The "All In" Approach to Firefighting

Photo courtesy of BLMOregon

I recently finished reading the book All In: The Education of General David Petraeus. Written by Paula Broadwell, and published in 2012, the book chronicles the General’s “career, his intellectual development as a military officer, and his impact on the U.S. military.”  The fire service is often touted as a para-military organization and I have found it  increasingly beneficial to read books on military strategy, leadership, and personalities.  These resources provide a broad variety of lessons that can be readily applied to what we do in the fire service.

Among many other accomplishments, Petraeus is known for answering the call of President Obama to provide leadership of the war in Afghanistan. He had previously penned “King David’s Bible”, the Counterinsurgency Field Manual (COIN).  COIN provided guidance to all military forces on how to win the battle in Afghanistan.  Early in his leadership of these forces, he sent out a four-page counterinsurgency guidance letter, that boiled the COIN down to “24 Commandments”.  These are what Petraeus felt were essential to victory in this war.

Here are six that stand out and their application to the fire service.

  • Secure and serve the population.  The decisive terrain is the human terrain. The people are the center of gravity.  Only by providing them security and earning their trust and confidence can the Afghan government and ISAF prevail.

People are why we do what we do.  Maintaining relationships with the people of our community, and our community leaders, is what allows us to be effective in what we do. Our first duty is to “secure and serve the population”.  Do what is best for the community and its members.  Keeping in mind, that sometimes this might not be what’s best for ‘us’.

  • Live with the people. We can’t commute to the fight. Position joint bases and combat outposts as close to those we’re seeking to secure as feasible.  Decide on locations with input from our partners and after consultation with local citizens and informed by intelligence and security assessments.

If to “secure and serve the population” is our objective, to “live with the people” is our strategy.  How can we best secure and serve? What is it that our population needs most from us, and how can we provide that? How can we be proactive, provide a service to the many, and not just reactive, responding to issues of the few?

  • Pursue the enemy relentlessly. Together with our Afghan partners, get your teeth into the insurgents and don’t let go. When the extremists fight, make them pay. Seek out and eliminate those who threaten the population. Don’t let them intimidate the innocent. Target the whole network, not just individuals.

Our enemy is those natural and man-made disasters and incidents that threaten to destroy the lives, property, and prosperity of the members of our community.  It is more than just fire, we now take an “all-hazards” approach to the work we do. We pursue this ‘enemy’ through prevention, mitigation, and public education. We fight this ‘enemy’ with the most current use of tools, technology, and personnel training.

  • Walk. Stop by, don’t drive by. Patrol on foot whenever possible and engage the population. Take off your sunglasses. Situational awareness can only be gained by interacting face-to-face, not separated by ballistic glass or Oakleys.

Leadership expert, John Maxwell, says “Walk slowly through the halls. One of the greatest mistakes leaders make is spending too much time in their offices and not enough time out among the people.” There is a need and true value in getting out of the office, out of the station, and walking through the community (and for more than just the daily grocery run). Walk through the buildings in your industrial areas, walk through the shopping malls, walk through the new communities and construction, walk down the streets at community events.  Walking gives a new perspective on structures, systems, and processes.  Walking is welcoming, it allows people the opportunity to stop, engage, and communicate.

  • Be first with the truth. Beat the insurgents and malign actors to the headlines. Preempt rumors. Get accurate information to the chain of command, to Afghan leaders, to the people, and to the press as soon as possible.  Integrity is critical to this fight.  Avoid spinning, and don’t try to “dress up” an ugly situation.  Acknowledge setbacks and failures, including civilian casualties, and then state how we’ll respond and what we’ve learned.

Address problems, concerns, issues, and failings head on. There have been multiple times when a decision made could have been detrimental, however, I directly went to the leaders of my organization, explained the issue, how I went wrong, and what I was doing to fix and prevent. Address issues quickly and head on, and most importantly, provide a solution for how to do better in the future.

  • Live our values. Stay true to the values we hold dear. This is what distinguishes us from our enemies. We are engaged in a tough endeavor. It is often brutal, physically demanding, and frustrating. All of us experience moments of anger, but we must not give in to dark impulses or tolerate unacceptable actions by others.

Today’s fire departments provide a blend of generations, cultures, beliefs, backgrounds, and ethics.  Our values on the job, are what the departments we work for value.  When we show up to work, we put our beliefs, ethics, and values to the side and we take on those of our employer. Several years ago, the USFA produced a firefighter code of ethics.  This is a document that members of our profession can look to and know what this business is all about, and what it stands for.  These are the values we must live.

“This isn’t double down, Mr. President. It’s all in.”

-Gen. David Petraeus