Critical Thinking for the Aggressive Firefighter: The One Warrior Mindset

Firefighter at the scene of a house fire in Indianapolis
Operational reasoning and decision making are the result of strong critical thinking skills, experience, and expertise. Photo by Tim Olk.

By Elizabeth Woodward

Heraclitus of Ephesus, an ancient Greek philosopher, said, “Out of every one hundred men, ten shouldn’t even be there, eighty are just targets, nine are the real fighters, and we are lucky to have them, for they make the battle. Ah, but the one, one is a warrior, and he will bring the others back.”

As you were reading the quote, you may have been thinking of the individuals within your own department who fit into each group.  But where do you fit?

The one warrior isn’t a “lone ranger,” out for praise or self-advancement, but rather the one warrior is a powerful motivator, a skilled critical thinker and fighter, a fierce protector, and a true champion for change. The “one warrior mindset” sets the stage for an aggressive firefighter to be an example of an exceptional tactician, teacher, leader, and strategist. This warrior knows that one person, making informed and intelligent decisions, can bring about transformational change in himself and others.

Aggressive firefighting/emergency service delivery requires not only a solid set of skills but also the ability to make sound operational judgments. These judgments rely on excellent critical thinking and reasoning abilities, which are based on current knowledge, past experiences, evidence-based practices, and overall expertise. It is worth noting that critical thinking and operational reasoning and judgment are not practices reserved only for those acting as officers but rather should be practiced and developed in every firefighter, from the rookie to the chief.

Similarities in Today’s Nursing Profession

Many similarities exist between the nursing profession and the fire service. Today’s nursing profession requires rapid adaptation and efficient response to a variety of emergencies. These emergencies require a high level of critical thinking, reasoning, and clinical judgment. Nurses are expected to be well-versed in identifying changing conditions, anticipating outcomes, and making safe and effective decisions. Sound familiar?

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The fire service is dynamic, requiring a versatile set of skills and a high level of critical thinking. Much like today’s nursing profession, the fire service is experiencing challenges that require innovative solutions. In nursing, much research has been conducted related to critical thinking, clinical reasoning, and clinical judgment. Given the similarities between professions, these concepts can be appropriately and accurately applied to the fire service.

To help with understanding and application, replace the word clinical with the word operational.  This word is better understood by the fire service and more accurately reflects the nature of emergency response (i.e., work on the street) compared to work in the clinical health care setting. 


A firm grasp of psychomotor skills is essential to perform the duties required of a nurse or a firefighter. “Psychomotor skills represent those activities that are primarily movement-oriented” (Oermann, 2021). The development of these skills requires physical practice of the skill as well as application of the skills in various situations. Working efficiently and effectively in the modern fire service, just like in nursing, requires the individual to continually update and improve a skillset through intentional practice and experiential learning. Psychomotor skills are the foundational basis for work done at the scene of an emergency, and a strong skill set is essential for ensuring maximum effectiveness. During training, emphasis is often placed on the psychomotor component; however, effective performance in emergent situations requires an integration of related knowledge and experience (Oermann, 2021). Therefore, firefighters not only should rely on physical abilities or psychomotor skills but also need to engage in training that improves their critical thinking skills.

Critical Thinking

It’s not what you know but what you do with what you know. Knowledge and skills are often ineffective in the absence of critical thinking. It is the application of knowledge, skills, experience, and critical thinking that positively impacts the outcome of the situation. Application is putting into action the foundational components of knowledge and understanding in various situations. According to the Revised Bloom’s Taxonomy, higher-order thinking begins at the application level. In other words, when an individual can apply facts, rules, and concepts to various situations based on what is known and understood, this is critical thinking in practice.

Critical thinking is the ability to sort and filter critical information; analyze the situation; anticipate potential outcomes; and act effectively according to experience, intuition, and current evidence-based practices. According to Persky, Medina, and Castleberry (2018), “Critical thinking begins when assumptions are challenged.” Considering the dynamic nature of the fire service and the wide variety of emergency incidents, this type of thinking is crucial for the on-scene development of effective strategy and tactics.

Critical thinking is a teachable skill and relies on discipline-specific knowledge. As this type of thinking is practiced through training and experience, individuals can develop more complex critical thinking skills. These advanced critical thinking skills lead to a global or “big-picture” view of emergent situations and allow for innovative and effective operational reasoning and decision making.

Operational Reasoning and Judgment

Efficient and effective judgments on the fireground are no accident. Operational reasoning and decision making are the result of strong critical thinking skills, experience, and expertise. Operational reasoning is the ability to consider if one’s evidence-based knowledge is relevant for a particular emergency during the size-up and scene management process. It’s ultimately the thought process leading up to the decision or action. Operational judgment occurs after the operational reasoning process and is focused on compiling data and formulating a plan for strategic/tactical decisions, based on the analysis of the facts related to the emergency. In short, operational judgment is the action decided on and carried out after analyzing the data and considering possible outcomes (Persky, Medina, and Castleberry, 2018).

Overall, the process of considering the evidence and making appropriate decisions in an emergency is a skill firefighters must practice. The goal is to make it an automatic behavior. These behaviors and skills are developed through intentional practice, training, and real-world experience. These skills can be developed and practiced through realistic training evolutions, self-reflection, case study review, and post incident analysis. Ultimately, learning to improve critical thinking skills and consistently make sound and effective operational judgments requires self-responsibility and a desire to push oneself to excellence.    


An aggressive firefighter should be an exceptional tactician, teacher, leader, and strategist. Aggressive firefighting does not equate to being rogue but rather uses strategies and tactics that are rational, thought-out, and well-informed. Making safe and effective operational judgments requires a combination of a strong psychomotor skillset, strong critical thinking skills, and sound reasoning. It is the combination of these skills and the practice of self-reflection that leads to a more global view of the fireground and better decision making.

In reflecting on the one warrior mindset, the importance of the behaviors and attitudes of the warrior are evident. Empowering and motivating others, continuing improvement of skills, self-reflection, and improving operational reasoning and judgement, are indicative of the mindset needed to bring about transformational change. Critical thinking and operational judgment skills are essential at all levels of the fire service.  If you aren’t practicing the one warrior mindset, start with some self-reflection and determine what you can do to be intentional in improving yourself and becoming a better decision-maker on the fireground. Remember, change begins with just one warrior.


Oermann, M. (2021). “Psychomotor skill development.” The Journal of Continuing Education in Nursing. 21 (5). Doi:

Persky, A., Medina, M., & Castleberry, A. (2019). “Developing Critical Thinking Skills in Pharmacy Students.” American Journal of Pharmaceutical Education. 83 (2).  Doi:


Elizabeth Woodward is the co-owner of One Warrior LLC, a fire service education, training, and consulting business. She is also the co-founder of Revolutionary Fire Tactics at the Lake, a premier fire conference hosted each year at Lake of the Ozarks, Missouri. Together with her husband David, she travels around the country to deliver education to the fire service. In addition, she has an interest in fire service research and has had the opportunity to review and contribute to studies related to firefighter health and safety. She is a registered nurse with a master’s degree in nursing from Central Methodist University. In her current position, she serves as the ADN program coordinator for State Fair Community College at the Eldon campus. She also serves as the Vice President for the Missouri Organization for Associate Degree Nursing.

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