top of page
  • Writer's pictureEric

First Responders ARE Agile Project Managers

First Responders & Agile Project Management

Every organization needs a management system working towards completing projects. For first responders like First Sergeants for Police Stations or Battalion Chiefs for Fire Stations, the person in command of the station determines how leaders manage their teams, executing their orders to lead and manage the organizational projects. Most leaders fall back on their experience from previous leaders, continuing to operate as they have seen or done under previous leadership. However, each new leader will bring new techniques requiring the team to adapt. New organizational management methods may confuse the team and decrease unit productivity since leaders never receive formal project management training. Especially as first responders move to different units around their county or state, and each station operates a little bit differently. Many organizations are great at discussing leadership but rarely discuss management techniques. Therefore, as first responders, I recommend adopting the Agile Methodology mindset using the Scrum and Kanban frameworks. Therefore, all departments and stations organize projects using the same methods, improving transparency, productivity, and flexibility.

Agile vs. Waterfall

Agile Methodology is a set of processes, principles, and shared beliefs among the team. Many Frameworks fall under Agile, including Scrum, Kanban, Lean, XP, and many more. The beauty of Agile is that each organization can choose which framework fits best for its team. Since the mid-1900s, project management has followed a "waterfall" method relying heavily on upfront planning, design, analyze, followed by testing and evaluation months later. The plans are rigid, resist change, and problems in the product take months to overcome. The Systems Development Life Cycle (SDLC) is a robust and strict system that breaks down a project using stages titled Analysis, Design, Implementation, Testing, and Evaluation (Crowe, 2019, pg. 22). Where this rigid framework fails is the heavy analysis and design upfront by people not currently in charge of implementing that change in the field. The lack of communication between the design and field teams results in failure, which can take months, if not years, to recover, diminishing the budget. Ultimately, cross-functional teams with design and field members working together can help complete the project from start to finish, avoiding problems late in the project cycle that can cause significant delays.

Agile Methodology is a way of managing projects valuing flexibility and teamwork through change management. It helps teams work together, getting things done quickly and efficiently, focusing on meeting the customer's needs. Agile aims at attacking the customer's problem while giving teams the people and skills necessary for the entire project, from the cradle to the grave. The main idea behind Scrum Framework with the Agile mindset is to break bigger tasks into smaller, manageable pieces, then have team members work on those smaller pieces together during Sprints. After each Sprint, the team meets to review the work completed, make adjustments, then start planning the next Sprint. This approach allows teams to be agile, making changes as needed instead of sticking to a thorough plan that might not work out. By constantly reevaluating and adjusting their strategy, Agile teams are better equipped to tackle complex problems and deliver high-quality results.

Scrum and Kanban

Scrum is a specific framework for Agile Methodology that provides structure and guidelines for how the team should work together. For the Police Force, the team can implement Scrum to organize work and accomplish goals more efficiently. The First Sergeant, or the product owner, is responsible for defining what the team should work on, focusing the team's work on the highest value mission while aligning those missions with the organization's goals. The second in command, or scrum master, facilitates the team's work and helps them stay on track. The crew, or development team, focuses on completing the First Sergeant’s worklist or the Sprint Backlog. The collaboration between the product owner, scrum master, and development team allows all first responders to work together effectively and make progress toward the goals as an entire unit instead of individual silos. Especially when there are multiple teams, like shifts at a fire station, who may need guidance with constant shift changes. Additionally, to standardize a method of worklists, I recommend building Kanban boards, ensuring there is a limited amount of work to avoid burnout.

A Kanban board is a visual tool used to manage and track work items, often used in a software development environment. It is based on the Lean methodology principles, prioritizing continuous improvement and reducing process waste. In a Kanban board, cards placed on a board with columns represent working tasks. The columns are typically titled "To Do," "In Progress," and "Done," representing different stages of the work item's lifecycle. As the work items move through the steps, the cards are physically moved from one column to the next, visually representing progress (Anderson, 2016, Kanban). This visual progress shows each shift the status of the project as the walk by the board, or information radiator.

The primary unit Kanban board is designed for complex projects and tasks requiring multiple departments or all hands to participate. The unit-level Kanban Board can use software like Microsoft Teams, specifically the Planner app under Teams. This app allows us to make Kanban Boards quickly, build a roadmap for projects using the calendar, and update all tasks where the entire unit sees status updates from the lowest-ranking member to the highest. Additionally, leaders can invite supervisors, sometimes hours away, to have complete access to the unit plan for the week, month, and real-time project updates. Furthermore, department heads in middle management positions build department Kanban Boards generating a decentralized command for tasks that only require their department members to complete. This keeps the unit board cleaner where department specific tasks do not need to be shared with all other departments.

Higher-level command leaders focus on larger projects, or epics, to keep the unit Kanban Board lean. At the department head level, each leader has their Kanban Board attacking specific tasks for their department, creating a culture of decentralized command. According to Willink (2017), "Decentralized command means giving the people closest to work the authority to make decisions. The more decisions pushed down to the lowest levels, the more effective the organization will be" (Willink, 2017). At planning meetings, called ceremonies under Agile, the teams review the unit Kanban board, and the department heads can brief up on their work requirements, ensuring leaders are not burning out the crew. Another benefit of Agile and Scrum is that the team determines how much work they will complete over a sprint, not the command. Leadership trusts the team will complete the work agreed upon, and they must ensure the job is complete by the end of the Sprint at the Review Meeting. If the team does not return with the job finished, the command should ask why they are ready for the explanation. The mindset should be that nobody comes to work to disobey orders until such behavior is a pattern.

Agile Culture within First Responders

The design of Agile Methodology and Scrum Frameworks is to handle rapid change adjusting to the team's needs. That is precisely why it's a great fit with first responders because they do not have to do it precisely by the book and can continually make changes fitting their desires. For example, if you strictly followed the Scrum Guide, each planning meeting would be eight hours long. Good luck getting first responders to sit in a meeting for eight hours with excitement and not dreaming about throat-punching you. People do not join hands-on organizations like police or firefighters with visions of eight-hour meetings. Therefore, two-week sprints bring the "ideal" time limit for a planning meeting to four hours, which is still long. My guidance is that when the team is done planning and agrees upon the work, then stop the meeting. If that's two hours, then adjourn the meeting. The more prepared the department heads come to the meeting, the faster it will go.

The deep culture of top-down orders being followed without question will be a barrier for both leadership and the field units. Middle managers will have most of the authority as the "team leads," planning and agreeing on the work. Over the past few years, leadership has created a culture of getting permission for everything. With a new Agile Mindset, some leaders will still hesitate to make decisions without asking permission. This mindset is a training scar, where leaders expect members to follow orders without question, but in the same breath, carry out their duties without being told to do so. Critics will say that there are times people must follow orders. While they are correct, there is a time and place. For example, if City Leadership orders the first responders to complete a mission, it shall be completed. However, leaders can guide the team by focusing on the "what" and "why," leaving the "how" up to them. This guidance ensures teams are following orders but not micromanaging people simultaneously. Agile aims to provide the team with collaboration opportunities decreasing risk, burn out, and increasing mission success.

Why Agile?

Businesses implement Agile Methodology for various reasons, but the most important is to increase efficiency, collaboration, and quality of products or services. Schwalbe (2019) states, "Project management is essential for success in today's fast-paced business environment. Organizations need project managers who can plan, execute, and close projects on time, within budget, and to the satisfaction of stakeholders" (Schwalbe, p. 3). With how fast the mission for first responders changes, agile project management skills are critical to success. Once employees hit the middle management level, they are in a supervisor role overseeing projects and may have limited experience. Therefore, following a basic structure allows them to succeed.

It's common knowledge that you receive more responsibility with a higher position, resulting in organizational management skills becoming vital. Adding agile project management to the requirements for advancement to positions within the ranks of first responders will ensure all members in supervisor roles are introduced to project management skills with possible certification. For example, you could add agile project management tactics like facilitating a Sprint Planning Ceremony (meeting), acting as chair for an agile project from charter to finish, and acting as Agile Coach for six months leading a team. This implementation method is a straightforward example of how first responders could enter the requirements for certification into the advancement process and then have certified project managers in middle management positions. Additionally, it creates an incentive to move up in the ranks because earning certifications through employee benefits are suitable for higher-ranking positions. When a member reaches a leadership position, the goal would be to meet all the requirements to take the Project Management Institute Agile Certified Practitioner, Scrum Master, and/or Product Owner exams.


Implementing Agile Methodology using Scrum and Kanban takes time and can last nearly a year. While there are challenges during implementation, the result has been outstanding, empowering the crew to take charge of self-organized teams. The ultimate goal is to avoid burnout while remaining effective in completing the mission. Different organizations have attempted many different schedules, but settling on two-week Sprints using Microsoft Teams for the Kanban board and roadmap seemed like the sweet spot. Agile Project Management is nothing new under the sun. Hundreds of organizations implemented Agile worldwide, including Amazon, John Deere, and Panera Bread, reaching multiple industries. It's time the first responders catch up with providing critical training to its members in the workforce. Focusing on implementing agile methodologies will increase productivity, improve communications, and keep up with the fast pace change required in today's first responders.

Eric Risner


Rise Up Leadership


Anderson, D. J. (2016). Kanban: Successful Evolutionary Change for Your Technology Business. Blue Hole Press.

Crowe, A. (2011). The PMI-ACP Exam: How to Pass on Your First Try. Velociteach.

Schwalbe, K. (2019). Information technology project management (9th ed.). Cengage Learning.

Willink, J. (2017). Discipline equals freedom: Field manual—St. Martin's Press.

71 views0 comments

Recent Posts

See All


bottom of page