Organizational Doctrine in the Fire Service

17 mins read

I recently had the opportunity to speak with a proven leader. His time was spent climbing through the ranks of the US Marine Corps. Once Major General William F. Mullen III had retired, his name was proudly stamped in a document issued through the Corps as doctrine. Through our communication, I was left not only with some heavy principles to digest but the drive to make a difference. Typing this article is how I’d like to begin. Doctrine in the fire service is a much-needed adaptation of the military structure we’re based upon.

A project behind a project.

I’ve been writing down my thoughts on wellness, progress and chasing ‘better’ for the fire service since my Deputy District Chief put his stamp on my application and allowed my entry. Since my time as a probationary firefighter ended, I’ve been dreaming up a larger project. That’s taken a few different flavours as the days press on. Mostly, I’d been circling some kind of book. At best, I could see a book toward describing the codified personality traits, leadership styles and actionable tasks for new members of a service organization. A ‘rookie manual’, if you will.

There’s a couple things that prevent me from starting that. First, I think I need a few more years as the rookie to build experiences and compile my thoughts. I’m getting closer, but some more time and experience will undoubtedly expose me to a bigger base to pull ideas from. Second, and perhaps more importantly, I need to make sure I’m the right person to write that text. I don’t specifically know what would or wouldn’t make me that person, but I need to ‘feel comfortable’, let’s say, as an authority in rookie mindset development to be able to give voice to that project.

Starting somewhere.

A conversation with Major General William F. Mullen III (Bill) allowed me to branch this thinking into a project idea. Not only as something I can start working on now, but something I believe would heavily influence my thinking on a project like a ‘new rookie manual’. I sent over a message to Bill on Linkedin. If there’s one thing I’ve taken from modern communication – the worst thing people can say is ‘no’ or ‘nothing’. There’s no harm in asking for a quick conversation. Just by asking, I managed to have a transformative chat with Bill on the subject of military doctrine and it’s application to other services.

See, Bill is well-respected as the retired General of Training and Education Command. He’s quoted in a doctrinal document called ‘Learning‘, which is worth every moment it takes you to read. I sent over a message to his inbox hoping he could help me mold an idea in it’s infancy; how can we use doctrine in the fire service to make things better?

The 5000-year mind.

In our first exchange, I was asking Bill to help clarify some of the points he made in an article surrounding his recommended reading list. Of particular note, he mentioned two things that spurred my curiosity. First, I wanted to know more about something he referenced called the ‘5000 year mind of the Marines’. The concept here is that we’ve stored 5000 years of information through written history. A parable Bill summarized for me invites the professional responder to build wisdom through the translated experiences of those who came before us. Another glaring reason why the written word is so crucial to progress.

This wisdom – a compilation of thoughts and proven methods over time – is well documented. Especially now, when we have a digital repository spanning almost all subjects at the end of our fingertips. Bill made an argument for leaning on history that is hard to refute.

You cannot control what actual experience they get, or how fast they get it, but you can control their vicarious experience through exposing them to the collective wisdom you would compile.

Major General William F. Mullen III

Art and science in operations

I took that quote from one of the emails we’d exchanged. We talked about the importance of doctrine in military operations. Bill was great to remind me, however, that doctrine in the fire service isn’t the be-all-end-all of how a soldier should conduct himself. It’s a document that informs action, not something that prescribes action.

As for the art and science of war – science is represented by the procedures that must be accomplished to use our weapons properly and safely, fly our aircraft, and train for tasks we know will happen in combat. The art comes in when conditions start to change and there is a need for adaptation – some of which goes against the received wisdom in our doctrine because conditions demand it.

General Lee did this in the battle of Chancellorsville in May 1863. He was severely outnumbered and outflanked by northern forces. Doctrine says do not divide your own forces in the face of superior numbers, but he knew the commanding general he was fighting against (MajGen Joe Hooker) and really had no choice other than to retreat as fast as possible. He did not do that. He divided his forces three different times in a matter of three days and won a devastating victory. This is just one example of applying the art of war instead of the science of war.

Major General William F. Mullen III

Where Bill describes the art and science of war is where I think we can find an intersection in the fire service, too. Policy and procedure tell us the black-and-white lines in our actions. Doctrine can help describe why we’re doing what we do. The art behind our science. The reason for our drive to make the push into a burning doorway.

I think articulating our why is instrumental in moving forward.

Without knowing our mission, we can’t accurately aim.

How does doctrine help define our mission?

Tom Harbour is the Director of Fire and Aviation Management for the US Forest Service. He wrote an article for Fire Management Today (available here) on the subject of doctrine that is worth the one-page read. His definition of doctrine helps me frame the need for these documents in our service.

Doctrine is the body of principles that sets the moral or ethical standard and forms the foundation of judgement, mode of action, decision, and behaviour. It is authoritative but flexible, definitive enough to guide specific operations, yet adaptable enough to address diverse and varied situations.

Tom Harbour

Tom suggests that doctrine creates ‘an organization guided by well-stated principles that represent the scope of the work, the work environment and the mission’. Given that statement, I’m forced to reflect on my own department.

Of course, we have the overarching goal of preserving life, property and the environment, but what does that mean?

How do we do that?

Harbour left a model in his article that helps me answer that question. At the top of the ‘doctrinal pyramid’, he suggests that doctrine is attached to ‘the why’ behind our operations. Under that, principles answer ‘the what’ and finally, the bottom layer is application – telling us ‘how’ we operate.


I’d like to pull apart two documents to give an example of what a well-executed doctrinal document looks like. In doing so, I’m trying to build an argument toward the construction of documents like those featured for departments that lack doctrine.

The Austin Fire Department of Austin, Texas, USA put together their latest revision of the departmental doctrine document in February 2022. Lucky for us, it’s hosted freely on their website. Link here.

The document starts out the way I figure it should – with a clear mission statement. Beyond that, they even have a motto.

Excellence beyond our standards. Service beyond your expectations.

Austin Fire Department

Can’t you see how a clear-cut and concise statement like that could help shape both the strategic vision for the department and tactical considerations in live operations?

Simple. We do more.

While the Austin Fire Department mission statement reflects the same idea, the document serves help read between the lines. For example, the mission statement in their department is ‘The Austin Fire Department is committed to creating safe and resilient communities through prevention, preparedness and effective emergency response.’ Cool – I think it’s pretty easy to get behind that mission statement as ‘what’ the department does. The doctrinal document helps understand why they chase that mission.

The manual explains their ‘core values’ in a way that directly correlates to the mission. Integrity, respect, ownership and discipline are defined through the lens of excellence. Without clearly articulating these values, members would be left to interpret these words through their own experience. Instead, members of the AFD have a roadmap of expectation.

Decision making described

A section on decision making within the AFD doctrinal document explains priority and why decisions are important – not necessarily how to make decisions in the field. The capstone statement toward this idea is first under the heading;

The Austin Fire Department’s decision-making culture, built on the acceptance of a mission-driven process, should first and foremost―directly or indirectly―benefit the community we serve.

Austin Fire Department

Leadership culture and organizational priorities are written out. There’s no guesswork involved.

All members of the department will answer for the results of their actions if not in line with this Doctrine.

Austin Fire Department

In the section regarding actual response to emergencies, AFD lays it out in plain english; ‘When our
community members call, we will be ready to respond.’ With that type of language, there’s no further explanation required. You don’t need to dig through HR documents to figure out what is meant. You either are – or are not – ready to respond. This sets the stage for all members. This emboldens the members to pursue the sort of excellence their motto suggests.

It’s not just words.

The second document we’ll look at for guidance on what makes a good start toward writing a doctrinal document comes from Australia. Link here.

Taken directly from the MFS Doctrine.

On the surface, a design decision was made for this manual that is a departure from the Austin Fire Department we looked at above. It’s glossier and appears to be put together with public consumption in mind. Only a short way into the document, it’s purpose is clearly and specifically listed.

The Doctrine clearly defines the values of the organisation and the behaviours we want our personnel to display.

South Australian Metropolitan Fire Service

Note – values and behaviours. Not policies and procedures.

What separates the Aussie approach is a page devoted to explaining what exactly their doctrine is for. ‘

Doctrine forms the basis for how an organisation teaches its personnel accepted ways of doing business.

South Australian Metropolitan Fire Service

I think there’s value there. No matter if your departmental doctrinal document was generated for the public to read or if it’s just meant for members. Outlining the purpose of the document is a good idea as far as I can tell.

Under the Mission, Vision and Values for their document, MFS makes particular note to expand on those ideas. So, they’re not just using LinkedIn words to make everybody feel good about having a mission statement. They’re actually explaining what each of these important department-steering statements mean.

Under a section titled ‘Operational Excellence’, the document explicitly describes the expectations each member is bound to. Fitness, readiness, professional development – there isn’t much room for figuring it out yourself. The document published by MFS gives specific and measurable marks to hit. Falling short would be easy to detect – and that’s something we responders should be actively seeking, a tool to know whether our efforts are meeting the mission.

A worthy milestone

Back in the day, Romans would place a stone at each mile of their journey to indicate how far toward their destination they had traveled. Begs the question; where are we in the fire service headed?

Doctrinal documents provide not only a bearing for departmental progress but a metric by which we can measure our efforts to serve. Through study of other service records, I’ve seen that this type of document would not only help align our focus as a fire family, but would ultimately serve the public we’ve sworn (or should swear) to save.

Bill Dungey is a volunteer firefighter in Ontario, Canada. He is focused on fitness, mindset development and finding training opportunities to help the fire service make things better.

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