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It all starts with the incident mission: Focus on 3 concepts to truly ‘own’ the scene

Lessons from U.S. Navy SEALs can help firefighters better focus on life safety, incident stabilization and property conservation


The ability to adapt is critical in this fast-paced profession, as is the ability to act independently but in direct accordance with the Incident Mission.

If I were to ask 100 firefighters, “What is the mission of the fire department?” I would get 100 different answers, likely all correct, but different. A collective understanding of our mission on the emergency scene is not always obvious to us.

In their book “Extreme Ownership: How U.S. Navy SEALs Lead and Win,” Jocko Willink and Leif Babin – two retired Navy SEALs – preach the need for each member of the team to be fully versed in the mission. Then and only then can it be expected for the members of that team to take ownership in the mission. Unfortunately, it is often the failure of leadership to ensure that the boots on the ground know just as much of the mission as they do.

If we wish to use the extreme professionalism of the Navy SEALs as our inspiration for our own level of professionalism, we must then understand that all of us, from the entry-level firefighter to the chief, must have a collective understanding of the mission. A lack of this collective understanding may very well be our Achilles’ heel, reducing our professionalism and performance on scene.

Universal understanding of the mission

Willink and Babin explain that only through ownership at all levels can an organization truly function at its highest level. In the fire service, the fact that we have no agency that oversees us and critiques our action on scene, coupled with the fact that most citizens do not know what we do exactly, leads to complacency and potential reduction in performance levels. As long as some firefighters show up and we spray some water, and we look like we know what we are doing, we are usually regarded as heroes, regardless of the outcome. It is therefore our responsibility to ensure that we are constantly giving and doing the best we can.

Without a universal understanding of the mission, how can any of us take ownership of the services we deliver? How can we be the best fire service we can be?

“Extreme Ownership” explains that Navy SEALs train for months until every member of the team knows the mission inside and out. Failure then is on them – and not an option.

This is not always the case in the fire service. So how do we convey the incident mission without the benefit of time to train on and brief the mission? The alarm comes in a 0200 hrs, and we do not have time for a complex mission brief, so how then does our team know what to do collectively? As stated above, we all have a relative understanding of what we are to do on scene, but a clear collective understood picture of exactly what we are to do is missing. Or is it?

Incident mission priorities

There is no need to reinvent the wheel here. We have learned early in our careers a triple scene mission statement: Life Safety, Incident Stabilization, Property Conversation. But we must go beyond these three points as merely an answer to a test question, rather to incorporate this slice of wisdom into everything we do. After all, these three points constitute our mission. This does not need to be briefed en route. Everyone on the scene can fully function under the same leader’s intent: Life Safety, Incident Stabilization, and Property Conversation.

We initially focus all our energies and resources to save lives. Once that is accomplished, we will do everything we can to stabilize the incident. And when nothing else is being damaged, we will conserve as much property as we can. If resources are available, we will do all at the same time, but if not, we focus on Life Safety, first then, Incident Stabilization, then Property Conservation.

This mission directive, if taught and accepted as part of the daily operating parameters of the fire department, could very well then put everyone on the same page with the same level of understanding and ownership – without detailed briefing.

Putting the concept into practice

Let’s use a car fire as an example. We are dispatched to a car fire in an open parking lot, the original dispatch was the car is unoccupied. We know by the Incident Mission that the first thing we do on scene is check to make sure the car is unoccupied (Life Safety). That does not need to be discussed or debated; it just is our No. 1 priority.

When we get on scene, everyone is focused on this priority. The engine company of four gets on scene, and the officer makes their assignments and, in the process, finds a victim in the car. Firefighters do not need to be given new orders, and they know that the mission priority is Life Safety. They go to work on the victim.

The car is still on fire. If all members of the team take responsibility for success of the mission, they can independently be ready to see that the fire (Incident Stabilization) is extinguished. The driver/operator has the freedom to initiate some action (the deck gun aimed at the fire) to support and complete mission even though plan “A” (a simple care fire) is no longer in effect. They relay this information to the officer, and upon the officer’s approval, commences attacking the fire remotely so the others can work on the victim. Once the victim is secured and being treated, the other firefighters can support extinguishing the fire.

All this happens with very little conversation or direction, just clarifications of orders. The entire team understood and took responsibility for the mission. They implemented necessary measures to affect the proper outcome, and upon confirmation from their officer, they acted as necessary to be successful – all with very little conversation. As we know, anything that decreases breakdown in communication on scene is valuable.

Adapt, independent but in alignment

These actions may seem obvious, but I have witnessed this exact scene where finding a victim throws off the operation, and the car fire itself is forgotten about in the chaos. The complete incident mission gets put on hold, because we got singularly focused on one aspect. I have seen firefighters stand and do nothing because the scene presented them with something they were not expecting, and plan “A” goes right out the window.

The ability to adapt is critical in this fast-paced profession, as is the ability to act independently but in direct accordance with the Incident Mission. If we all have an intimate understanding of the Incident Mission and we all take ownership in its success, then we can adapt and work as a unified team to bring about a successful completion to life-and-death matters.

Jeff Deal is a retired fire chief of the City of McPherson (Kansas) Fire Department. He worked in the fire service for over 25 years. Deal holds a master’s degree in public administration, a bachelor’s degree in political science, as well as an Executive Fire Officer designation from the National Fire Academy. Deal now serves as a fire science instructor for Hutchinson Community College in Kansas.