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Where Newton’s third law of motion doesn’t quite cut it

When it comes to planning and politics, not every action must have an equal and opposite reaction

Newton's cradle

Make sure your actions are more strategic than reactive.

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We always like to focus on the emergency at hand. Emergencies are what make the news, complexity is what we train for, and the action is “where it’s at.” And while the emergency-driven adrenalin IS intoxicating, there is SO much more that goes into what we do every day.

To make this case, allow me to draw on Sir Isaac Newton’s three laws of motion:

  1. An object at rest remains at rest, and an object in motion remains in motion at constant speed and in a straight line unless acted on by an unbalanced force.
  2. The acceleration of an object depends on the mass of the object and the amount of force applied.
  3. Whenever one object exerts a force on another object, the second object exerts an equal and opposite on the first.

For our purposes today, we’ll focus on the third law, commonly referenced simply as “every action has an equal and opposite reaction.” While our 911 responses are generally considered emergencies and may have “if this, then that” consequences, almost everything we do in the buildup to support our responses is NOT an emergency – at least it shouldn’t be – and does not require an emergency response, even an immediate one. Now I’m not refuting Newton’s third law in any way; however, I am suggesting that even though opposite reactions may exist, that doesn’t mean we have to draw on or fulfill such reactive prophecies.

Processes and plans

Building a fire station is much more complex than building a “house with a big garage” (as was once described by a politician), and there are lessons to be learned in the process. I’m not aware of a single jurisdiction in the United States where you can just show up and start building a home or a fire station. There’s a strategic process that involves planning/zoning, permitting, engineering, contracting, scheduling and, lastly, construction. Each part of the process relies on the success of the previous step to ensure a well-built product.

Running parallel to this process, my career in leadership positions in three different states has been punctuated by long-term strategic decisions made before I joined each of those organizations. I’ll use an example from Florida to explain the construction reference.

At some point in the early 2000s, the 10 independent volunteer fire chiefs in Highlands County (Florida) began formally discussing paid staffing and the need for help from the county. What took shape was a recommendation to the county administrator and county commission that resulted in a contract for a third-party study.

The contractor conducted a comprehensive analysis of the community, the volunteer service, the condition of the fleet, adherence to standards (comprehensively from training and staffing to equipment). Out of that analysis, grew a series of options for the county commissioners to consider. Each option provided a path for different levels of service provision and made recommendations on NFPA-compliance issues and consolidation of EMS provisions.

After the commissioners chose their option, a separate consultant was brought in to recommend funding mechanisms for each of the options. This is about the time I entered the picture – a plan in hand with funding options under consideration. Not yet a blueprint, the plan needed a funding mechanism to become reality. The commissioners needed to centralize a “fire fee,” allowed under state statute, to fund what would become a new county department, and allow the community to have input for the budget.

A long, sometimes contentious, arguably uncomfortable process unfolded. Ultimately, the funding mechanism was approved, and the plan became a blueprint. For the blueprint to become a structure, we needed to establish rules, advertise for positions to hire, prioritize expenditures, capitalize on the momentum, and set about the business of strategically implementing the plan. Each public and private interaction was an opportunity to succeed or fail, even change trajectory. These implementations took time and strategic patience – a far different approach than our emergency scene OODA loop (Observe Orient, Decide, Act) and “Planning P” fast actions and reactions.

Politicians and fire chiefs: Odd bedfellows

I’ve spoken before about the fire chief as an inspirational politician. I cannot overemphasize the need for fire chiefs to understand the politics around them. Your decision-making process with politicians may need to pivot, depending on the audience and the topic under discussion. In other words, you need to be prepared to function in both action-oriented OODA loop and process-oriented strategic modes when you’re interacting with politicians. You must learn what that looks like in your jurisdiction.

In a different state, I once had a state senator make loud, angry and inflammatory comments about the direction of the fire department. After his public tirade, the senator took me aside and told me, “Keep doing what you’re doing. You need to understand there are certain people who need to hear me protest.” That was a foundational moment for my understanding of politics. While I knew those kinds of games were afoot, I never thought they would descend from the state house to the local fire department. This political interaction reinforced to me that we are not robots, and every interaction does not require an immediate equal and opposite reaction. Where would I have been if I had chosen to react in-kind in that public forum?

Strategic vs. reactive

Reaction upon reaction, simply because “there’s an action so there must be a reaction” will result in a toilet-swirl of degradation that makes growth even more difficult to achieve. Make sure your actions are more strategic than reactive. Every action or interaction does NOT require an equal and opposite reaction, at least not right now.

Chief Marc S. Bashoor joined the Lexipol team in 2018, serving as the FireRescue1 and Fire Chief executive editor and a member of the Editorial Advisory Board. With 40 years in emergency services, Chief Bashoor previously served as public safety director in Highlands County, Florida; as chief of the Prince George’s County (Maryland) Fire/EMS Department; and as emergency manager in Mineral County, West Virginia. Chief Bashoor assisted the NFPA with fire service missions in Brazil and China, and has presented at many industry conferences and trade shows. He has contributed to several industry publications. He is a National Pro-board certified Fire Officer IV, Fire Instructor III and Fire Instructor. Connect with Chief Bashoor at on Twitter, Facebook or LinkedIn. Do you have a leadership tip or incident you’d like to discuss? Send the chief an email.