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Inciting Bravery, Part 2 - The realities of promoting risk-taking - Can we increase it?

Having cited the limitations and contradictions of the concept of heroism in my last post (i.e., unmeasurable, and essentially bestowed upon all of us simply for joining the fire service), is there another attribute that might allow us to be more effective in our attempts to protect life and property by inspiring bolder searches and fire attacks? Might it be feasible to at least increase our collective acceptance of risk? And, if so, what would be the best method for accomplishing this feat?

Now, this discussion concerns a topic that is usually seen as someone else's problem. In my experience, most firefighters already consider themselves courageous, and, having chosen this dangerous endeavor, it is certainly not a stretch to declare we are all at least more courageous than average. So, we generally believe we are risking as much as we are able, or is reasonable, when performing fire control tasks. The problem is that the varied beliefs within the fire service regarding the ideal methods to employ has, for some, morphed into concerns that those who do not share our beliefs are less (or more) courageous (or reckless). The concept of bravery has bled over into that of efficacy. So, the current situation in the fire service is one where everyone believes that they are correct, but that some others are incorrect.  Kind of like the rest of the world.

Anyway, if we think we need to push some firefighters beyond their comfort zones, how can we do so?  Should we just keep reminding each other about our sworn duty; that we knew the job was dangerous when we signed up? That seems to be the preferred approach of some commentators, though repeatedly chanting the obvious does not lead to enlightenment, but merely indoctrination. Can't firefighters just, as some have suggested, "be less concerned with their own well being, and more focused on accomplishing our mission"? (Of course, if it were that easy, that statement would not have needed to be uttered.) The biggest problem I see with such an approach is that it goes against the basic instinct of self-preservation, and instincts are difficult to ignore.

The other problem with the “just do it” philosophy is that there is actually no lack of awareness of the risks and benefits in our line of work, but instead a significant difference of opinion regarding their relative importance. In fact, I will here stipulate, on behalf of the entire fire service, that we all understand that our job is to protect life and property, and that ours is an unusually hazardous endeavor that might lead to our injury or death. So, yeah, we already know that what we do is both important and dangerous. Even with that foundation agreed to, though, the remaining differences are significant enough to prevent any mere motto or slogan from swaying the opposing side. One firefighter’s fearlessness will likely long remain another’s recklessness, and visa versa.

Despite the significant limitations inherent in attempting to change the behavior of others, such efforts can be much more successful with those we know, or who know us. Peer pressure, mentoring, and the modeling of desired attributes are powerful tools that we regularly bring to bear on rookie and veteran firefighters alike. Fostering a strong team culture, where mutual support and interdependence is both taught and demonstrated, instills a sense of allegiance to the group's mission and its leaders. I, for one, have followed other firefighters whom I respected into situations that I would not have entered if left to my own decisions.

Unfortunately, the value of such guidance is based on its being sound, a premise that is quite often found to be flawed. Looking beyond the controversies over tactics utilized for fire control that have been challenged by recent research, and yet which many departments continue to teach and practice, one need not look far to find myriad examples of institutionalized sins, including racism, sexism, and other “-isms”, that have been brought to light in recent years. Many times, many members were aware of their organization’s wrongdoing (or, more commonly, their organization’s tolerance of the wrongdoing of some of its members), and themselves kept silent due to their allegiance to the whole. So, faith and teamwork have their limitations, requiring that the group’s path and methods are themselves proper.

If unable or unwilling to rely on others’ guidance, what about our inherent drive? Can’t we just count on firefighters’ natural inclination to save lives and property to serve as motivation? (We did, after all, and regardless of whether we receive compensation for our duty, initially volunteer for this line of work.) Thinking back to my early years in the fire service, any boldness I demonstrated was bolstered by an equal amount of ignorance, specifically a lack of appreciation of the potential for my chosen workplace to quickly deteriorate and lead to my death. I didn’t have anywhere near my current knowledge and abilities, but I attempted, and ultimately survived, many operations that now serve only as examples of unpunished misadventures. Despite the potential productivity of unbridled enthusiasm, I think we would all agree that keeping firefighters clueless about the dangers they face is neither a feasible nor sustainable strategy.

Despite the preceding critical review of these varied motivational methods - instilling a sense of duty, applying peer pressure, harnessing our inherent eagerness - I do not believe that crafting a formula that increases risk tolerance is unachievable. Instead, I would suggest that the answer lies in combining the best of these approaches through training. In my own example, while my uninformed impulsiveness has waned, I did brag in the previous installment of this series that I considered myself as courageous as the next firefighter. Truth be told, I could probably fall asleep wearing my SCBA in an IDLH. This is not because of an advanced state of fearlessness, but because of faith in my skills and equipment. In my opinion, reaching and maintaining a high level of proficiency is the path to both maximizing the abilities of firefighters to carry out our duties and bettering our chances of surviving those efforts. Rather than relying on a romantic notion on which to base and describe the ideal efforts of firefighters, I believe the practical alternative to bravery is confidence.

Trust in our equipment, skills, methods, and fellow firefighters allows us to operate at our maximum while best ensuring that we will not perish in the process, the ideal risk/benefit balance. Of course, there remains a significant conflict within the fire service regarding which are the best “tools and rules” for firefighting, so debate will continue, as it should, and my role as a commentator on the topic of our evolving tactics is safe for now. Still, the path to inspiring heroic acts is the same as that for instilling knowledge, skills, and abilities: Training.


Next installment of Inciting Bravery: The realities of promoting risk-taking
Part 3: Should we increase it?

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