Successful leaders must be comfortable operating in the gray

As so many of our challenges are not black or white, we must acknowledge the nuance and learn to make sound decisions amid ever-evolving scenarios


By Eric Linnenburger

Humans thrive in stable environments. We look to policies and procedures, communication models, the incident command structure, and other tools to keep us safe and calm the chaos of the fireground and the firehouse. The industry as a whole has made huge strides in these areas and must continue down this path of professionalism, safety and consistency. Our workforce expects it, as do the communities, boards and governments we serve.

It would be foolish and irresponsible to say we need to focus any less on data-driven information. However, is it possible that we’re neglecting to prepare our membership, especially our new and up-and-coming leaders, to navigate the waters beyond the policy book? Anyone can regurgitate policies to their teams. The better ones will actually understand and communicate the why behind these policies and have the courage to ensure compliance among their teams. Fewer and fewer, though, have the ability to do those things and make sound decisions when there is no policy or precedent for guidance.

The Marshall Fire outside of Boulder, Colorado, in 2021 forced fire crews to think outside of box due to wind gusts up to 115 mph and rapid fire spread.
The Marshall Fire outside of Boulder, Colorado, in 2021 forced fire crews to think outside of box due to wind gusts up to 115 mph and rapid fire spread. (Photo/Westminster (Colorado) Fire Department)

As incidents evolve, we can’t afford to be paralyzed by complex situations for which we haven’t yet written a handbook or guideline. The next-level fire officer must be a problem-solver who is comfortable operating in the gray – the space where the black and white of policies and procedures does not extend. Similarly, firefighters at every rank must be thinking, action-oriented risk managers. So, how do we ensure that we can operate in the gray?        

Beyond binary thinking

The world is only getting more complicated, yet thinking seems to be more binary. We are not immune to this in the fire service. So many of our debates come down to all-or-nothing, lazy arguments void of any nuance: nozzle types, incident command location, communication models, fire-based EMS, clean cabs, transitional attack, safety culture, and on and on and on. Too many of these battles occur without any consideration of what is right for our individual organizations and communities based on needs, resources, funding, staffing and other relevant factors.

Simultaneously, we’re getting pulled in many directions, existing as a “catch all” of sorts for everyone’s problems. Anyone else noticing their requests for service getting more frequent and more bizarre? The number of times we say, “You just can’t make that stuff up” is definitely on the rise.

Consistency and predictability keep us safe. We should make things black and white whenever possible. But what happens when there isn’t a clear path to the right solution? 

When quick fixes aren’t an option

We can’t expect to solve all the complicated issues in our changing service by creating new rules or bringing more technology into the mix, or even just continuing to only do things the way we always have. Most firefighters don’t fully understand the equipment they already have. Who actually knows 10% of their portable radio capabilities? How about the thermal imager, MDC, electronic accountability system, Bluetooth-enabled in-mask communications? Technology is important as we grow and adapt, and should be used to enhance our efficiency, but it should never be relied on solely to solve fireground problems or when tackling long-term “big picture” issues on the administrative side.

Firefighters are problem-solvers by nature. We also tend to have short attention spans, so when we see a problem, we want to fix it now. This is why we are so great bringing order to chaos on the emergency scene. The issue is that we can’t always solve our “big picture” problems with the same approach. This can be frustrating for those trying to solve problems but also for those expecting our problems to be solved.

For example, just a few years ago, we were fighting for a second set of bunker gear for all members to help minimize cancer risks. Now we’ve discovered the PFAS issue – a complex issue that also relates to cancer risks. We have firefighters questioning their only line of defense from the IDLH. We know the answer is not to stop wearing the gear, but some will react that way. Working toward the solutions to these big picture problems will take time and nuanced decision-making.

There is great rescue and civilian survivability data coming out of UL’s Fire Safety Research Institute as well as the Firefighter Rescue Survey. We need to continuously follow the work done by the late Don Abbott and Project Mayday. Some of this information will prompt tangible data-driven policy change, which is important, but we must also work to support that search crew without seconds to spare in the IDLH. Are we recognizing the nuance and difficulty in their environment and giving them the tools to make informed decisions when the answers are not clear?

Critical questions about critical thinking

We must incorporate more critical thinking into our training evolutions. Many of the training scenarios I’ve experienced through my career have resulted in micromanaging and criticizing details that simply aren’t important in the bigger picture – an approach that leads only to confusion and fear of making inconsequential mistakes. It’s imperative to set standards and expectations on the tasks that should be automatic and involve minimal thinking, such as stretching lines, throwing ladders and donning PPE. Those skills are non-negotiable. But what about incorporating decision-making into our live-fire drills based on current resources and immediate needs?

A single three-person engine company cannot expect to accomplish as much as the simultaneous arrival of three four-person companies, yet we often drill on the latter ideal scenario. Are we preparing our crews to make the difficult decisions, like whether to go all in on rescue or to do fire control to protect the victim when you can only choose one? Of course, it’s ideal to do both in a coordinated way, but what if our only option is to start with one tactic? The best decision will vary from fire to fire based on all the factors – all the nuance and cues.

We know the benefit of closed doors and areas of refuge within even a small single-family home. Are we training our firefighters and officers to pause and think about whether they should drag the victim right back through the products of combustion or bring them into an area of refuge and wait for ventilation or window rescue? Their lives may depend on us making the right decision, which may be different from the way we’ve always done it … or the way we do it at the next fire.

Are we training our firefighters and officers to pause and think about whether they should drag the victim right back through the products of combustion or bring them into an area of refuge and wait for ventilation or window rescue?
Are we training our firefighters and officers to pause and think about whether they should drag the victim right back through the products of combustion or bring them into an area of refuge and wait for ventilation or window rescue? (Photo/Westminster (Colorado) Fire Department)

There are several actions we can incorporate into organizational culture to encourage critical thinking and sound decision-making within our teams:

  • Encourage diversity of thought;
  • Be clear in communications and expectations; and
  • Trust people to operate in that space without fear of making the wrong decision;
  • Make thinking and communication part of promotional processes;
  • Evaluate how candidates work through challenging scenarios vs. just the end result and the boxes they check (e.g., how they react under stress); and
  • Write policies and operating guidelines that provide clear direction but allow for discretion when justifiable.

This doesn’t apply only to the fire scene. Our administrative issues are rarely clear. Every personnel issue has its own set of individual circumstances. We have some big, long-term challenges to work through. We will never end firefighter cancer or mental health issues, but we may need to think differently and bring different players to the table in order to have a positive impact. Our fire service “can-do” problem-solver personalities are what make us great, but there are times we need to stop and think differently. Maybe we occasionally need to step aside and concede that, although well intentioned, we don’t always have the fix for everything. In many cases, we need to drop our egos and collaborate outside of our silos with other organizations and true experts. There are also situations where we don't have as much time to think, so we must rely on, AND TRUST, our workforce to take action because we’ve invested in them by setting the system up and giving them the tools and training to do so.

Appreciate the nuance

The job is inherently dangerous, and situations are rarely as clear cut as we would like them to be. We need to accept this. Further, fire service leaders must be constantly engaged and flexible enough to read such changes and cues on the fireground. Rigidity and failure to pay attention to the changing environment will stall progress and, worse, get people killed. If we don’t train our leaders and firefighters to think and manage risk in the gray, they could face decision paralysis when the answer isn’t clear. 

The next-level leader is comfortable operating in the gray, acknowledging the nuance and the unknown. They can think through their decisions pragmatically, but know when decisions must be made and is confident in doing so. This takes courage, practice and egoless confidence.

Effective managers are good at ensuring compliance to processes and rules. Good leaders help guide their members through the unknown, helping them make sound decisions look effortless, whether on the fireground or in the firehouse. Good leaders also understand that management and compliance are very important aspects of the job and mustn’t be ignored. Good leaders just have a way of making sure the job gets done without people focused solely on checking boxes.

About the author

Eric Linnenburger is a 25-year fire service veteran, serving as battalion chief for the Westminster (Colorado) Fire Department. He has a bachelor of applied science with a business of government specialization from Regis University and an associate in fire science technology from Aims Community College.

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