Take your assignment: When the hell did the fireground become a democracy?

9/11 is the ultimate example of firefighters who took their assignment, without question, trusting their command officers, despite the risks


I write this today, just days after the 9/11 20th anniversary.

Our community, led by our fire department, has held a large commemoration each year since 2002, and we have never stopped – and never will. We are blessed with excellent community and neighboring communities’ support.

Like most of you, I have read some of the 20th anniversary stories and watched some of the documentaries, and I’d like to focus today on what was said in one of them in particular – the "60 Minutes" report on the FDNY and the actions taken on 9/11. That report was perhaps the best one I've seen. They interviewed the surviving chiefs, which really was, at least to me, a privilege to listen to.

A 40-foot-tall bronze monument, named “To Lift a Nation,” was created by sculptor Stan Watts to honor the heroes of September 11, 2001. Along with the National Fallen Firefighters Memorial, the statue is located on the campus of the National Emergency Training Center in Emmitsburg, Maryland.
A 40-foot-tall bronze monument, named “To Lift a Nation,” was created by sculptor Stan Watts to honor the heroes of September 11, 2001. Along with the National Fallen Firefighters Memorial, the statue is located on the campus of the National Emergency Training Center in Emmitsburg, Maryland. (Photo/NFFF)

I want to draw your attention to some specific comments by former FDNY Chief of Department Pete Hayden:

Peter Hayden: "You know, more and more firefighters, they kept coming in, they took their assignments, with no question, pretty tough to do." 

CBS's Scott Pelley: "But it's also hard to give them those assignments." 

Peter Hayden: "It was, it was, but I could tell that when I gave the assignments out, I could see the look in their eyes. I remember seeing firefighters hugging each other. And heading up. They took their assignment."

More so in the past 10 years or so, I've seen social media postings and even heard a conversation or two with the tone that, "I'll do what I think is best; I'm not listening to that chief" or, "Sure, that's the orders, but we do what we need to do at engine company so and so" or even, "We'll take orders if they make sense to me; otherwise, we'll do what needs to get done."

When the hell did the fireground become a democracy? When did companies, firefighters or company fire officers decide that they knew what is best? What happened to our so-called "semi-military" behavior? When did intentional freelancing become accepted or even allowed? How did it even become part of the equation? When did respect for the chain of command, orders and doing what must be done based upon command decision go away?

Let me make something really clear. I have only once personally experienced the above, and I assure you that company officer will never do "that" again. While I may seem like a nice guy or whatever, when it comes to the fireground, I and the other chiefs whom I work with at my department and our mutual-aid partners run disciplined firegrounds. No nonsense. No game-playing. No freelancing. No bullshit. This is not a social gathering. We take our jobs very seriously. We have time for niceties later.

Now to be clear, that is not to say that when any member of the fireground sees something that isn't right, must be fixed or doesn't make sense, there is no hesitation to communicate that. But generally, once the size-up is complete and orders are issued, orders are followed. Anything else is completely unacceptable. 

This isn't about being egotistical, mean, nasty or having to show anyone who I or the other fire officers are – we know who we are. This is about everyone knowing their responsibility, being fully trained (and that means ongoing training) and determining what risks we will and will not allow our personnel to take. Sometimes they may have to be placed at extreme risk, and we understand that. Most times they do not face such risk, and we understand that, too. 

Being the boss isn't about helmet or coat colors or radio ID numbers. Being the boss is about constant and ongoing training at EVERY level, especially in the area of your primary fireground responsibility. For example, at this stage in my career, stretching a line or working the Jaws of Life is a waste of everyone's time. We have VERY skilled members who do that. However, what those "skilled members" need from me and every other command officer is for us to be COMPETENT and train regularly on our duty to the public and to our members.

In my department and area, that means time at our command training center or at our burn tower participating in live or simulating fires, emergencies and maydays. Why do we do that? The obvious answer is to keep our responsible skills sharp. The not-so-obvious answer is to address the chiefs who do not participate in training with the same companies they may be commanding. It is like a football coach who doesn't attend practice because "he's been doing this job for years.” That's a lame and lazy excuse. 

When it comes to the issue of TRUST and CONFIDENCE on the fireground, it really is a two-way relationship. The firefighters MUST trust the bosses, and the bosses MUST trust the firefighters. When firefighters do "what they want" on the fireground, that's a grave problem. When chiefs on the fireground don't attend training on their area of responsibility and are not competent on the fireground, that is equally a grave problem.

When Pete Hayden, Joe Pfeiffer, Sal Cassano, Dan Nigro and the other chiefs sent members into the World Trade Center, they went in. They "took their assignments" knowing that Pete and his peers had the experience and training to make that decision. Obviously, no one knew or could have predicted the outcome, and Pete and the many other surviving chiefs live with that every day. Equally, those firefighters were well-trained and disciplined members who knew what had to be done, and they did exactly as ordered. They took their assignment.

We hope and pray no fire department ever has to experience what the FDNY did on that day – and what they continue to deal with daily. However, every day, firefighters from the smallest to the largest departments are turned out for what we all do daily – dwelling fires, commercial fires, crashes, wildland fires and much more.

One of the best ways to ensure a successful operation for the public is to make sure that no member of any fire department responds without being as trained as possible with a clear respect for orders given and the unquestionable discipline required. Furthermore, and equally important, no member should ever respond without the confidence that their command, division and company officers are as trained and experienced as possible, so the working relationship is one filled with equal confidence and trust at all levels.

It is really quite simple:

  • Command fire officers: Do the firefighters you supervise have trust and confidence in you? You'll know based upon their fireground behavior and tasks performed.
  • Firefighters: Do the bosses who supervise you have equal trust and confidence in your skills and abilities? You'll know based upon the assignments given and the confidence shown.

Stop blaming. Start training.

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