My Biggest Leadership Mistake: Poor Situational Awareness


By Daniel Dumas

I was riding the seat of Engine 6 with a 4 man crew as a Lieutenant in the City of Pontiac.

Pontiac is a small inner city that suffers from all of the problems of a big inner city: drugs, violence, low education rates and high unemployment rates, vacant houses and free time all the things that make the job of a fire fighter busy.

It was on a busy summer night in 2014 when I made my biggest leadership mistake.

We were responding as the 3rd engine to a house fire. The BIR (brief initial report) told us that there was dark heavy smoke coming from the Charlie side ( back side of the house ) second floor and that Engine 7 (E7) was making an offensive attack.

Ladder 7 arrived at the same time as E7 and was tasked with forcing multiple doors and then roof top ventilation.

Engine 8 arrived next and was assigned search and rescue and water supply. We arrived last and were assigned to set up RIT (the rapid intervention team).

Part of our responsibilities were to put ladders to the second story windows in case something happened to the interior stairs the crews on the second floor would have a way out. I made placing ladders my priority and then proceed to get the rest of the RIT equipment staged.

Once we reported RIT was established I went back to the windows on the second floors where we had placed the ladders. I had a rookie firefighter ask if I wanted to “ take the window.” This is a pretty common task where you break out all the glass and remove any of the frame thus making the largest opening possible if someone needs to bail out.

This was my mistake, as soon as the window was broke a fireball shot almost 5 feet the heat could be felt from the other side of the road.

It was at this point I looked down at my feet and saw the hose line E7 had dragged in was still dry. I then hear E7 frantically calling for water. I looked on in shock as I realized I just vented a fire right on top of a crew with no water.

My heart sank, I almost couldn’t move I imagined the guys rolling down the stairs with their gear singed. I waited for the mayday, I waited for the calls for help and then E7’s officer radioed out, they were just making the stairs.

No one was in the fire room, no one was burned up, and everyone was going to be fine. The next day we had an AAR and it was at this point that I was able to put all the pieces together and reflect.

Mistake #1: Using an outdated mental model.
I have spent most of my career with extremely experienced officers leading extremely experienced firefighters but in 2012 we were taken over by another department and our staffing was merged I was now working with guys who had much less experience.

In 2014 we hired 35 brand new firefighters. The crew from E7 had an acting lieutenant and a young inexperienced crew. When they arrived they struggled to find the stairs to the second floor. The officer failed to call for water.  

My mistake is that I got stuck in the way things used to be and I didn’t stop to analyze how things were going at that very moment.

My internal clock told me that after 10 min of being inside the house they (E7) had to be on the second floor attacking the fire. Because I was in a mental rut I failed to notice the dry hose line at my feet. I failed to notice they had not called out that they had knocked the fire down. When I ordered my guy to take the window I was working with an old outdated model that I was trying to fit into the reality of what I was seeing.

Mistake # 2: Using a mental check list instead of making decisions.
I love checklists. I use them for most parts of my day, but they are no substitute for thinking through your actions – checklists are simply an aid to make sure you are thinking about the right things.

As I was setting up for RIT I was going through an important check list. Set up ladders for egress, get the RIT pack, fire up the chainsaw, and get a ladder check, check, check.

When I got to the part of my mental checklist where I turn a window into a door I didn’t stop and think, how will this affect the fire? I just went to my check list and it said I should open up this window and that’s what I did.

Checklists are a great tool, but not the only tool for situational awareness. Mine narrowed my vision in a dangerous way … see below.

Mistake # 3. Tunnel vision or lack situational awareness.
I didn’t take the time to pause and look around. I would have seen the dry house line, I would have seen that the color of the smoke had not changed, but I didn’t – I just put my head down and I went to work.

What I’ve learned since:

1) I ask myself more questions, if this would have happened today I would be asking myself who is on E7 I would realize they are a young crew. I would have questioned my Chief on the scene about their progress. I would have realized that they are delayed and it would have prevented me from breaking the window.

2) I still use mental checklist but now I spend more time making sure the checklist I am using is going to apply to the situation I am currently in.

My situation awareness has greatly improved because of a few techniques I have learned. One of those is to just remind myself to take a deep breath. This slows my heart rate down and helps me think.

The second thing I do is have a mental model for making decisions. It looks like this when my situation changes I pause and take a deep breath. I ask myself the question “ Am I ok and is my team ok’? If the answer is yes I move on to the dangers I am facing and the question is “ What can kill me right now or what can kill me later” When I get the answer to the question my next question is “ what does my training tell me to do’? Then I act. This takes me about 3-5 seconds to run through my head but it helps me see the world around me and make better decisions.

Ultimately the crews were okay – their delay in finding the stairs saved them. They had almost gotten to the top of the stairs when the window was taken out and the first guy was able to just back up and no one got injured. I am very thankful no one got hurt.  I am thankful for a chance to learn and to grow and to hopefully let others learn from my mistakes.


About the Author:

  • Dan Dumas age 36
  • Lieutenant with the Waterford Regional  Fire Department
  • 16 years of experience. Paramedic. Fire Academy Instructor, Michigan Task Force 1 Rescue Specialist.

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