From the fire ground to the office

With the recent bushfire activity here in Sydney, I thought it was timely to share some of the exemplary leadership I’ve witnessed in my time within the NSW Rural Fire Service.

In late 2017 I was on a Hazard Reduction burn, an HR.  Before we go any further, can we  please stop calling these back burns.  Back burns are where you use fire to fight fire (which is what happened down at Holsworthy / Menai), and a hazard reduction burn is where you burn off as much of the ground fuels as you can ahead of a bush fire season.

So I was on a hazard reduction burn with the mighty Cherrybrook Rural Fire Brigade along with 15 or so other brigades – most from our district, and a few Strike Teams that had come from the Warringah Shire.  On these larger burns, on any burn actually, there’s an organised chain of command.  With upwards of 120 people when you tally up all the fire fighters and support personnel, simply letting loose a gaggle of enthusiastic volunteers to start lighting fires without a command structure around them,  has, well….obvious risks.

The mighty Cherrybrook 1 tanker

This isn’t dad and the kids in the late 80’s firing up the incinerator in the backyard either I might add.  A tinny in hand and a terry-towel hat, pumping barrow loads of green waste in and enveloping the entire suburb in plumes of smoke.  No.  With more at stake than having to re-wash the sheets that were on the washing line, these RFS operations are pretty slick, even for a bunch of unpaid volunteers.

Backyard incinerator – my 1980’s childhood memories

We were also lucky enough to have air-support that day, with an RFS helicopter firing aerial incendiary bombs (truly) into the heart of the burn area after the outer control line was set.  Its call-sign was Firebird 225.  What’s not to love about that.

So, one of the senior members of our brigade happened to be assigned as our Sector Leader.  Sector Leaders are tasked with the control of a burn quadrant, usually responsible for 4-5 crews.  The Sector Leader then reports up to Burn Control (usually given a cool call sign too).  Similar to how a military operation runs – smaller units (in this case up to 5 fire fighters), lead by an OIC (Officer in Charge), who report to the Sector Leader, who then reports to Burn Control.  Simple stuff, no different to construction work crews lead by a Leading Hand, who report to a Foreman, who reports to the Super, or any number of different team structures across every industry – I’m sure you’ve all got them.  A command hierarchy.  You get the picture.

Today’s post isn’t meant to be all about the machinations of the NSW RFS, (but for what it’s worth – sign up to your local brigade immediately – it’s awesome), but the exemplary leadership I witnessed from our Sector Leader that day.


His day to day job is an active member of NSW Fire & Rescue, so he’s no slouch when it comes to working under pressure, and in often hazardous environments.  While he’s obviously more experienced than most in field-based leadership in extreme scenarios, what I observed that day was a master class in leadership that can be directly applied to workplaces in any environment.  To your work environment.

Apart from our crew, he knew none of the OIC’s of the other trucks, maybe a handful of the fire fighter’s just from his years volunteering, and from memory, only a few of the senior personnel running the burn.  So – let’s call these ‘new teams’.  I noted in an earlier post that Hal Moore, retired US Army Lt General, relished the idea of working with new teams.  He refers in his book to a series of leadership principles that I witnessed in full swing on that fire ground.

Communications protocols were established, checked, and most importantly – used and maintained throughout the day.  Radio channels determined and equipment inspected.  Regular updates scheduled and agreed.

Expectations were clearly set, and set early.  Crew leader obligations and responsibilities clearly articulated and repeated back to ensure understanding.  Crew strengths were determined and crews assigned accordingly.

Cherrybrook 1 ready for action

Specific objectives were defined, repeated back and confirmed as understood, and the OIC’s left to execute.  Critical burn plans were reviewed, discussed and objectives agreed.

Bush fire fighting is a delicate balance between art and science.  Fire tetrahedrons, climactic conditions, fuel loads, terrain features and even the time of day are all to be considered.  There’s no point in trying to micro-manage all of these.  Each crew will face different conditions throughout the day, so setting both crew and sector objectives rather than specific tasks, is critical in allowing each OIC the flexibility to execute according to conditions.  Crew strengths and skills, specific weather conditions at any given time, and how the fire is behaving are all factors that the OIC has to continually assess and respond to.  In a live-fire environment, having to constantly secure approval to do something, rather than simply allowing the OIC to execute to an objective, can be dangerous.

Management by Walking Around.  He was visible, purposeful, approachable and respectful.  He had access to a vehicle, but chose to mainly walk between the crews spread out on the fire ground.  I can only imagine the kilometres he walked that day.

He had his hands in his pockets.  His hands in his pockets? I hear you shriek!  I remember hearing once that in a serious incident or scenario, if the person in charge of any incident, crisis, or dangerous event is busy buried in the detail, doing work, fixing something, then they are not in control of the scenario, as their situational awareness has been compromised.

There’s an obvious corollary to that in that when absolutely required, a leader must muck in.  There’s no doubt about that, however we’ve probably all see examples where leaders will simply dive into every area they are comfortable in, or enjoy, often at the expense of the overall mission objective.  In this case, managing a large area of fire ground, being responsible for the safety of the fire fighters, the equipment, and the surrounding infrastructure was his objective.

A leader must always have their eyes up, surveying the work space, scanning for threats and heading them off before they become issues.  This allows the team to operate more efficiently and confidently.

Sounds a lot like risk management doesn’t it?


Do you need to be a bush fire fighter, emergency services personnel, or military to learn and execute these principles?  Of course not!  Leaders of any age, any experience, any industry can employ these principles for immediate effect.

You only have 1 direct report?


Communicate clearly, set expectations and objectives, engage with them in a meaningful way, be visible, and provide an environment where learning is encouraged.  You’ll soon see your little team grow as people naturally gravitate towards a leader that provides a workplace that’s got clear direction.

Each workplace is simply too different for me to list specific examples on how to apply these principles, but it doesn’t matter, because the fundamentals are the same.  People want to be given clear instructions, they want clear objectives and expectations, and they want to know you’ve got their back.

People want to do good work.  They want the flexibility to do it their way.  They want to succeed, and they want to help you.

So what are you going to do to help them?


Like today’s post?  Want to join the RFS? (do it!).  I’d love to get your feedback or comments on the post, and if you’ve got some examples of where leaders have demonstrated these (and other) fundamentals – feel free to leave a comment!

2 thoughts on “From the fire ground to the office”

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