Fire chiefs and commanders must show confidence and provide leadership when they are at a blaze directing crews on the best way to tackle the emergency.
That was the message conveyed by Robert Krause, director of Emergency Services Consultants in Toledo, Ohio, at the 104th Maritime Fire Chiefs Association conference held in Moncton, New Brunswick on July 14.
“The younger firefighters who do not have your experience, your education, your training, are looking to you,” he said. “Your ability to communicate to them is going to have a tremendous impact.
“The tone you set is contagious. If you’re running around like a chicken with your head cut off that’s contagious.”
Krause, an active firefighter who has spent more than 30 years working in emergency services, led a presentation called Leadership in Dangerous Situations – Strategies for Fire Ground Commanders.
While commanders are under pressure to make quick communications decisions in high-intensity situations they must focus and prioritize, he said.
“You guys are the bosses and your firefighters are going to feed off what you do in dangerous situations.”
Although fire scenes are often chaotic and commanders must make decisions under extreme pressure, Krause said they should survey the entire scene and figure out the most important tasks.
Fire commanders should narrow the focus to the top three issues and how they intend to address them, he said.
“You have to start processing, ‘What are the top three?’ Don’t try to solve all the problems at once.”
Krause showed a short video of a commander directing soldiers in a battle, noting the job is very similar to a commander at a fire scene.
“That’s the kind of leadership I want you to have,” he said. “Your ability to maintain and focus and lead in times of stress will change the outcome. You’re never out of the fight.”
Fire chiefs and incident commanders are under the same type of pressure as a commander in battle, noted Krause.
“Composure is absolutely important. You get it by practice, by resiliency.”
Krause said the best way for commanders to ensure their crews will respond appropriately to their direction is by doing repetitive, quality training beforehand.
When someone is under extreme stress, he explained, physiological changes can occur such as auditory occlusion, which means the individual doesn’t hear what’s going on around them. Other times, an individual may lose control of fine motor skills, so they might not function as they would normally.
Training is the best antidote to that problem, Krause said.
To further prepare crews, he suggested commanders try taking firefighters out to a building in their community, for example, and ask what they’d do if it was ablaze.
The result of that exercise, he said, is that it will lead to decisions being made faster when the firefighters end up in a similar real-life situation because they envisioned and discussed it beforehand.
Krause showed a video that provided insight into what happened when pilot Chesley Sullenberger landed a U.S. Airways plane in the Hudson River on Jan. 15, 2009, saving the lives of more than 150 passengers.
The pilot had trained for such a scenario and was therefore able to communicate clearly with the control tower and remain calm during the ordeal.
“We have to train ourselves and we have to prepare ourselves,” said Krause.
While providing leadership, Krause said commanders must also foster a leadership hierarchy that values the expertise of all fire crew members, regardless of rank, and also listen to what experienced firefighters have to say about issues.
“You as chief officers need to develop your company officers to say something if they feel you are heading down the wrong road.”
Meanwhile, if a firefighter does something that is truly courageous, Krause said commanders should act immediately and recognize the individual.
“You’re all capable of it,” he said. “You just have to want to do it. Let’s value the people that do a great job and let them know about it.”