The Art of Fighting Fires


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Managing Complexity

In the late 00’s Michelle Barton and Kathleen Sutcliffe carried out a study of wildfires in the US.  They wanted to understand why some fires were well controlled and brought to a swift and happy conclusion, whilst others ran out of control causing millions of dollars of damage to thousands of acres of land.

They interviewed 28 firefighters from the north and south western states. This gave them insights into 62 different incidents.

The researchers categorised the outcome of the incidents as good or bad by how well the firefighters managed to control the blaze.  At one extreme, fires were quickly extinguished whilst at the other they caused significant damage to property and on occasion firefighters had to run for their lives — literally.

They found patterns in the behaviour of those teams that controlled fires, and also those that didn’t.

Firefighting is complex

Fire is mercurial.  There are so many different things that can affect how it will develop:

  • Terrain
  • Weather
  • Undergrowth
  • Accessibility.

All these factors can significantly change how a fire behaves. Be that individually or in the way they interact. Fire is a complex system to manage.

The best firefighters

The best firefighters were able to change their approach as the fire developed. They constantly reevaluated conditions and modified their strategies.

To do that they had to be completely in touch with the vagaries of the fire.  Successful “burn bosses” could only do this if the lines of communication between them and their firefighters were open.

It wasn’t enough to have regular, formal review sessions.  They are invaluable, but the wind doesn’t always change direction 15 minutes before a meeting.  Nor was it enough to have an “open door” policy. Open doors are often guarded. The best fire chiefs actively sought disparate views from all the people around them. They talked to their staff to understand how the fire was behaving at different locations.

Inherent within this approach was a healthy scepticism of experts.  Whilst there is no substitute for experience, situational knowledge counts.  Wise fire chiefs realised that if they only ever listened to the experts then others would hold back, for fear of sounding stupid.  Fear does nothing for the open voicing of worries and observations.

Fires don’t suddenly flare out of control, there are always a host of signs and cues that something will change.  Successful firefighting relies on the constant flow of that information. Strategies and approaches change as the conditions do.

(You have to) stimulate debate. You encourage it. And you don’t enter
in as a decision-maker. You don’t start throwing your knowledge
around. You don’t want to say, well, I did so and so and such and such
and blah, blah, blah because that just shuts them down. What you
want is to encourage an open discussion of it among the technical
experts, among the people who have knowledge. And if you can do
that, it’s amazing what you can find out.

Poor performance

The opposite behaviour was prevalent at the fires which got out of control.  The management teams were high-handed, didn’t ask for opinions, kept themselves to themselves and called all the shots.

…they would have their get togethers in a trailer, with just enough seats for them, you know, so nobody else could sit down…

Consequently they didn’t have access to all the data and didn’t adapt to changing circumstances.  The information was available, but it wasn’t voiced. If it wasn’t voiced, how could it be acted upon?

…it was really windy.. we were sitting on the hoods of trucks.  Actually sitting on one hood of a truck, looking at each other saying, “hm, kind of windy isn’t it”…

Is firefighting special?

We all manage complex environments that we can’t hope to understand.  Yet we don’t seek out different perspectives and dissenting voices. We hold meetings with experts behind closed doors and try to control a “single narrative”.

Would it be so hard to ask the people who are close to the action what they thought?

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Read the original research paper

Image by U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service

Republished with author's permission from original post.

James Lawther
James Lawther is a middle-aged middle manager. To reach this highly elevated position he has worked for many organisations, from supermarkets to tax collectors and has had multiple roles from running a night shift to doing operational research. He gets upset by operations that don't work and mildly apoplectic about poor customer service.


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