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I was eating supper at work yesterday, reading a book at the same time, and as it does so often a random thought popped into my mind. In order to provide some context for what follows, this thought was inspired by several sources. First was the book "About Face" by Col. David Hackworth. If you haven't read it, do it soon. It is inspiring and thought provoking. My mindset is still reeling from that book. Number two was a blog from leatherhead109.com titled "Know What Your Doing: It's Expected", a powerful post on the importance of competence and proficiency in leaders. The third source for my random thought was the book I was reading at the time, "Outlaw Platoon" by Lt. Sean Parnell detailing the hellish fighting he saw serving with the 10th Mountain Division. Again, if you haven't yet read this book get to it!


I was reading a section of the book detailing a particularly hairy encounter Lt. Parnell's platoon had with Taliban fighters. Things were going to hell in a handbasket, and options had run out. The Lt. had suffered injuries, as had several of his men and it took every ounce of physical and mental willpower for Lt. Parnell to gather himself, assess the situation, determine priorities, and act. It was an enthralling scene to imagine. We will never be able to repay the debt we owe to those men.

My thought goes as follows:

We send ourselves and our coworkers into combat every time we arrive on the fireground. We expect people to operate skillfully and efficiently in a combat environment. We hold these expectations while in the meantime we deliver and receive completely inadequate training and weak if not completely absent mission support from our leaders. Why on earth are we surprised when we lose firefighters to LODD events? Why on earth are we surprised when we see videos of, and witness firsthand absolute incompetence on the fireground? We continue to send lightly trained public employees into combat zones expecting them to operate with the speed, proficiency, and foresight which we would expect from a special forces unit.

That was what I jotted down on my note pad. Harsh, indeed. I typically try to avoid becoming dramatic when it comes to pleading my case. Unfortunately I believe ambiguity is no longer advised. All around us people are fighting to get the message out. Mark VonAppens post, "Rogues", has over 12,000 hits. Not on Facebook, on Fire Engineering's Training Community. There is no telling how many hits it has on Facebook. The messages are getting out there, but it seems to get lost along the way.

Maybe I am searching for another way to get the message across. I feel like the combat example is one that is powerful enough and easy enough to grasp. Please understand when I say combat I am not implying that our role as firefighters is synonymous to that of a soldier. Far from it. Fire may be a living, breathing animal, but it usually doesn't have AK-47's and RPG's. I am arguing a point which has been previously made by myself and other individuals; that the "characteristics" of the fireground are matched by those seen on the battleground. Realizing this fact, we are undoubtedly tasked with going into combat.

The fireground is a violent, unpredictable, mind numbing, and sense robbing environment. Why do we continue to operate as if we have it all figured out? For fear of abusing the military examples, look at Vietnam. We fought that war just as we fought every other war up to that point. We continued to apply the same tactics which hadn't even worked in the previous war. The armed forces failed to realize the implications of fighting a guerrilla style battle. By guerrilla I mean unconventional, and more specifically a battle of maneuver.

This is where we come back to the fire service. Most of us don't have the resources to wage a war of attrition on the fireground. We can't throw endless resources at the fire until it is obliterated. Most of us operate understaffed and undergunned. Enter maneuver warfare. This is the world of relative superiority. This term may sound familiar from one of Chris Brennans recent posts. It means we have to be so good that despite our disadvantage in resources we still manage to kick ass. How do we do this?

We get really good at what we do. We discard the mindsets of safety and complacency and replace them with a mindset of combat. What kept Lt. Parnell's crew from being overrun and beheaded by Taliban in the battle I was reading about? Number one they were the best of the best. No one knew their job better than they did. They were so good they didn't have to think about it. Number two, and arguably more important, they had a mindset of survival. They knew they were not going to be displaced by the enemy. They fought as a collective group, many hearts beating as one. How does a group of individuals attain this level of performance?

They work their tails off! They train together every opportunity they get. They critique every action and incident to glean every valuable tidbit of improvement. This is where it happens. Nothing else will bring about a bond such as this. This is what brings survival. I dare you to ask Lt. Parnell where his Safety Officer was positioned during the battle.

This message is two pronged. The first is to the individual in the trenches. I am talking about the back seat, tailboard, jumpseat riders. If we don't take this to heart none of it will matter. When the airbrakes are pulled it is time for us to go to work. We need to stop passing the buck and shoulder the responsibility of our role. This means building stock in not just physical courage, but the moral courage to do what we know is right. Cut the excuses, and get your mindset right.

The other prong of this message is for those in the formal leadership roles. You have one responsibility at the end of the day: make absolutely sure that your men and women are ready for combat. This can only be accomplished in one way: set the example you want to see in your people. Model the mindset of the warrior. Provide them the opportunities to build the cohesion and skill sets they will need in combat. Do not under any circumstances sell your people short on training. Stop looking at your people as lightly trained public servants and instead start treating them as warriors. Make them feel like warriors. Expect from them what you expect from a warrior.

Stop tossing around the term "combat ready" like it doesn't mean anything. You either live it or you don't. Saying it will not bring you any closer. Living it will allow you to say it with pride. Again, this is a mindset. Empty routines and mindless administrative nonsense has no bearing on combat readiness. Shed the white noise that encompasses so many of our organizations. It won't be a popular move, but it will never happen if we don't start. Remember, we are going into combat. It is time that we start acting like it. As always, stay smart, and stay combat ready.

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Comment by Dave Werner on January 6, 2014 at 8:06am

Chief thanks for the kind words. I have not read that book yet but I'll be sure to pick it up. Just finished Dakota Meyers' book.

Comment by Bobby Halton on January 5, 2014 at 2:57pm

Dave, I really enjoyed reading your post, one of the biggest takeaways aways I got from Sean's book was his apology to the "fobbits" outstanding leadership lesson. See your choice of reading have you read "The Fighting 69th." by Sean Michael Flynn also a fantastic read. 

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