The Art of ARFF (part 8) - Terrain

Terrain refers to the topographical features of a geographical location. To discuss terrain is to discuss the lay of the land. When we are conducting pre-plans for fire and emergency response, the terrain plays an important role.  Terrain elements consider the location of roads, vegetation, bodies of water, overhead obstructions (power lines, trees, canopies), and exposures.  We want to look at how the terrain and surrounding structures will impact fire behavior to the structure and how a structure fire will impact the surrounding terrain and other structures.  When assessing exposure hazards - terrain elements that will expose a structure to fire risk -  factors considered are differing building heights, distance between structures, wildland/urban interface settings, and the proximity of high-hazard operations or contents.  The goal is to create a plan to limit risk from these exposures.

Just as terrain refers to the physical land layout, leaders establish leadership and cultural terrain within our organizations.  Based on how we lead our people we are either creating a culture that exposes them to risk, failure, and defeat or we are creating a culture that will limit their exposure to risk, ensure their personal success, and professional victory.  

"Now an army is exposed to six severe calamities, not arising from natural causes, but from faults for which the general is responsible..." - Sun Tzu

In Chapter 10 of The Art of War, Sun Tzu, lists these six "exposures" that our personnel could be subject to.  The six exposures discussed are: flight, insubordination, collapse, ruin, disorganization, and rout.

"If one force is hurled against another ten times its size, the result will be flight of the former."

When an incident - fire scene or management issue - exceeds the the departments assets the personnel involved will feel overwhelmed and defeat will be imminent.  It is the leaders responsibility to know the capabilities of his personnel, assets, and resources.  Specifically, the leader must know when these are not adequate for the fight.  It is the leaders responsibility to know when to request additional assets, provide additional knowledge or human resources, or seek counsel and advice.  As leaders, we must be knowledgeable enough to know that we need assistance, and humble enough to ask for it. 

"When the common soldiers are too strong and their officers too weak, the result is insubordination."

This statement should not be taken to mean that leaders and officers should suppress the development of their people, but just the opposite.  It is critically important that the leader works and trains just as much, or more, than his personnel so that his knowledge and growth will continue and he can be on par with the knowledge, skills, and abilities of his men. As officers and departmental leaders we are expected to lead.  We are the ones that have to make the hard decisions and stand by them.  When officers do not do this the men will not follow.  They will, instead, follow the man who can do this.  They will follow the man who does maintain and continually develop his knowledge, skills, and abilities - both, in the practical functions of the job and in leadership skills. 

"When the officers are too strong and the common soldiers too weak, the result is collapse."

An officer is only as strong as his people.  The officer can be the strongest, smartest, most knowledgeable, best capable, but if his team cannot keep up then defeat will come.  Victory cannot be won on the officers strength alone.  To prevent collapse, it is the officers responsibility to continually make his personnel better. It is the leaders responsibility to bring the people up to, and hold them accountable to, the highest standards of excellence.

"When the higher officers are angry and insubordinate, and...give battle...from a feeling of resentment...the result is ruin."

Sometimes it is easy for officers to get tunnel vision and only think about what they can see from their perspective.  The Chief, however, has a larger view and understands all the connecting parts.  The Chief's actions and orders are based on facts and his knowledge of the whole picture.  When officers become disgruntled with commands they do not understand, or make decisions based on their limited perspective (commonly referred to as, "freelancing"), ruin will come.  A Chief can mitigate this exposure by explaining what can be explained, and officers can mitigate this exposure by submitting to their authority.

"When the general is weak and without authority; when his orders are not clear and distinct; when there are no fixed duties assigned to officers and men, and the ranks are formed in a slovenly haphazard manner, the result is utter disorganization."

An officer's orders must be given with confidence and decisiveness.  If they are not, they will not be followed. Every man must know and understand his role on the team, and within the organization as a whole. He should be given clear guidance as to the functions of his position, and how he can attain to other positions.  Serious thought and consideration should be given to the make-up of shifts and personnel. The "ranks" should be formed with the right mixture of experience, skill, and leadership ability.

"When a general...neglects to place picked soldiers in the front rank, the result must be rout."

This phrase speaks to the importance of putting the right men on the "front lines", having the right people in leadership roles.  Our jobs are not easy, we are faced crises and emergency events,  we have to make hard decisions, we have to do the hard work of steering the organization.  If the weak or timid are on the front lines, then "disorderly retreat", rout, will ensue.  Chan Yu paraphrases this line as, "Whenever there is fighting to be done, the keenest spirits should be appointed to serve in the front ranks, both in order to strengthen the resolution of our own men and to demoralize the enemy."

The principles for creating a victorious leadership and cultural terrain can be summarized in these lines from the Sun Tzu:
"The general who advances without coveting fame and retreats without fearing disgrace, whose only thought is to protect his country and do good service for his sovereign, is the jewel of the kingdom.  Regard your soldiers as your children, and they will follow you into the deepest valleys; look upon them as your own beloved sons, and they will stand by you even unto death."