Two phrases heard frequently in the Fire Service, "We will never" and "We have always", are ignorant statements and are just not true. In a profession that constantly encounters new situations, why do we speak in absolutes?
In the previous post, I discussed Training Warning Flags. The first posed question was, Does your training staff (Training Officers, Instructors, and Senior Firefighters) feel responsible for the performance of their students?
This is such an important aspect to the sum of our performance (Performance = experience + ability + desire). When our leaders, not just Officers, exhibit the traits of seeking excellence, we are able to instill those values into the regular members. Just as we want our people to feel they have ownership, our training staff should have this sensation as well. Personally, I cannot wait to stand up in front of the group and teach. Having the ability to find information then pass it on is an amazing feeling. Most members of the Fire Service have unfortunately been in the classroom or training ground with those that do not have that same feeling. Have you ever been sitting in a class and hear things like:
This is either lack of interest in the subject matter or lack of abilities. Some times the Instructor may be the best for the job or have all the knowledge he possibly can, but is just going through the motions.
Right here I am going steal a statement from someone else, “Accidentally Successful”. This regularly is the task of putting out the fire. Did we truly engage in the proper methods and techniques to put the fire out or did the fire, with a little outside influence go out. Now this is in the eye of the beholder. To the public we serve, we did our job. Look at it from the inside. Did success occur on execution of tactics or did we simple apply outside influence to alter the situation? Over time, those same actions create a confidence with our system. If nine of ten times the fire goes out because we applied tactic “X”. Will we behave in the same manner the tenth time? The answer is yes, because it has always worked for us. What will happen the tenth time when the situation is not the same as the first nine? We drift to the same tactic based on past success.
“Confidence is the illusion born of accidental success.” – Thomas Kempis. For me what Kempis’s’ statement means, if I always come out ahead by performing an action in a certain manner, I will be ignorant to what is around me. Think of it as doing every task with blinders on. No two situations are exactly the same, you must still be vigilant to what could be and is different, even if trivial. Confidence is not a bad trait, though sometimes it can blind you. Confidence should come through repetition and application. The line “practice until you cannot get it wrong" comes to mind. Overconfidence in our equipment can also be a smoke screen. A more recent example of this is our structural turnout gear. Unfortunately, it has weaknesses. Combine that with longer duration SCBA together; we can get deeper into hostile territory for longer. Although we should be confident that our gear does protect us, keep in mind the limitations. Confidence’s foe of course is complacency. Human errors will occur and we will always be fallible. The question is, to what consequence and severity? Always we must guard against overconfidence and complacency. Our training program will help against these human flaws. Even if water will forever put the fire out, the manner in which we perform this basic task will constantly evolve.
Another aspect of overconfidence is increased risk. Risk = (severity of consequences x possibility). The most severe consequence we face in the Fire Service is death, whether our customer or our own. Apply to the equation an inflated level of confidence. The possibilty of an event will occur. Some view Vent Enter Search as a high-risk evolution. It can be, however when practiced and regarded with respect, the risk is lower. When you feel an evolution is routine the risk indicators diminish and the possibility increases with the lowered defenses. A routine fire alarm or investigation is ripe with complacency. “The garbage doesn’t get surprised when he turns the corner to find trash, so don’t be surprised to find fire. Expect fire every run.” – Lt. Andy Fredricks (R.I.P.)
As mentioned earlier, “we always” and “we never” are absolutes. We simply cannot deal with absolutes in the Fire Service. All of us probably have one example of a run where we thought, “Never thought I’d see that.” Just as we cannot predict when the alarm will sound, we will never foresee every situation.
A trait to look for and instill in those that teach is resourcefulness. Can you come up with the resources that are not readily available or even exist? A department may be wealthy on resources but how do they apply them to the training? Resourcefulness is thinking outside the box, or even knowing there is no box. As a subculture, the fire service is a leader in resourcefulness. Look at our tools and equipment. Give a Firefighter a tool and not only will he learn to use it, he will make it work for something else. Our trainers should be capable of finding training opportunities in the in-signifgant or trivial situations. Not every class has to be an 8-hour live burn, rapid intervention, confined space HAZMAT scenario. Simply showing a different way of donning your gear makes a huge impact on our abilities. Even if the training topics are of very low possibility, be resourceful and show the students how it can apply to something they perform frequently. Our performance to any situation is the sum of our desire to be there, the experiences of our past and the abilities we have.
So how do we combat all this? Take a good hard look at your training program. Do you just meet the standards or are you setting new standards? Does your membership feel they “get something” out of training? When asked what they learned do they reply “fire stuff”? Do you find your students out on the apparatus floor practicing what you just taught? Take a few minutes to engage or at least give them a vehicle for voicing their thoughts on training. During the month of November, I hold a Training Development Meeting. This is open to all personnel and they are encouraged to give feedback on the last 12 months of training. An open discussion about why we performed the training and I explain how it all fits into the big picture. Discuss where we are going from here and upcoming training. Of course get some information from them, ask what they would like to see and how it could be conducted. I am fortunate to be both the Training Officer and a front line Firefighter. Being on the fire ground I can see our weakness and strength, also, how training has worked and what will not.
The face of the Fire Service is not changing all that much. The bottom line is helping our community and our fellow man. We will always rise to the occasion and do what we can. The key ingredient that is changing is the men and women under the helmet, our greatest resource. As Fire Service Leaders, we have to feel responsible for the performance of our students; in fact, we should take that same stance with everyone.