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2012: A Year for Active Choices and Conditioned Decisions

“The National Fire Protection Association list 13 attributes that the job of firefighting requires. Most are physical- the ability to climb a lot of stairs, lug a lot of gear, move heavy hoses around, rescue large people and the like. But one goes under the helmet. The NFPA says a firefighter ‘must be capable of critical, time sensitive, complex problem solving during physical exertion in stressful, hazardous environments (including hot, dark, tightly enclosed spaces) further aggravated by fatigue, flashing lights, sirens and other distractions’

Even if a fire department had all the best equipment and all the right tactics for every possible situation, and all the person power it could possibly need, firefighters could still die. Indeed, in many cases, fires don’t kill firefighters and equipment doesn’t save them. Decisions do.” (City Limits Magazine Sept/Oct 2010)   

“…fires don’t kill firefighters and equipment doesn’t save them. Decisions do.” One of the most glaring statements directed at the fire service I have ever seen, and it comes to us from a civilian magazine out of New York City. If you take issue with a “liberal rag” slapping our brotherhood in the face then as a member of the club I will stand up and say it.

Our dangers cannot be completely avoided and the guarantee of our safety cannot be purchased. It is day to day choices and heat of the moment decisions which most lives rest upon.

We will save the always and never; there are situations where fire was the guilty party and where our gear has made the difference however, the vast majority of incidents can be traced to a choice or decision. Choices in lifestyle, time management and personal care, decisions in staffing, policy or fire ground operations. The difference between the view of the fire killing and the equipment saving versus the choices and the decisions lies in responsibility. We are afraid to confront, admit or own the fact the great weight of responsibility for death is equal to the workload of a cultural change which is ours to see through.


“Awareness is good, but without skills and abilities tied to that awareness all you have is anxiety.” Tony Blauer

I am aware of the fact that a choice to sign a seatbelt pledge increases awareness, and a stack of them on a desk from every member in your department is a visual representation of increased awareness. The unfortunate part is that in these tightest of times resources are diverted to fully fund and support this (passive program) versus being saved or utilized to assist the development of a National emergency vehicle operators course (active program). This is just one example of the fire service choosing a repair over a capital project, due to ease of implementation, lack of push back and instant gratification.

Fire Department Incident Safety Officer 2nd Edition: “Personnel, procedures and equipment all play a role in defining safety in operations” (passive) “Three factors contribute to a person’s ability to act safely: training, health, attitude.”(active)

NFPA is tasked with defining minimum qualifications for personnel and equipment to be safe and effective. OSHA is tasked with defining minimum equipment and procedure requirements to be safe and effective. The keywords within these sentences are minimum and effective. You make the choice to remain passive; the goal of being effective and achieving the minimum as has been defined and typically will be maintained by someone else. Or you can make the choice to be active; contributing to your ability to act safely. Continuously establishing goals just beyond your reach, working hard to move from effective to efficient or even a master of your skills, through personal accountability and holding yourself to a standard no one else would. Choose to be the generation who sets the example in practice not policy. Create a culture which places active safety measures first no matter how great the challenge. Let the National committees and the department managers define safety, while you contribute actively to improving one’s ability to act safely.

“Cultural change begins with behavior and the leaders who shape it” Vandergriff 2006.

You do not need a title, rank or even a badge to be a leader; therefore none of these are requirements for effecting a cultural change. If you want to see cultural change than you need to be the cultural change. The responsibility is ours not theirs. "They" will only maintain or catch up, "they" will never lead. Next time you ask why don't "they", stop yourself and ask why haven't I? Consciously make an active choice to be the example in your training, health and attitude.


“The NFPA says a firefighter ‘must be capable of critical, time sensitive, complex problem solving during physical exertion in stressful, hazardous environments (including hot, dark, tightly enclosed spaces) further aggravated by fatigue, flashing lights, sirens and other distractions’” City Limits Magazine 2011

A simple definition provided by the NFPA yet the expectation is borderline unrealistic when we apply scientific research. This single excerpt states that we “must be capable of critical, time sensitive and complex problem solving” in the face of physical, environmental, psychological stressors and distractions. Physical, psychological or environmental stressors individually can severely compromise one’s ability to problem solve. Those situations where these stressors come together compound their effects on the body and present for all intensive purposes a survival response.

In the past year I have been personally researching the psychology and physiology of decision making. Most of that research has been in texts which address the decision making processes of individuals exposed to stressful and survival situations.

Human decision making most often falls into one of two categories; cognitive or emotional. “Most people find it hard to believe that reason doesn’t control our actions. We believe in free will and rational behavior. The difficulty with those assumptions comes when we see rational people doing irrational things.” The quote from Deep Survival by Laurence Gonzales speaks to our lack of understanding regarding the imbalance between cognition (reason and logic) and emotion (passion and fear). Gonzales goes on to explain the forces in play by using an analogy to a race horse and jockey. The race horse is emotion; large, powerful and raw. Cognition is the Jockey; small, settled on top of that race horse holding on for dear life with a hope of providing some direction and applying some strategy.

The existence of life spans thousands of years, yet thinking man has a relatively short part of the timeline.  The translation; our emotional responses are deeply engrained through evolution and rooted in subconscious self preservation. Our cognitive thought processes are not only inferior in “time on the job” but also speed of response and power of influence. To further tip the scales “stressors” of environmental, physical or psychological nature severely handicap cognitive thought processes and stimulate the emotional ones.

Consult the works of Lt. Col. Dave Grossman in On Combat or Deep Survival by Laurence Gonzales and you will quickly learn that the defining is much easier than doing. “Many people (estimates are as high as 90% of our population), when put under stress, are unable to think clearly or solve simple problems. They get rattled. They panic. They freeze.” Gonzales L. 2003. If reading a book is too much to ask then Google any of these: Effects of hormonal or fear induced heart rate increase, effects of heat stress, cognitive thought and fatigue. There is simply no way for us to stop or completely control these responses we can only improve our awareness and condition ourselves for them.

As I discussed before the definitions come easy and those who believe that the situation is as simple as the definition will quickly find a simple definition for a solution. You have tunnel vision (intense focus on task)? The solution is to be situationally aware. Critical decision making is difficult? Use a decision making process or checklist. In the words of Ray Mc Cormack “If it was easy, someone else would have done it already.” If the way to prevent tunnel vision was in a decision to be more situationally aware then the existence and depth of study on the topic would be asinine. If the answer to critical decision making was a checklist than Oprah could ride the seat and I could do her talk show.

My point is that in the heat of the moment we are 3 steps behind emotion, environment and fatigue. A linear decision making process or the belief that a cognitive decision will put us back in control is not true. Reading smoke is an incredibly valuable educational program which helps improve our understanding of what we are seeing. The unfortunate reality for line firefighters is the education of reading smoke is useless when it is shelved by sensory overload, fear, anxiety in task , or fatigue. Even if we were able to isolate that thought process it does not guarantee that it will not be compromised by any or all of afore mentioned stressors. This is one example of the fire service defining decision making not preparing for decision making.

“If you can’t beat’em, join them” The only hope we have in improving our capacity for decision making and performance under these stressors is through conditioning for them. The reason this theory and message only exists in pockets around the country and not banners proclaiming the ability to turn water into wine all firefighters into situational aware firefighters in 3 easy steps, without leaving your desk is because it is extremely difficult, takes a long time and is rooted in the same three factors that we mentioned before; training, health and attitude. There is no shortage of decision making tools. Unfortunately there is a near complete absence of programs designed improve your ability to draw on these tools in the time of need by reducing the effects of physical, environmental and psychological stressors through conditioning.

Quit believing we are super heroes with some omnipresence that provides the force field of situational awareness. We are humans attempting to do battle with an element that has hundreds of thousands of years or experience in destruction. We are thinking man with a relatively short career in cognitive thought, doing battle with the senior members of emotion and survival that have been running our bodies systems for thousands of years.

If you want something easy with instant discovery, identify situational weaknesses. Recognition of disadvantage and identification of the situational weaknesses is the first step to in the long road to truly improving our situational awareness and our decision making abilities through active choices and conditioning. We need to be more familiar with our enemies (stressors). Connecting the dots, the acceptance of hard work and commitment is where the cultural shift will occur and the true solution (improved situational awareness) will be found. Make the turn, because you will go nowhere in a state of denial. It may in fact just bring you a little closer to negligence, complacency or panic, none of which help the situation. “The last stage of dying is acceptance. The first step in survival is total commitment.” L Gonzales 2003. Decide to be a survivor and totally commit to making good and active choices. Decide proactively to begin conditioning yourself for improved decision making. Be a leader and demonstrate the example in behaviors which will shape the right fire service culture.

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