The Five Step Assertive Statement Process

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You’re a firefighter assigned to a roof job. It’s a flat metal roof and there’s a lot of water on it. (Set aside for a moment all your judgement about why you’re on the roof in the first place). Your situational awareness is strong and you’re getting a gut felling that’s causing you concern for your safety. And… you can see the same concern in the eyes of your fellow firefighters. But no one’s speaking up. No one wants to be the “wuss” as it was described to me by the firefighter who reached out to me for advice. I understand this is a tough position to be in. Your gut (intuition) is telling you get off the roof, but your pride is telling you to stay and be brave. What do you do?

This may be the toughest position a firefighter can find him or herself in. Having a gut feeling that a situation is bad and not knowing how to express those concerns to ranking officers.

In this situation, the command officer is (hopefully) on the ground and unable to see the conditions on the roof. This puts the firefighter in a position of distinct advantage to be able to see things in a way the commander cannot. So how does the firefighter let the commander know he’s concerned for his wellbeing without sounding like, as he put it, “a wuss.”

A lesson from aviation

The answer to this question comes from a process used in aviation. It’s called the Five Step Assertive Statement Process. It came about because first officers were afraid to speak up to captains who, at the time, were known to have large egos and did not accept advice or criticism very well. Prior to the implementation of Cockpit Resource Management (the precursor to Crew Resource Management), the Captain was King. What the Captain said was the Gospel. No one ever dared disagree with the Captain or they would be reprimanded and admonished in front of everyone.

The only problem was, there were plenty of instances where the Captain was wrong.  Captains were making mistakes and, in some instances, flying perfectly good airplanes into the ground and the first officers were saying nothing to stop it from happening. To help fix the problem, the aviation industry implemented Cockpit Resource Management as a way to get the flight crew to work better together. Know this – the Captains did not embrace the concept. Many dubbed it ‘Charm School’ and opposed the notion that a first officer could actually tell a Captain he or she was making a mistake.

The Five Step Assertive Statement Process

But, the program prevailed despite all the kicking and fussing from the Captains. One of the outcomes was the Five Step Assertive Statement Process. It’s a pre-established, well-communicated process for how concerns are supposed to be articulated in an aircraft. The steps include:

  1. Address the person by formal title
  2. State: “I have a concern.” (This is important and I’ll explain why in a moment).
  3. Provide details of the concern.
  4. State an alternate course of action.
  5. Seek the approval to implement the alternate course of action.

In action, it might sound something like this:

Captain, I have a concern. This is a metal roof with metal trusses under it. There are thousands of pounds of water accumulating up here and this building is under stress. I would like to recommend we remove all personnel from the roof until we can find a way to relieve the water and reduce the weight. Are you ok with that?“‘

I have a concern

The statement – I have a concern – is not a casual statement. Rather, it is a ‘trigger statement.’ The use of those four words, by policy, requires that the captain acknowledge and consider the concerns of the crew member. In aviation, failure to do so may lead to the captain being relieved from commanding the the aircraft. This trigger statement is taught to all members of a flight crew and any member of the crew can express their concerns using it. Here’s the catch: They all know it in advance. Everyone’s been trained on it and they all know what it means and what they have to do when it is stated.

SOLUTION

Every fire department should have in place a policy that establishes a Five Step Assertive Statement Process. Then, when anyone on an emergency scene says to someone in authority ‘I have a concern’ it is a trigger statement that requires the concern be given consideration.

Obviously, training on the process and training for how to make the statement and how to receive the statement is critical. Absent the training, a firefighter will not know how to state a concern and will be fearful if one is stated. Likewise, a commander is not likely to be accepting of a statement of concern unless the commander understands and accepts it as part of a formal process that is intended to look out for everyone’s safety. A commander who cannot accept the ‘I have a concern’ statement does not have a healthy ego and has a low self esteem and should not be in a position to lead firefighters into battle.

DISCUSSION QUESTIONS

  1. Have you ever been in a position where you were concerned for your safety but did not speak up because you were afraid to or did not know how to?
  2. Have you ever brought safety concerns to the attention of a supervisor at an emergency scene and been admonished for doing so? If you have, why do you think the supervisor would act that way?
  3. Does your department have a formal process in place that uses a ‘trigger statement‘ to express safety concerns?

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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!

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Post your answers to the discussion questions or your comments to this article in the “Leave a Reply” box below.

If you want to send me incident pictures, videos or have an idea you’d like me to research and write about, contact me. I really enjoy getting feedback and supportive messages from fellow first responders. It gives me the energy to work harder for you.

Thanks,

Rich

Email: Support@RichGasaway.com
Phone: 612-548-4424
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About Rich Gasaway

Richard B. Gasaway served 33 years on the front lines as a firefighter, EMT-Paramedic and fire chief. He earned his Doctor of Philosophy degree while studying how individuals, teams and organizations develop and maintain situational awareness and make decisions in high stress, high consequence, time compressed environments. Dr. Gasaway is widely considered to be one of the nation's leading authorities on first responder situational awareness and decision making. His material has been featured and referenced in more than 400 book chapters, research projects, journal articles, podcasts, webinars and videos. His research and passion to improve workplace safety through improved situational awareness is unrivaled. Dr. Gasaway's leadership and safety programs have been presented to more than 42,000 first responders, emergency managers, medical providers, military personnel, aviation employees, industrial workers and business leaders throughout North America, Europe, Asia and Australia.
This entry was posted in Crew Resource Management, Culture, Ego and Self-Esteem, Fear, Safety, Situational awareness, Teamwork and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

14 Responses to The Five Step Assertive Statement Process

  1. hilinda says:

    I really appreciate the information you keep putting out there.
    A lot of it seems like it should be “common knowledge,” but it appears not to be.
    I’m in a tough position where I am, and dearly wish the line officers would read your material and learn from it, but I know they won’t. Doesn’t mean I can’t.

    About your discussion questions… yes, I’ve been admonished for bringing safety concerns to the attention of officers. That, and been actively discriminated against. My best guess as to why is that they have serious ego problems. Big fish, small pond, and don’t want anything to change that.
    No, there is no formal process in place to express safety concerns. I think it would be a great idea, IF they would do their part in responding appropriately.

    Thanks again for all your work.

    • Rich Gasaway says:

      Thank you for sharing your comment, though it saddens my heart to read this. There is no place for egos when it comes to protecting the lives of responders. Maybe you could print some of the articles and just leave the laying around where someone might pick one up.
      ~ Rich

  2. Larry Jenkins says:

    As an officer with many years of experience it was difficult sometimes to take into consideration a concern from a subordinate. With that being said, you also have to consider the person making the concern. Is it from a rookie with little or no experience, a person who always questions everything, or a well seasoned vet?

    On a couple of occasions I had a rookie with only a few months on the job ask me, “Are we going in there?” Needless to say when we returned to quarters we talked about this. It takes years to read a fire and know what to expect the fire to do next. Newer employees don’t have the experience yet, over time they will. I will also admit that some of our officers don’t have it yet either.

    When I first came on the job I was put into unnecessary dangers by my officer. I quickly realized how unintelligent he was. Back then you were not allowed to question authority. I found several mentors and picked their brains for information. I quickly learned what and what not to do.

    If the same question had been asked by one of the veterans then I would consider their concern and readjust my decision if needed. We can’t see or hear everything. Any information gathered should be considered, even if it comes from a recruit. You just need to figure out how dependable that information is received and by whom.

    • Rich Gasaway says:

      Larry,

      Excellent observations. One comment you made I want to point out for everyone: “It takes years to read a fire and know what to expect the fire to do next.” That is a critical point that I don’t want readers to overlook.

      The highest level of situational awareness (Level 3) is Projection… being able to look out on the horizon and see what is coming. It is the very mission of my entire website… “Helping first responders see the bad things coming in time to change the outcome.”

      You are a wise man, Larry. Thank you for sharing that wisdom with our visitors.

      ~ Rich

  3. Skip Heflin says:

    This is an excellent article, thanks for sharing it. I have always taught CRM in our departmental recruit Firefighter program and include advocating your position. I will include the step by step process in your article from now on. Keep up the great work and inspiration, I truly appreciate it!

    • Rich Gasaway says:

      Skip,

      You really made my day with that feedback. Thank you SO much. It really makes me feel good when I hear my contributions are being put to use by training officers. I am so motivated by that! Awesome!

      Rich

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  8. joe walsh says:

    Dr G., The instruction you provide is sound advice. I understand you are sharing a very basic ‘Safety Formula’, but I think the language used in the Roof Example is somewhat unrealistic. In reading the scenario I quickly developed several, I think, more diplomatic responses. ( I suppose This Too, comes with years of experience).
    I just can’t ‘get my mind around the idea’ of explaining obvious information to a Senior Officer. I understand the importance of Alerting a Crew Member to a possibly overlooked dangerous condition. I think language is important here as well.’ I have a concern’ is indeed a ‘diplomatic’ way to express an observation to a Sr. Officer or Crew Member, but to say ‘This is a metal truss roof and thousands of pounds of water are creating stress…’, sounds to me like a remark that invites rebuke.
    A less provocative comment might sound something more like this: ‘Captain, I have a concern here…This roof has been taking quite a bit of water for awhile now and we all know how these metal truss jobs can go. I’d like to recommend we consider clearing off of the roof for now, what do you think?’
    I know it’s only a slightly different remark, but the nuance I think, is more respectful of the Officer’s Experience and sounds more conversational than instructive.
    I’m interested in your opinion, perhaps I’m being too picky?
    Also, I join the chorus of supporters here in saying; Thank You for all your great work, Congratulations on your successful Programs, and please, keep up the good Work.

    • Rich Gasaway says:

      Joe,

      Whatever works. The process I spoke to in the article comes from aviation. In that environment, it works. But they train all their personnel, in advance, as to what the process is and what to do when someone makes the statements. Therefore, there’s no hurt feelings. Everyone knows the person who follows that process is trying to improve safety and outcomes.

      Rich

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