Taking Our Agile Passion to a Volunteer Fire Department – A Report From the Fire

About this Publication

We all have passions outside of our careers and most of us spend some of our valuable time with nonprofit and volunteer organizations to achieve our work/life balance. Agile Coach and current Divide Fire Protection District Fire Chief, Tom O’Connor describes the opportunity and how Agile principles have been adapted to fighting fires and managing a fire department.

The Agile community has shown success with for-profit organizations, as we have helped them become more effective and efficient through our Agile coaching. Unfortunately, these practices are seldom seen in nonprofits and volunteer organizations, such as a volunteer fire department and we have an opportunity for social change and improvement through our expertise and experience.

1.     Introduction – The History of Firefighting

Our founding father and first President of the United States George Washington was a volunteer firefighter in Alexandria VA around 1774.[1] History documents that even around 15 BC, Roman fire brigades were formed to help combat fires that occasionally broke out and destroyed many of Rome’s cities.

Early fire departments in the United States were volunteer or paid fire companies that people would subscribe to for fire protection. Benjamin Franklin is often credited with forming the first volunteer fire brigades in Philadelphia around 1735 after sending an anonymous letter to his own newspaper where he penned, “an Ounce of Prevention is worth a Pound of Cure”.[2] In 1853, Cincinnati Ohio became the first 100% full-time, paid employee fire department. Today, about 70% of all firefighters in the United States are volunteer firefighters.[3]

Fire departments have historically been very command and control centric, taking many of the positions and ranks from the military. The Fire Chief is the highest-ranking officer in charge of the department. Other positions by rank are Deputy or Assistant Chief, Battalion Chief, Captain, Lieutenant and Firefighter. However, even with this very command and control structure, the modern fire department does organize engine and truck companies around 4-5 people, with specific roles for each. This highly trained team must prioritize and continuously re-prioritize the scene to ensure the tactics they are using is effectively working.

Today’s fire chief has taken a more business centric approach, with titles of Fire Service Chief Executive Officer (FSCEO) from the National Fire Protection Agency (NFPA) or Chief Fire Officer (CFO) from the Center for Public Safety Excellence (CPSE) and Executive Fire Officer (EFO) through the National Fire Academy (NFA), since many chiefs are managing multi-million dollar budgets and are responsible and held accountable to deliver a cost effective, efficient service for the tax payers of their communities.

As an Agile Coach, I often work directly with CEOs (Chief Executive Officers) and CTOs (Chief Technology Officers) to help their organizations improve with delivery of software development because they are held accountable and have to deliver an effective and efficient service.

2.     Roots of My Passion

Passion: a strong feeling of enthusiasm or excitement for something or about doing something. [4]

I grew up in the small community of Lebanon, Illinois (population of less than 5,000) where my stepfather Charles Mohme and most of my friends’ fathers were volunteers on the Lebanon-Emerald Mound Fire Department and our mothers were on the Ladies Auxiliary for the fire department. Besides the mission of the fire department to fight fires, it was also a social club because of all the fundraisers, activities and family picnics held throughout the year. Like most volunteer fire departments, they are funded with very low or little tax money and most of the equipment is purchased from the various fundraisers throughout the year. The town’s annual Homecoming was organized and run by the fire department. As a kid, not only did we get to participate in the parade and ride the carnival rides, we often helped with setting up and cleaning for the event. It was a rare opportunity to stay up past midnight pushing brooms around and picking up trash. The fire department provided not only a sense of family, but also common mission and sense of team, two principles fundamental in Agile development.

I joined the fire department as soon as I was old enough while still in college completing my Computer Science and Mathematics degree from McKendree College, which just happened to be in the same small town of Lebanon Illinois where I grew up. My father, Dr. Gary E. O’Connor (Lt. Col. Ret.) was a meteorologist in the Air Force and after retirement was a professor of Earth Sciences at McKendree. I inherited my math and logic skills from my father and my sense of community from my stepfather. All of my professors, many of whom lived in Lebanon and some that were even on the department, knew that when the pager went off, I might be dashing out of class to respond to a call.

I never thought about fire service as a career because volunteers staffed the Lebanon fire department and many surrounding departments. For me, the fire department was a passionate hobby and a way to give back to my community. It was the extended family I became a part of, and many of the members were fathers and sons or brothers and sisters.

After I graduated college and moved away from Lebanon for work, my passion for the volunteer fire service always had me looking to move to towns that had volunteer fire departments. Within days of moving to Kokomo, Indiana to work with Delco Electronics, I joined the Howard County Civil Defense Fire Department. About a year later, I moved to Greentown Indiana and joined its fire department.

I spent the first half of my paid career as a programmer, project manager, and information specialist at EDS (Electronic Data Systems), being a jack-of-all-trades and master of very few. Because of my flexibility and ability to learn and take on many different programming languages, I did get the opportunity to work on some very cool projects such as the Levi Strauss Distribution Center, HP Printer Data Warehouse, FIFA World Cup 98, FIFA Women’s World Cup 99 and USA Cycling Results and Rankings Project. This is where I was first introduced to some early Agile techniques such as XP (extreme programming) and RAD (rapid application design) approaches. While at Serena Software, I was formally introduced to SCRUM in 2007 and then had the great opportunity to join Rally Software in 2010 as an Engagement Manager, officially becoming an Agile Coach in 2012.

Working at Rally has allowed me to experience and learn how to better collaborate and communicate from an incredible organization. I get to share that experience with my clients, but also bring into my passion of being a volunteer firefighter.

3.     Creating Common Vision and Purpose

Mike Cohn states, “For a team to succeed with agile development it is essential that a shared vision be established.”[5] As Agile coaches, we know that when our teams understand the vision and purpose they feel invested to achieve success. It is also very important to know that the organization may change the vision statement over time as it inspects and adapts its business and uses feedback to continually improve.

Most fire departments have a mission statement. Divide Fire Protection District’s mission statement is “To provide timely and effective fire suppression, emergency medical and technical rescue services to the Divide, Colorado community”.[6] This mission statement defines all of the key services the department provides at a high level.

About twelve years ago, we decided to create teams that focused on those three key areas, Fire, Medical and Technical Rescue. We created positions for Captain and Lieutenant focusing on these areas. We also knew that each group could expand and further define how they would support the mission of the district, letting them work together to improve the group.

The volunteers then have the ability to align around one or more groups that they have passion about.  For example, a trained Emergency Medical Technician (EMT) could just join the medical team. Another person that was both and EMT and Firefighter could join both the Fire and Medical groups. A member that didn’t like blood could focus on the fire and technical rescue groups. Even though delivery teams in Agile should be dedicated to a single team, the alignment in our volunteer fire department has allowed focus and dedication to specific skills.

The importance of building a common vision and purpose for a fire service organization is so they are prepared when someone dials 911. Most people expect, when they dial 911, someone will respond and help them with their situation, whatever it may be.

Roadmaps in Agile development help establish alignment across teams and even in the fire service, as leaders we must continually address and update our roadmap. Most fire departments create a strategic plan that looks at core services, readiness, training, prevention, outreach, education, staff support, partnerships and communication that need to be maintained or enhanced over the next 3-5 years.

Fire departments must identify and plan to address changing regulations and needs of our community through the strategic plan. What may be a priority today may be less of one in the near future and vice versa, something we didn’t plan for may all of sudden be the highest priority.

4.     Gaining Alignment Through Collaboration

 In her book Collaboration Explained, Jean Tabaka outlines facilitation skills and techniques for Software Project Leaders [7] that can also be applied to many of our passions we experience outside of work, such as being a volunteer firefighter. Gaining alignment through effective facilitation from self-organized and empowered teams helps direct our teams in a coordinated direction and to the common goal.

We know that small high-performing teams are great collaborators and successful in their work. As previously mentioned, most fire department engine companies are made up of four to five firefighters. Part of that the reason for the size of the teams is because of physical and financial limitations.   Most engines only have four to five seats and the departments have to have a minimum staffing of four for ISO (Insurance Services Organization) recognition and certification.

Picture a two-story house, in a residential subdivision that has fire and smoke showing out the kitchen window. When an engine pulls up to a scene like this structure fire, the driver/engineer is responsible for getting the engine to the scene and have water flowing to the hoses as soon as possible. The officer, usually a Lieutenant or Captain that is sitting in the front passenger (officer’s seat) focuses on setting up Incident Command (IC), ensuring safety such as status of power and gas, and completing a scene size-up so that he can give the team objectives to accomplish based on some initial information. Sizing-up the scene is usually accomplished by completing a walk around the house to determine many factors that may decide the best plan of attack.

The other firefighters have defined roles too. After donning their Self-Contained Breathing Apparatus (SCBAs), one firefighter may be hooking the hose up to the hydrant for water supply, another may be pulling the pre-connect hose to have it ready to fight the fire, and the last one may be getting the necessary tools (ladders, axes, halligan bar, etc.) to fight the fire. Once the initial setup work is done, the team will quickly huddle and understand the objectives while determining how to effectively and safely execute them.

This is just the initial arriving team and it usually takes many teams to tackle a structure fire so additional engines, trucks, water supplies or command units, and personnel may arrive shortly after. As more and more personnel and units arrive on scene, it can quickly become very confusing and go beyond the span of control for the IC that was first on scene. So how are large, complex emergencies handled?

Many large-scale emergencies like wildland fires, terrorist attacks and natural disasters often include not only the fire department, but also many other agencies such as EMS (Emergency Medical Service), local law enforcement, HazMat, Urban Search and Rescue, or local, state and federal government organizations. One of the challenges during Katrina, was that each agency or discipline would perform incident command differently, therefore causing confusion and lack of communication. Due to that challenge, after Hurricane Katrina in 2005, the United States developed the National Incident Management System (NIMS).

“The National Incident Management System (NIMS) identifies concepts and principles that answer how to manage emergencies from preparedness to recovery regardless of their cause, size, location or complexity. NIMS provides a consistent, nationwide approach and vocabulary for multiple agencies or jurisdictions to work together to build, sustain and deliver the core capabilities needed to achieve a secure and resilient nation.”[8]

NIMS was developed to manage teams of teams in an objective based, unified command approach so that all different agencies worked together towards a common mission and goal.   One of the more interesting, and useful, aspects of NIMS is its flexibility. It isn’t just intended for incidents that are large scale; it’s intended to be used across incidents of any size. The flexibility and component-based nature of NIMS allows it to expand and contract as the incident changes size.

As an Agile coach, I see many similarities with emergency incidents at scale and scaling Agile in a large organization. SAFe (Scaled Agile Framework) was developed by Dean Leffingwell, and many in the Agile community, to create a common approach for implementing Agile practices at enterprise scale. [9]

5.     Driving Continuous Improvement

The fire service has many names for their “inspect and adapt process”, such as Post-Mortem, Post Incident Analysis, After Action Review (AAR) and Lessons Learned. Most of the process was established because of the inherent nature and danger of fire fighting and the deaths associated with it. Unfortunately, the fire service did not do a great job on sharing the outcomes, driving specific actions, and changes to the fire service to avoid deaths. In 2004, a program called Everyone Goes Home was established by the National Fallen Firefighters Foundation to prevent the 100 or so yearly Line-of-Duty (LODD) deaths.[10]  The goal was to help the U.S. Fire Administration achieve its objective in reducing the number of preventable firefighter fatalities.

As part of this goal, 16 initiatives from the Life Safety Initiatives were developed.[11]  Some of them include:

  • Initiative 1-Cultural Change
  • Initiative 2-Accountability
  • Initiative 3-Risk Management
  • Initiative 4-Empowerment
  • Initiative 9-Fatality, Near-Miss Investigation.

Many of these initiatives strike at the heart of Agile Leadership.

Cultural change within the fire service was very slow to adopt over the years because of the excuse of “it’s the way we do things”.  When I started in the fire service, I rode on the tailboard of the fire engine, even though it was dangerous and many firefighters died while doing the same thing.

Accountability from everyone in the organization is especially important because of the dangers of firefighting. The fire service realized they had to enhance the personal and organizational accountability for health and safety throughout the fire service. As advancements in technology were made, many fire departments were slow to react.  Even when I joined Divide Fire, we had old, inadequate SCBA’s and bunker gear, which was a huge safety issue.

One of the key factors to reducing deaths in the fire service is to focus greater attention on the integration of risk management with incident management at all levels, including strategic, tactical, and planning responsibilities. By identifying the risks before we are put in a dangerous situation, we can avoid injury or death. Often those risks are identified because of past experiences we learned from. For example, when fighting fires we establish collapse zones or areas where the building could collapse based on the construction and how fire may affect it.

All firefighters must be empowered to stop unsafe practices. Initiative 4 gives everyone in the fire service the ability to identify and stop unsafe practices.  We have also established other roles focused on safety, such as the Safety Officer.  They have the overall authority of safety on an incident and can override any commands or actions relayed by the Incident Commander.

This leads to another Initiative that focuses on capturing any fatality or near-miss investigation outcomes so that they can be shared with all firefighters. Initiative 9 states that the fire service will thoroughly investigate all firefighter fatalities, injuries, and near misses. Using technology, like the International Fire Chiefs Association’s Near Miss, allows for a forum to capture and share this very important information so that we can reduce the number of injuries and deaths in the fire service.[12]  This feedback can come from anyone and any level of the fire service. As with many technology organizations, this feedback is important for driving continuous improvement.

6.     Empowering Teams Through Trust

The Trusted Advisor by David Maister, Charles Green, and Robert Galford, introduces a useful formula that captures aspects of our interactions related to being Trustworthy.[13]

T = C + R + I / S

The letters represented in this formula are:

Trustworthiness = Credibility + Reliability + Intimacy /Self-Orientation

  • Credibility relates to expertise. Trust between firefighters is essential to safety and effectiveness on the fireground. Credibility is initially attained through training together, where the firefighters validate skills and knowledge.
  • Reliability relates to the skills to get the work done safely and dependably. Most departments in the fire service follow National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) 1001. This standard identifies the minimum job performance requirements  for career and volunteer structural fire fighters.
  • Intimacy is best described as the “brotherhood of firefighters”.   It’s a love of the job and the people who live in it 24/7. The friendships and camaraderie is established because you trust your life with your team and department.
  • Self-orientation detracts from trust when someone is not a team player and puts themself first.

Picture a small team of firefighters given an objective and the officer letting them self-organize and execute that objective. The fire service has been, and continues to be, a very command- and control-dominated organization. But most fire leaders, given the complexity of a scene, must empower and trust their teams to execute the objectives of firefighting.

The fire department teaches techniques and trains on them continually to empower the firefighters with the skills they need to effectively fight fires safely. We not only do this for structure fires (houses, buildings), but also for wildland fires, vehicle extrication, hazardous materials, technical rescue and many other types of emergencies the firefighter may encounter. An incident commander must trust that the training the teams do will kick in to meet the objectives that are relayed to the teams. Unfortunately there are still some fire department leaders who do not fully trust their teams. They incorrectly believe that command and control is the way to lead.

In Agile coaching we also want teams to be empowered through trust. We often do this by first engaging the team to participate in planning; this includes Release and Iteration planning. Those that do the work also plan the work; so we engage them to provide their insights of the proposed set of prioritized work. Lastly, the value of these insights must be respected by the business so that the business is not telling the teams what to do.

Unfortunately change is hard for many people in different organizations.  We often experience pushback while leading transformational change to agile practices.  The fire service has traditionally been slow to adapt to change.  In both cases, the more successes we achieve and acknowledge at all levels of an organization, the easier it becomes to instill and embrace.

7.     Celebration and Recognition

Two of the most valuable psychological needs in Maslow’s hierarchy are the need to be appreciated and the need to belong.[14] Many people who volunteer for organizations do so because they want to belong to a group they have passion about. Maslow also identifies that “the #1 reason people leave is because of lack of recognition”.  Even in Dan Pink’s Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us, he states that money is not a key motivator over things like purpose and mastery.[15]

The NFPA estimates that there are approximately 1.2 million firefighters in the U.S. in 2012. Of that total number, 350,000(30%) were career and nearly 850,000  (70%)_were volunteer firefighters.[16]

Many of the volunteers on my fire department, Divide Fire Protection District, do so for the sense of belonging. They belong to a group that continually gives back to their community, neighbors, family, and friends. Some of those volunteers see the volunteer fire department as a possible career path. They focus on the mastery of being a fire fighter and emergency medical technician so that some day they may have the opportunity to do that as a career. Currently, Divide Fire has six members who started out as volunteers and have now have career positions with local departments. About 22% of the Divide Fire volunteers have careers in the medical and fire service but continue to volunteer with the department.

How does a volunteer leader keep their team motivated? A “thank you” is often the simplest form of recognition and praise. It starts with “thank you” and “great job” but can expand to other forms.  Divide Fire has a yearly newsletter that is sent out to all of the taxpayers and we often have many articles about the great work our volunteers do.

Although the Agile world likes team-based recognition over individuation recognition, the fire department does recognize individual dedication. This recognition helps the teams because the volunteers are not paid for their time commitment that takes away time from family and other hobbies.  As Chief, I created the Century Club to recognize those volunteers that respond to over 100 calls in a calendar year and the Millennium Club, which recognizes response to 1,000 total calls.

Through Agile coaching, we recognize when teams make and meet commitments.  This, along with the opportunity for developers and testers to show off their work through sprint or release demos, provides pride in team workmanship.

8.     Summary

The mission of the Agile Alliance is to “support those who explore and apply Agile principles in order to make the software industry more productive, humane and sustainable.  We share our passion to deliver software better everyday.”[17] I believe that we can take our passion to help deliver better software and expand that to other parts of our world. The lessons we learn on how to more effectively interact and work together as Agile coaches can be applied to all areas of our lives.

The goal of this report is to paint a picture of the opportunity to take our experience as Agile coaches to our passion with volunteer organizations, such as a volunteer fire department.


The great thing about the Agile and fire department communities is the support and opportunity to continually learn.  First, I have to thank Rally Software for the opportunity to work with a world-class organization that is also dedicated to giving back to our community through their 1% give back. CEO Tim Miller and CTO Ryan Martens lead by example and they are truly humble servant leaders. I’m also very lucky to work with and call many of my peers in the Rally services organization true Agile leaders, teachers, and friends.

As a volunteer Chief, I also get the opportunity to interact with many great leaders in the fire service through my association with the International Association of Fire Chiefs (IAFC), Missouri Valley Division of the IAFC, Colorado State Fire Chiefs Association (CSFCA) and the Teller County Fire Chiefs Association (TCFCA). As President of the TCFCA, I would particularly like to thank Northeast Teller County Fire Chief Tyler Lambert and Cripple Creek Fire Chief Randy Baldwin for their continued support, leadership, and friendship.  I also have to thank my wife Conni O’Connor who puts up with my travel, that she labels as “vacation” as an Agile Coach and the emergency tones in the middle of the night that often wake her up.

Finally, I would like to thank Tim O’Connor (no direct relation, but possibly a long lost cousin) for his feedback, insights, and review to make this paper more relatable and readable since it’s been quite some time since I have written a paper.


Author: Thomas (Tom) E. O’Connor, 1242 County Road 5 Divide CO 80814, or

[1]  History of firefighting

[2] The Electric Ben Franklin

[3]  National Fire Protection Association

[4]  Merriam-Webster online dictionary

[5]  Mike Cohn – The Need for Agile Project Management

[6]  Divide Fire Protection District Mission Statement

[7]  Tabaka, Jean “Collaboration Explained – Facilitation Skills for Software Project Leaders” 2006 Pearson Education, Inc.

[8]  National Incident Management System (NIMS)

[9]  Scaled Agile Framework – A Proven, Publicly Available Framework for applying Lean/Agile practices at enterprise scale.  Dean Leffingwell

[10]  Everyone Goes Home – Firefighter Life Safety Initiatives Program by the National Fallen Firefighters Foundation

[11]  Firefighter Life Safety Initiative Tools & Resources

[12]  Near Miss Lessons Learned Become Lessons Applied

[13]  Maister, David H., Green, Charles H. and Galford, Robert M. “ The Trusted Advisor” 2000 Free Press

[14]  Maslow’s hierarchy of needs theory

[15]  Pink, Daniel H. “Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us” 2009 Penguin Group

[16]  National Fire Protection Association

[17]  Agile Alliance

About the Author

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