Management Professor, Consultant to Fire Companies, Says Fire Service Holds Lessons for Businesses in Crisis

By Donna Longenecker

Release Date: September 26, 2002 This content is archived.


BUFFALO, N.Y. -- As a volunteer firefighter with the East Aurora Fire Department, Natalie Simpson is acutely aware of the importance of being able to make life-saving decisions in the heat of life-threatening situations.

And as an associate professor of management science and systems in the UB School of Management, her knowledge of operations management and planning, as well as her ability to construct mathematical models to solve business problems, have fostered a deeper involvement as a troubleshooter in the world of emergency services.

Simpson also taps into her dual roles as firefighter and management professor to provide in-house consulting services on operations management and planning for Gainesville Fire and Rescue in Gainesville, Fla.

"I've always been haunted by the notion that there is a lot of existing knowledge in the business world that could help the fire service; the key is identifying what will work and what won't," says Simpson, who earlier this year received a SUNY Chancellor's Award for Excellence in Teaching. "There are things that the fire service has developed that the business world doesn't know about and could use under certain circumstances."

Businesses in crisis, for example, can look to certain organizational elements that have evolved in the fire service, such as the incident command system, a cost-effective, highly flexible and efficient management system that can grow or shrink to meet the needs of rapidly evolving circumstances, says Simpson.

The fire service itself, she points out, is a very bureaucratic, hierarchical structure organized "against a high degree of stress."

"I don't think people realize that these types of organizations are very hierarchical and para-military for a reason -- they just think it's tradition.

"The reality is that you never have all the information you need in an emergency situation," explains Simpson. "Organizations with a very clear, set hierarchy are highly stress-resistant and are very safe -- there's a chain of command."

There are drawbacks, however. While the fire service is not unsophisticated in its structure, hierarchical bureaucratic organizations are the most resistant to change. But as a management system that has to function under rapidly changing, dynamic conditions with a lot of unknowns, it is highly appropriate that it operates as a hierarchy, she says.

"There's so much that people don't realize about the fire service and so much that the fire service doesn't realize about itself. It is the ultimate in operations management," she adds.

While Simpson teaches in the undergraduate program at the University of Florida during the summer, she is academic-in-residence with Gainesville Fire and Rescue, the city's fire department with about 150 paid, emergency personnel.

She acts as a consultant for the department, troubleshooting problems with data management and developing ways to improve training and curriculum by making the material more suitable for video streaming through the department's Web-based internal network. She admits that it's often much easier for her to spot problems than employees working within the fire department, in part because she's not affiliated with them as a firefighter.

"This is the most satisfying aspect of being a consultant -- the only reason I see things is that I don't work there. It's the difference between living in the woods and having the privilege of being able to fly over them in a plane," Simpson says.

The challenge of mapping out the variables of what happens "out on the sidewalk" in the real world with an analytical solution is "the ultimate in logistics," Simpson says of her work as a professor and consultant.

Her work with the East Aurora Fire Department, a volunteer department of 65 firefighters with a long history of being progressive, serves as an excellent reference point for projects she is working on related to emergency services. Moreover, it gives her a sense of direction in life, she says.

"One of the reasons I'm involved in the fire service is that I like to be challenged -- it's a challenge on many levels and deeply satisfying. I have no family in this area, so I do get a very

deep sense of belonging to the community and contributing to my local community. It's very important to me that I'm not just here for the ride, but that I give back," she says.

"This department has largely been a school for me -- literally every day I learn something new about emergency services. It makes me rethink operations in general."

Simpson, who has a bachelor's degree in emergency services management, visited Ground Zero two months after Sept. 11. What impressed her at the time, she says, was that 25,000 people were evacuated from the twin towers before they collapsed.

She credits that feat to the massive reform of the World Trade Center's fire-prevention policies after the 1993 bombing incident in which it took four hours to evacuate those in the towers. After that bombing, the World Trade Center was the only office complex of its size in the country "that routinely and mercilessly held fire drills," she notes.

"It's amazing how many people got out of those buildings -- 25,000 people did not die. They took the long walk out and got out. The only other buildings that do that are schools," she says, noting that "we suddenly grow up and stop having fire drills."