We often use the term “firefighting” to express that we are solving urgent and serious problems in organizations, and anyone who has been involved in firefighting knows how important it is to act at the right time and synchronized with others. I have certainly seen things fall apart when someone responds to a problem too late or when someone responds so soon that others are unable to coordinate. Too fast and too slow are both problematic. How, then, to make organizations reliable firefighters?
To study this problem, Daniel Geiger, Anja Danner-Schröder, and Waldemar Kremser studied real firefighters in an article published in Administrative Science Quarterly. Their idea was that the problem of coordinated responses to rapid and unpredictably changing situations is something that firefighters face so often, and need to address so reliably, that we can learn from how they prepare and execute. Importantly, fire departments are just like other organizations in that they usually do not face significant surprises, so they can develop routines for normal situations and be ready to adapt when a fire or other emergency goes off script.
What did they find? Interestingly, the concepts of routine, duration, and event, which organizational scholars care about and think that real workers do not pay attention to, are central to how firefighters organize. Before acting they plan (“triage”) their approach. When multiple teams are needed, they pace themselves to be in sync. When problems are discovered, commands are used to react to the event and change the approach.
This does not mean that firefighters work as fast as possible, contrary to what one may think from television and movies. Exactly because teams may be out of sight of each other but need to be synchronized, they have to pace themselves carefully. Exactly because they can encounter surprises such as suddenly learning that a person is missing in a burning building, they need to be organized so they do not over-commit but can respond flexibly. The pacing and the caution slow them down, but in return they get reliability and flexibility.
Are these approaches effective? We don’t know that they are the most effective possible, but they are routinely used and flexible enough to help firefighters address situations involving significant risk to lives and value, as well as very unpredictable events. They seem robust.
How are these approaches developed? Firefighters are trained, of course, and the training gives them the basic routines and ability to flexibly respond when a situation changes. Indeed, the simulated fires used in training are designed to contain surprises. Following the training, they gain experience in handling a wide range of firefighting tasks, starting in the role of a team member who follows team leader instructions and learns by observing experienced team members. They learn to take cues from how others react to alarms, and they learn the firefighter and team leader mindset.
This mindset is particularly interesting because firefighters think and talk about time a lot. Using their words, they want to “get ahead of time” always, and they fear “running behind.” The key skill they develop is to quickly understand the situation well enough to choose the right routine and to coordinate actions accordingly. Routine, duration, and events are exactly the concepts our theories obsess over, and firefighters put them together in a very flexible and robust way.