Defensive Decision Making

The decision to be defensive or to transition tactics from offensive to defensive at a structure fire requires strong situational awareness and it may be one of the hardest decisions a commander can make. The difficulty with this decision is not rooted in tactical shortcomings. The problem more fundamental.

The challenge of being defensive or transitioning tactics from offensive to defensive is one of ego and self-esteem. Let’s face it, firefighters do not like to lose.  A great deal of time, effort and money is expended on the training and equipment to facilitate success. Training is based on successful outcomes. Advance the line into a training building and the fire is put out and the building never collapses. It works, as planned, every time.

First responders are not taught how to fail. And if failure is never an outcome, confidence rises and, subsequently, so does the ego. This is basic human psychology and it is predictable.

This can make it difficult for some commanders to be defensive from the start or to transition to defensive tactics. Defensive tactics can be thought by some to be an admission of failure. A commander who decides to be defensive from the start may hear objections from subordinates. If a commander transitions from offensive to defensive, they are likely to also hear about it from the crews ordered to exit the structure. Why? Because the crew members self-esteem suffers as their abilities to be successful (i.e., slay the dragon) are called into question.

Coincidentally, one of the most sickening signs of low self-esteem, over inflated ego and over confidence are displayed on the “NO FEAR” decals some firefighters wear on their helmets. Personally, if I wore a decal on my helmet that portrayed how I felt when I sent firefighters into structure fires it would read “SCARED TO DEATH!”

The surest way to failure is to have fireground decisions made by overconfident commanders with large egos and low self-esteem.

When commanders start worrying more about the consequences of having a firefighter die under their command than the damage their self-esteem will sustain for making a defensive tactical decision, the number of fires that are fought from a defensive position will increase and the number of fatalities will decline.


The mission of Situational Awareness Matters is simple: Help first responders see the bad things coming… in time to change the outcome.

Safety begins with SA!


The content for this post was taken directly from the highly acclaimed programs, Fifty Ways to Kill a First Responder and Mental Management of Emergencies. These programs have been presented to more than 23,000 public safety providers from North America, Europe, Asia and Australia.

If your department or association is interested in hosting a program to improve situational awareness and decision making under stress, contact me at: or call me at: 612-548-4424.

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  1. Pingback: Leadership means… Leading! | Situational Awareness Matters!™

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