Making Fire Service Decisions (What is the rule and what is right are not always the same)

Throughout my fire service career, I’ve had numerous occasions in which to make a decision. Early in my career these decisions would have often been muddied by politics, different chief’s doing different things, or my officer’s mood on that particular day. There are many young firefighters in today’s service who, despite a strong desire, work under leadership who is either unwilling, unaware, or unable (Frank Viscuso, Step Up and Lead, p. 106) to provide the structure that these young men and women need. In the same way that a cylinder directs the movement and energy of a piston, a company officer will help instill the values and decision making ability that will guide the forward progress of these new members. The following advice will ring true whether you’re the ol’ salt or the probationary firefighter/knowledge sponge, when making a decision ask yourself, “Is it good for your public, good for your department, or good for your shift/station?”

YOUR public. “Your,” is in bolded caps for a reason. Our public is who we are here for and without them we have no department, no shift, no big shiny trucks with tank-to-pump valves to argue over, nothing. This one should be the trump card that will solve most of your problems. Why does my shift think blackout days, safety naps, always quitting by five, two hour lunches, and hour long coffee breaks are a joke? Because those things pay for a culture that comes at cost of the public we serve. They eat into time that we should be spending on the training ground getting better at our job.



“Hello? 912? I’m gonna need someone else.”


Should we be booking it on scene? You’re absolutely right we should! When you see a video of a company showing up to a fire and sauntering about like they just got out of their recliner to fetch some Cheetos you should want to scream profanities at your screen. Should you eliminate the possibility of a rescue, these are still boxes filled with everything that an individual owns and holds dear. Should you show up and move with anything less than haste and purpose, you should be thinking about what the hell you’re doing with yourself. These people call us because they have no other options. In your decision making tree this one has to come first and with good reason. You can burn down apparatus, torch PPE, break equipment, or bypass station duties and if you can explain why it was in the best interest of the people you serve then you’ve done the right thing. Keep in mind that unfortunately you may work for a department where what is right and what is policy don’t run parallel to each other. Aggressive operations will forever be in contention with those who spend their days staring at dollar signs.

Imagine you arrive on scene to a young adult male having difficulty breathing. You are working on an engine with BLS capabilities. Your ambulance is twenty minutes out. Minutes after your arrival on scene your patient goes into respiratory arrest. Here’s the kicker: the hospital is all of one minute away. If you don’t have the wherewithal to throw that patient into your engine and transport him the quarter mile down the road then shame on you, you have failed at your job at the expense of someone else’s wellbeing . If you are a Chief Officer and you’re not training up a group of critical thinkers to make these decisions, regardless of your protocols or transport capability then you as well are failing your public. Now imagine that you make the decision to transport your patient in respiratory arrest. You sit in an office on the other side of a table from your superior officers and brace your hindquarters for whatever comes your way. When asked why you made the decision to act outside of your departments’ capabilities or policy you now get to answer, “I did what was unquestionably best for my patient.”

*drops mic* BOOM! End of story. You get to sleep at night and anybody who wants to argue with that can fall ass first into a cactus patch.


Is this good for your Department? How many of you have sat down to have a good ol’ session of shit talkin’? How would those same conversations have gone had you asked yourselves if what you were discussing was good for the department? I find that this is an area where many firefighters who have a strong sense of pride in their job can easily slip into a pattern of speech and behavior that is destructive rather than edifying. If we are truly doing what is best for our department then when we think about our trainings, individual fire department culture, or communication across shifts we should be striving to bring others up rather than place their shortcomings on display. In all instances we should raise our performance to match the standard, not lower it to someone else’s complacency. If we allow a particular shift or station to lag behind then we are also not doing what is best for the public. Imagine you’re the Chief at a community meeting trying to sell the public on a levy that will increase salary, put boots on the street, build a new station, or whatever the case may be. Now imagine telling those people that will only be receiving quality service on two out of every three days. I would think after such a campaign your financial situation would remain dramatically unchanged. Our department’s problems are their problems! For all you Chiefs and committee members out there this one is for you as well. You are entrusted to do the best you can with what you have been provided. Do it! Some decisions in this category won’t make it to the, “public benefit litmus test.” There are going to be situations that just have no quantifiable effect on our public.

Is this good for the shift/station? This question comes last because ideally we should be looking out for the whole department ahead of ourselves. I am hard pressed to find many major issues that will make it past the first two standards unanswered before arriving here. Many day to day issues will fall into this category though. Time management issues come to mind. I believe that as we work through our time at the station we should constantly be asking ourselves, “Am I contributing to our group getting to a point of completion?” If you just can’t be bothered to help out with station chores because you have some really important apps to install on your new smart phone, then you might suck at putting your shift ahead of yourself. When I was a lieutenant for a volunteer department I frequently dealt with an individual who would miss truck checks and throw out, “working late,” as his end-all argument. After all, who could question a mans work? The reality was that this individual, (who owned his own business of which he was the sole employee) just couldn’t be bothered to get out of bed in the morning and start his day so that he could make it to truck checks on time. If you are a volunteer that just can’t make it to weekly truck checks on time because you slept until noon and pushed your daily tasks into your station time then quit kidding yourself about your level of commitment! You probably suck too! Recognize it and change it!

By this point you may have noticed that I haven’t included, “Is it good for me?” One of the pillars of the Fire Service is selflessness. I have found that all too often, “What’s good for me?” is a substitute for, “What’s comfortable?” There are departments/stations/shifts out there who have lost sight of what has made the Fire Service so great because they have created a, “me first,” culture. Departments that live and die by the clock. Where truck checks last from 0700-0800, coffee breaks are 0800-0900, lunch is 1100-1300, and 1700 is quitting time. But they won’t train if the heat index is over 85F or wind chill under 32F. Now that 1300-1700 time is out for 75% of the year, and if it’s summer time I hope it doesn’t warm up too soon or we’ll miss that 0900-1100 block as well. Don’t forget that Saturdays are half days and Sundays are a day off. Bring that before your tax payers the next time you need a raise. I know of a crew in my area who watched two hours of COPS and logged it as, “scene safety training.” Now I’m not saying that taking a break or two is going to catapult you into the Marianas Trench of laziness. But I am saying evaluate your motives and habits. Those departments didn’t just wake up one morning in that state. Many people by now have seen this ethos from the Anchorage Fire Department, “I am not here for me, I am here for we, and we are here for them.”



Pictured: My two daughters, who incidentally don’t care about your comfort level


I write all of this out of sincere love for our newest brothers and sisters. As a brand new member of the fire service I wish that I would have been taught the importance of developing my fire service values while I was busy learning, “the rules.” If this was my world in the not so distant past then surely there are others out there in similar situations. When decisions become muddled with policy, opinions, and other such outside noise we train ourselves to follow arbitrary that’s-the-way-it’s-always-beens rather than judging those decisions on their merit. Whether you’re dealing with a station full of boat anchors, a joke of a “senior man,” or an office full of admin with no time on a truck telling you how to do things, the most defendable decisions will always be the ones that most benefit the public, the organization, and the shift/station.


As always #TRAINON

Burt Roberts-Senior Staff Contributor


  1. Ironic that the instance of transporting a patient to the hospital is advocated instead of waiting for a distant transport is mentioned here. A crew in Virginia was just reprimanded for during this even though the outcome was positive for the patient.

    Seems like some have a differing opinion of the right thing.

  2. Very nicely written I would like to share with my department.

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