Metaphors mask realities of firefighting

As much as we try to apply the military metaphor of uniformity, control and hierarchy, we find that it continues to fail us

Author's note: After I argued last month that the root metaphor of the fire service was sinister, it occurred to me that this notion deserves to be expanded. I argued how it is primarily a military metaphor, with some Western cowboy bravado added for good measure. The militaristic metaphor sets the fire department up as one actor in a war. For a soldier, the enemy is a person who represents an opposing political will. For the fire department, the enemy is an inanimate physical process. But it is like declaring war on fermentation. A fire has no political will to be swayed.

By Charles Bailey

Metaphors are tools. They are used, often unconsciously, to frame reality. They are a way of seeing. Consider the use of American football metaphors to frame the discussion of firefighting. Nick Martin, of Traditions Training, provides a perfect example of this at the end of one of his articles on his site.

"These scenarios involve coordinated teamwork from the crew — just like in football, if one player doesn't know the game plan, the whole play will be blown…" he states. "We need to think about this unique hose line stretches as a football play — it needs to be planned, practiced, and executed with precision. There shouldn't have to be a huddle in the front yard of the burning house while the officer explains to everyone what we are going to do." (1) (The distinction between American football and the football of the rest of the world is that non-American football is perhaps the more accurate metaphor for firefighting.)

Becomes the reality
A metaphor seeps deeply into organizational narratives because the metaphor is a way of seeing. Once established it becomes a filter through which participants both old and new see their reality. Soon enough the metaphor becomes the reality. If you use the football metaphor you would think that the fire department ran a series of set plays; finite, divisible, independent actions.

You could also assume that at the end of these short segments of violent action, everyone stopped, set up the next plan and then acted again. A metaphor fails when it does not accurately reflect core organizational processes. The football metaphor fails because fires are extinguished in one, essentially, contiguous action, not a series of set plays. There are no designated times for decision making in firefighting and certainly no time outs, though my aging bones might wish that there were.

The fire service uses many metaphors but the root metaphor — which can refer to the dominant or defining way of seeing (2) — is often a militaristic one. Another, again from Nick Martin, reads, "Combat Ready — Every Day."

A militaristic metaphor is based on the military battle model of leadership, which is hierarchical. The leader is the commander and the followers are subordinates. This leader follower relationship is one of inequality and dependence. (3) Hierarchy and its requisite obedience carry to the fire service; it is the basis of the root metaphor.

We find that to translate the root metaphor requires a few pre-conditions. First there must be an enemy, then there must be something to win and finally there must be a hierarchy that determines how the winning is to occur.

No enemies to kill
Leadership expert and professor Gerri Perreault writes, "In battle, to be able to kill other people one has to make them into enemies..." The leader, he continues, "…unilaterally defines the goals, strives to maximize winning and minimize losing, and aims to control others in order to win." (3)

We already know the hierarchy exists, but we also know the firefighter does not have an enemy to kill, per se, because the objects of his attention are inanimate physical and chemical processes. For this discussion, the bigger question is what does it mean to win when a house is on fire?

This military metaphor is similar to the Western engineering mindset in which there is a push to exert control through standardization. To do this, elements clearly distinct from one another are made to converge. (5) If the military has one main focus past killing, it is uniformity. There is uniformity in clothing, parts, language, etc. The fire service uses uniformity as the quick answer for a wide range of problems.

Firefighters don't know apparatus inventories? Make them all the same. The response to the Air Florida Crash is a failure? Create standard regional governance, nomenclature and operational practices. "What works for one will work for the other in bringing order and certainty to a chaotic world." (5)

There are disconnects between the reality of the root metaphor and the reality of firefighting. Firefighters speak of blitz attacks, of covering positions, of deploying large caliber lines, and most often of conducting aggressive attacks. Fire departments are divided into platoons, battalions, and divisions but there is no enemy and there is no definition of winning. If we use metaphor to make sense of things, to "generate new perceptions of the world" (4) and if our root metaphor is disconnected, how real can the reality be?

Embed safety
As much as we try to apply the military metaphor of uniformity, control and hierarchy, we find that it continues to fail us. We find that we still have no enemy. We find that standardization does not solve the problem of inattention. We find that the more we try to assert and apply control to the world, the less sense it makes. We find it difficult to construct a metaphorical reality of "aggressive attacks" and embed safety into it.

The metaphor is sinister because it is so pervasive and because it is accepted without reflection. To make the reality work, we have to define what it means to win a house fire. Defining winning will not be easy. In the discourse of the well-staffed municipal fire department, winning means stretching a hose into the house. Standing outside and squirting water through windows is losing. But is this true in a small country town with six volunteers and one truck?

The metaphor is sinister because without something to replace it. young men and women will continue to drive large trucks at breakneck speeds and race into burning buildings without thinking and for no good reason, because there is a war going on.

The metaphor is sinister because the fighting is less important than thinking about the nature of decision-making and the relation of this with organizational structure and action. Using the term "military" can conceal those aspects that have more importance to organizational analysis. (6) Or it could simply be that the world is too complicated to control and the best we can hope for is to simply manage.

Answers are not easy to come by. Metaphors are neither simple nor simply replaced. The narratives that support the metaphors are always shifting. The world is growing and changing faster than the fire service can adjust. Soon enough it is likely that the patriarchal and hierarchal monoliths will weaken under the pressure of their own heavy-footed infectiveness, leaving people to the spontaneous self organizing matriarchal structures like networking and joint decision making that are topics for another day.


[1] Martin, N. (2010) electronically retrieved 1.31.10 from

[2] Inns, D. (2002). Metaphor in the Literature of Organizational Analysis: A Preliminary Taxonomy and a Glimpse at a Humanities –based Perspective. Organization, 9(2), 305-330.

[3] Perreault, G. (1996). Metaphors for Leadership: Military Battle and Friendship. The Journal of Leadership Studies. 3(1).

[4] Maratos, J. (2006). The Power of Myth as Metaphor. Group Analysis. 39:87

[5] Shenav, Y. and Weitz, E. (2000). The Roots of Uncertainty in Organization Theory: A Historical Constructivist Analysis. 7(3),373-401.

[6] Mutch, A. (2006). Organization Theory and Military Metaphor: Time for a Reappraisal. Organization. 13(6), 751-769.

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