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OCFA’s mission-driven move from compliance- to intent-based culture

Orange County Fire Authority’s Organizational Doctrine became a North Star for the agency

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Photo/OCFA

Chief Brian Fennessy was named the IAFC Career Fire Chief of the Year during the association’s annual Fire-Rescue International conference in 2023. The Fire Chief of the Year award recognizes one volunteer and one career fire chief for their leadership, innovation, professional development, integrity, public service and contributions to the fire service. The IAFC presents the award in partnership with the award sponsor, Pierce Manufacturing, and the award’s media partner, FireRescue1. Nominations for the Fire Chief of the Year are currently being accepted through the IAFC. Learn how to submit a worthy fire chief here.


By Fire Chief Brian Fennessy

Dozens of homes are burning directly above the staging area where four Type 1 Strike Teams sit watching, unengaged with the firefight. They have the training, experience and tools to protect these homes, and like all firefighters, they are willing to put themselves in harm’s way to do so. But unlike the increasingly smoke-covered sky above them, the orders from their superiors are crystal clear: Stage and standby.

The Strike Team’s frustration is spreading as fast as the fire destroying their community, but still they sit – a powerless cog in the machine of a rules-based paramilitary organization.

“Don’t they know homes are burning and, God forbid, people are dying up there?” a firefighter asks, compounding the conundrum the Strike Team leader faces: Disregard a direct order and risk certain discipline or stay in compliance and risk a greater loss of property and even life?

That may seem like an easy decision for someone who has taken an oath to protect life and property. Still, the sanctity of the chain of command in the fire service is as undeniable as it is necessary, at least in most cases.

Eventually, half the Strike Team leaders decide this is not one of those cases. Despite the prospect of disciplinary action for disobeying a direct order, they mobilize their teams, engaging in the firefight at the point of urban conflagration.

Understanding Mission-Drive Culture

In this real-life scenario, the firefighters who broke the chain of command saved countless homes and, likely, several lives – facts that helped mitigate the eventual discipline they faced.

This type of incident is not anomalous in the fire service. Nearly every firefighter can cite a major time-compressed incident where obvious immediate actions were not taken due to a fear of discipline for operating outside the chain of command.

As I ascended the leadership ranks throughout my career, I came to realize that the one question a first responder should never have to ask themselves during moments of uncertainty and ambiguity during major incidents is the very question more of us find ourselves asking: Is it worth being disciplined for violation of policy when the correct action to mitigate injury, loss and even death is obvious?

It has been proven repeatedly that with quality Leaders’ Intent, firefighters stop pausing to ask that question and start acting in the best interest of those we serve without fear of discipline, especially in critical, time-compressed decision-making windows. However, absent agency doctrine that supports such intent-based decision-making, some firefighters will still be reluctant to act – even when they know it aligns with their department mission – for fear of punishment or lack of support by agency leadership.

Making decisions outside of policy doesn’t mean that questions won’t be asked during after-action reviews. On the contrary, accountability for decisions outside of policy should be scrutinized more. Disciplined initiative is not “freelancing” and must always be done within the context of the agency’s mission and the leader’s intent. As such, decision-makers will and should be asked about the conditions that led to the decisions made, within or outside of policy.

For this culture, which has been dubbed Mission-Driven Culture (MDC) to develop, there must also be an acceptance and tolerance for imperfect decision-making. An agency must communicate that as long as firefighters can explain the conditions that existed when the time-compressed decision was made in what they believed was the mission’s best interest, they will be backed by the agency. While we would like to limit incorrect/imperfect decision-making, we recognize that we can learn much if those decisions are shared as a learning opportunity, not via employee discipline.

And you can’t have it both ways. The minute firefighters hear you say one thing and see you behave in another way, trust will evaporate.

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Image/Mission-Centered Solutions

MDC only works when it revolves around values and norms tied directly to the organization’s mission and provides a basis for judgment that anchors the department’s operation.

MDC supports a highly delegated operating environment, where the authority and expectation to act are given to those who are closest to the action and aware of the strategic-level factors and priorities that define department success.

MDC aims to create an environment in which needed action is not curtailed or delayed due to bureaucratic forces or fear of discipline. At the same time, any necessary disciplined initiatives are determined by the demands of the immediate situation and through the lens of the department’s larger intent.

The values and principles in the MDC concept provide a formal framework for discretion and flexibility when encountering situations outside the established norm, standard operating procedure, or policy. This places decision space at the right place, with the right people, at the right time so that risk can be reduced and weighed, increasing the opportunity for good outcomes.

Within MDC, leaders are expected to provide strategic framing and intent by articulating the Task, Purpose and End State to all involved. Higher leaders focus on defining intent, allowing their people to plan and act to make it happen.

Firefighters, in turn, are expected to understand the strategic context and constantly assess the environment, update the team’s Common Operating Picture, and use disciplined initiative to act individually and in self-organized cross-discipline teams to work through issues and accomplish the end state.

Culture change can happen

I spent nearly 30 years as a City of San Diego (SDFD) firefighter, the last three as the fire chief. As a fire captain in the early 2000s, and based on my continued relationship with the hotshot community, I saw a successful culture change within the federal wildland fire agencies. This was after the tragic loss of smokejumpers, hotshots and helitack crewmembers assigned to the 1994 South Canyon Fire.

For the first time in my recollection, causal factors were identified as leading to the tragedy. The federal wildland fire agencies had not substantively made leadership development a priority before this devastating incident that took the lives of 14 wildland firefighters. This changed post-South Canyon, beginning with the smokejumper and hotshot communities.

Hotshots and smokejumpers are elite wildland firefighters, and if leadership development training were to be accepted, they would be the perfect testbed. Not to mention, in the fire service’s parlance, their BS meters are well-calibrated. With all that in mind, when we observed culture change happening rapidly within the smokejumper and hotshot communities, we knew it was possible at our department and, truthfully, everywhere else.

SDFD began participating in the same training as our wildland partners and quickly experienced the exact rapid culture change. For firefighters to participate in the training, we required the experiential training courses provided by Mission-Centered Solutions to be completed before promotional exams. This quickly evolved into the SDFD Mission-Driven Culture initiative, and after years of embracing this culture change and backing it up by practice, we experienced improved decision-making during periods of chaos and uncertainty.

While MDC wasn’t as clearly defined for us back then, we sought resources to assist in the evolution of the principle in our agency. “Team of Teams” by General Stanley McChrystal proved to be such a resource, providing us with excellent examples of decentralized command that seemed to be a great model for our agency.

General McChrystal used his experience as commander of the American Task Force in Afghanistan in 2003 to not only demonstrate the value of MDC but also articulate its impetus: Although his elite military unit had access to better resources than al-Qaeda and could win some battles, they were losing the overall war. The book ultimately explores how traditional hierarchical organizations must adapt to become more flexible and agile in the modern world, offering insights and strategies for creating more cohesive and effective teams.

McChrystal’s American Task Force simply couldn’t adapt to a war against an enemy that didn’t have a clear hierarchical structure, one that reacted to each attack with lightning-fast reflexes. More firepower simply wasn’t doing the trick when the enemy could re-group in the blink of an eye without needing orders from superiors. The Task Force needed to adopt decentralized command, and when it did, the tide changed.

Developing an organizational doctrine

Fast forward to 2018, when I was appointed as the fire chief of Orange County Fire Authority (OCFA) in California. Once again, it made sense to take on culture change. OCFA had a strong and laudable culture, especially regarding how the members cared for each other in good and challenging times. However, in San Diego, there had been more than a decade of leadership development training and MDC inculcation, meaning it was baked into the DNA of every firefighter.

As you can imagine, hiring a fire chief from the “outside” presents a whole host of challenges, and it takes time to build trust and buy-in for the new fire chief’s vision. In short, I needed to walk the talk if we were to develop and communicate our mission-driven culture successfully. It didn’t take long for many to embrace it as they were already practitioners; they just didn’t have a name or term for their decision-making behavior.

Those early and intuitive MDC adopters aside, I quickly realized that for the entire culture to shift, I would need more than buy-in from established organizational leaders. Additionally, I would need outside facilitators (military special operators) guiding the many discussions that had to occur in developing a living, breathing document that would become our North Star: OCFA’s Organizational Doctrine.

Fortunately, the agency already had The OCFA Way, part of the legacy left by retired OCFA Fire Chief Chip Prather. Using this document as a jumping-off point, we began developing a doctrine that ingrains MDC into the OCFA.

It was clear that if this new doctrine were to be embraced, it would need to be developed from within by our division chiefs with input from every facet of the agency. At OCFA, division chiefs are executive chief officers assigned to the field who live and work closely with our firefighters who deliver our emergency services. The division chiefs not only developed what ultimately became known as the OCFA Organizational Doctrine but also continue to hold each other accountable for the decision-making practices put forth in its pages.

I’ve spoken with other organizations and have presented on our successful MDC initiatives and the hard work and time that was invested. I believe the time was worth it, even though the result was unclear early on. It took patience, guidance and much trust that common purpose would drive the workforce to ultimately embrace MDC and all that it stood for – and the result is alive and well today.

Aligning forces

My recommendation for any agency motivated to take on this level of culture change: First, clearly communicate its vision and end state. Then, it’s more a matter of being prepared to go along for the ride and providing guidance where needed. The fire chief’s role is to ensure that the culture – the glue that holds the organization together – remains intact so that all decisions can be made at the right level, by the right people, at the right time, for the right reasons. This goal can only be accomplished when we provide the Leader’s Intent and the tools, training and trust that empower our personnel to execute it. In doing so, our firefighters and professional staff have the flexibility to lead with autonomy, responsibility and accountability, even in the most harrowing and fast-moving circumstances.


About the author

Brian Fennessy became fire chief of the Orange County (California) Fire Authority in April 2018. Fennessy began his career in 1978 with the U.S. Forest Service and the Bureau of Land Management, working as a hotshot crewmember, hotshot/helishot/helitack captain and ultimately crew superintendent. In 1990, Fennessy joined the San Diego Fire-Rescue Department (SDFD) and ultimately became fire chief in 2015. Fennessy has enjoyed a diversity of executive leadership and management experiences in both the wildland fire and metropolitan fire service communities. He believes that Mission-Driven Culture (MDC) is the future of the fire service and has presented on this topic at a variety of local, state and national venues.

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