Soapbox: Learn to Take the Heat

The New York City Fire Department (FDNY) offers businesses an innovative way to improve management skills and team performance.

By Greg Pfeifer, Development Associate, FDNY Foundation

The business world is becoming increasingly more complex and dependent on how quickly executives can collaborate to solve difficult problems. Often, successful leadership is defined not simply by individual achievement, but by teamwork. During a crisis, executives are expected to form teams and build trust to accomplish a mission. A team needs to act decisively, yet remain flexible to new information. Developing these management skills takes years of mentoring. The FDNY Foundation and FDNY believe this process can be shortened by immersing business professionals in real crisis experiences.

Therefore, corporations can look beyond the business sector to firefighters who encounter multiple crises on a daily basis and make critical decisions in a world surrounded by uncertainty. Firefighters’ decision to run into a burning building at the time everyone is running out is the difference between life and death. While business decisions usually are not so dramatic, they may be significant to the company’s survival. Business professionals can learn valuable skills from watching firefighters fight fires and deal with emergencies. However, a better learning environment is for those in business to actually practice those same management and leadership skills themselves.

Firefighter for a Day Team Challenge

On September 11, 2001, the world watched as New York City firefighters responded to the World Trade Center attacks. Their heroic acts of bravery saved more than 20,000 lives, leaving many to wonder how they are able to operate under such demanding conditions.

Business schools develop some outstanding management professionals, but often find their graduates do not reach their full potential when operating in uncertainty. To bridge this gap, the Wharton Business School at the University of Pennsylvania has expanded its program to send MBA students through the FDNY’s Firefighter for a Day Team Challenge. The Team Challenge develops leadership frameworks for operating under stress. Business professionals can draw upon these frameworks when they are faced with an unexpected event in their careers.

The FDNY partnered with the Wharton Business School to further develop this program into an innovative form of executive education. For more than a decade, Wharton has used experiential education to develop leadership and teambuilding skills in its students. The premise is that leadership and teamwork skills are best learned through experience. This principle of experiential learning led Wharton to develop a venture leadership program in which its students learn firsthand how to lead in a dynamic environment.

Some top corporations have participated in this FDNY Firefighter for a Day Team Challenge given at the FDNY Training Academy, including BNP Paribas, Bloomberg, Boston Consulting Group, Citi, Google, Grant Thornton, New York Stock Exchange, UTC, and Weil. At the Fire Academy, participants enter the world of emergency response, where finely tuned leadership skills are needed to guide teams into extreme environments. Executives are forced to think differently and rapidly adapt to the new threat environments of fire, subway tunnel emergencies, and terrorist attacks.

BNP Paribas Invests in Its People

BNP Paribas has one of the world’s largest international banking networks, with operations in more than 80 countries. Highly reliable teams are critical to its business. As a result, senior management constantly looks at innovative ways to invest in improving their people.

BNP Paribas brought groups from around the country to participate in the FDNY Team Challenge and learn from firefighters who have to deal with difficult events on a daily basis. To build better internal communication and leadership, employees from Business Continuity, Collateral Control, Commodities Futures, Operations, and Human Resources assembled for this one-day program. Robert Coghlan, managing director at BNP Paribas, explains that his company makes training a top priority and decided to “fit this program into our busy schedule because it saves the company money when teams operate efficiently.”

Employees were immersed in what it is like to be a firefighter for the day. They were issued real firefighting gear, including bunker jacket, pants, helmet, gloves, and self-contained breathing apparatus (SBA). Throughout the day, they participated in eight hands-on firefighting scenarios, which tested their leadership and teamwork. They were expected to quickly problem-solve each task; however, it became apparent that these tasks could not be performed individually. They needed to work effectively together as a team to complete even the smallest assignment. “They learned it is imperative to analyze a situation, prioritize their tasks, and choose the right person for each job,” Coghlan says. These critical skills translate into their everyday jobs at the bank to make them more valuable employees.

One of the most challenging scenarios participants tackled was a terrorist bus-bombing incident. They were given the unthinkable situation that their unit had been dispatched to a confirmed bus bombing with more than half a dozen victims. Their job was to secure the scene safely and rescue the injured victims—a daunting challenge even if it was only an exercise. With hearts pounding, participants used their situational awareness and observed the area for secondary Improvised Explosive Devices (IEDs). They communicated with each other and operated as a team to manage this scenario.

Many participants rushed into the scene without taking the necessary time to analyze the situation or collaborate with their team. Their overwhelming urge was to quickly save as many of the victims as possible. However, this “tunnel vision” had disastrous effects. Many failed to recognize the secondary IEDs. Experiencing this scenario taught participants to work with their team to develop a common operating picture of the entire event, while still focusing on the details. In business, far too many people just focus on their tasks and forget to understand the interdependencies of a project.

BNP Paribas employees learned many valuable skills that they took back to their offices. More than 85 percent of the participants said that as a result of this program, their leadership, teamwork, communication, and problem-solving skills were improved. “I can’t imagine a better way to demonstrate the value of leadership, teamwork, and battle-proven procedures than spending a day with the pros, whose lives depend on such skills,” said one of the participants. BNP Paribas employees learned valuable crisis management frameworks from FDNY firefighters, which will equip them to lead their future teams to innovation and success.

Greg Pfeifer is a development associate at the FDNY Foundation. For more information on the FDNY Firefighter for a Day Team Challenge, visit or call 718.999.0779.

Lorri Freifeld
Lorri Freifeld is the editor/publisher of Training magazine. She writes on a number of topics, including talent management, training technology, and leadership development. She spearheads two awards programs: the Training APEX Awards and Emerging Training Leaders. A writer/editor for the last 30 years, she has held editing positions at a variety of publications and holds a Master’s degree in journalism from New York University.