, in truth, we do not see significant problems in those areas. Instead, we often experience more issues based on an inability to make appropriate decisions or to work in a collaborative or coordinated fashion, so time learning to do this would be time well spent.

Last, we need to trust people to engage in solving wicked problems, recognizing that their solutions may be imperfect. Nelson Mandela once said “I never lose. I either win or learn.” He was an optimist.

We need to build that same optimism into our organizations. We need to trust people to take the time to analyze, evaluate and respond to issues appropriately, as opposed to insisting they treat all issues as critical or tame problems, which might contribute to the emergence of even greater problems.

Every leader, every manager and every organization will face critical, tame and wicked problems. We are well versed in handling the first two. Preparing people to identify and deal with wicked problems can make us, our teams and our organizations more effective.

In the end, you cannot tame a wicked problem. Domestic dogs and wild wolves may look the same, but they must be treated very differently. The same goes for approaching wicked problems in the most effective manner, letting us serve our communities as best we can.

About the author
Thomas E. Poulin, PhD, is on Capella University’s public administration core faculty, teaches in the National Fire Academy’s Executive Fire Officer Program, and served in the fire service for over thirty years. He may be reached at Thomas.Poulin@Capella.edu.

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