“Concentrate all your thoughts upon the work at hand. The sun's rays do not burn until brought to a focus.”- Alexander Graham Bell
The word focus has an interesting origin. This term comes from the Latin word for fireplace or hearth. One can only assume that the definition is a central point, the source of heat in the home long ago. In modern times, this still holds true, as many fireplaces are the focal point for the main living room.
While initially this post was to hone in on the negatives of focus, I found worth noting, the word focus is defined as fireplace. Our profession is focused on the activity of fire, well at the core. This central point, our focal point, the area of our activity is the act of Fire Prevention and Suppression. However, our focus tends to shift. Before going on, this is not about additional roles we have taken on. The negatives of focus are the factors that surround it. Did an incident occur where a lack of focus drove the error or miscalculation? Have you ever been told that the organizations focus needs to shift? This type of focus has negative ramifications.
On the fire ground, we need focus. We need to deal with the situation and the task we are assigned. The quote above says this perfectly. We will perform great actions when we focus. Yet when we focus in too far, we lose what could be around us. Some may call it the “big picture”. Others more recently say Situational Awareness. Work tasks need a certain amount of focus while still seeing the overall goal. For a simple example, consider your making a relatively light push down a long hall. You see the glow at the end of the hallway; you focus your attention and energy on getting to the seat of the fire. In your haste, you pass several rooms that contain fire. Your focus misled your attention and you were not fully aware of the situation around you.
Most often, the situations that occur are more in depth and complex.
A trend that is occurring in the fire service is an Organizational Drift. To keep up with changing times, just as in business, the focus changes frequently. A particular buzzword around my organization is “knee jerk reaction.” Something happened, so it will happen here, let’s change the way we do things. Weeks later, the focus changes and what was such a priority falls to the wayside. The administration is who allows focus to drift from one area to another. Today it may be adding more reflective striping to the apparatus while next week it is response to terrorism. Although both of these topics are important, the drift is a negative. Just as we can never stray from the basics, we must ensure all projects are seen through. A personal belief and I am sure others, the fire service must adapt to the changing world. The sentiment is well intended, yet this must be performed in a way that is conducive to the way we do business. Written policies and procedures could be implemented in a day, but do they change feelings, attitudes and do they disrupt current focus? New ideas and the means of performance must be given time to flourish. To accomplish this we must reinforce and make it part of our routine.
The story I have told too many times is that of an Incident Safety Officer I once encountered. Responding to a mutual aid box working fire, I was asked to relieve the crew-performing overhaul. I approached the alpha side door, masked up and started to make entry. The fire was fully extinguished and just a bit of ceiling needed to be pulled. Just as I walked in, I was pulled back. The ISO grabbed me by my SCBA shoulder strap. He felt as though I needed to be wearing my hood. My first reaction, well I guess I should have it on. Then as I came to my senses, he was 5 feet inside the structure without an SCBA. Wait right there! The ISO was focused on my hood and me yet he has no respiratory protection at all. From that day on my quest to eradicate, the “Hood Nazi’s” began.
The ISO and his disregard for his safety is one story but his focus on my hood is the issue. Who was watching the big picture? Who was tracking the other 15-20 personnel on scene? His role was to oversee the safety of responders and the conditions of the scene. He focused in too much on the insignificant, or the little things. What was his reasoning? PPE is a concern for him, but to what extent?
Focus can cause severe consequences if directed in the wrong direction. From time to time, we may need to change focus, possibly when we find critical factors that need corrective actions. Occasionally, we must be reminded of where to focus. The key to maintaining positive focus, clearly define the range and depth. If your crew needs to focus on improving your hose loading skills, put forth extra effort when applying those skills. Do not spend all your time performing this action. To concentrate our focus upon a single part, will allow other aspects to falter. Focus, it can be an ally and an adversary. Our focus can increase our level of performance, or cause us to fall significantly.
One lesson that I always think about when I write, someone has already said it and they said it better than you.
“A Jedi must have the deepest commitment, the most serious mind. This one a long time have I watched. All his life has he looked away, to the future, to the horizon. Never his mind on where he was, what he was doing. Adventure, Excitement, A Jedi craves not these things.” - Yoda