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A Lesson For the Fire Service from the London Summer Olympics

Cabbies across the pond would make great Chauffeurs in the American Fire Service

Like the rest of the Country, I was watching the Summer Olympics and listened to an interview with a local resident of London explaining the ‘insiders’ way to navigate the city. She offered the normal tips of how to get around and what historic landmarks not to miss. None of that distracted me from typing away on my computer and completing other tasks in my office but one particular comment did perk my ears.

When she was questioned about the cab drivers in London she stated the rate is about $11.00 a mile, which was enough to grab any fiscally-minded firefighters attention, but then she mentioned why. Some of the high rate was attributed to the London economy but it is “money well spent” because of their knowledge of the city. Knowledge that is not learned through using a GPS or their Smartphone. Knowledge that is learned through a defined, rigorous, and mandated process. A process that defines and separates London cabbies from any other cabbie in the world. A process that exists in some fire departments but is sorely missing in many.

This process is the knowledge of your first due area, or in the words of the Transport for London, a test simply called, ‘The Knowledge.’ To have the distinct honor to drive a famous black cab in London every single person must enter and successfully complete ‘The Knowledge’. The process can last anywhere from two years to four years, depending on the commitment and retention of the candidate.

‘The Knowledge’ is based upon learning 320 routes! These routes require knowledge of the 25,000 streets and over 20,000 landmarks, plus, for good measure, any places of interest within 6 miles of Charing Cross! Based upon some basic Internet searches all of this work to learn their “1st Due*” earns them about $38,000 a year.

* 1st Due is a geographical term that refers to your respective response area

            Put this in comparison to an Engine Company or Truck Company chauffeur. A Fire Department Chauffeur most likely makes more in yearly salary and is required to learn less as most 1st due, even 1st – 5th due areas don’t have 20,000 streets. ‘The Knowledge’ is not simply one written test; it is a tiered process that requires successful completion at each level before going to the next. A process that eliminates the uncommitted yet fosters the candidates who exhibit the passion and commitment to drive. The entire process goes like this:

  • General requirements of all stages:
    • All answers must be based on the shortest route possible
    • Any road work expected to last longer than 26 weeks must be known and alternate route memorized
    • Illegal U-turns are not acceptable; you must know the legal means of travel

 

  • Stage 1:
  • This is a self-assessment tool to, as the manual states, ‘ to let you know if you are doing it the right way’ and not wasting your time.
    • In this stage you perform 80 runs; that is 80 routes from point A to point B in the shortest and most efficient route. For instance, this would be from the Firehouse to the 1234 Main Street…….but do it 79 more times and to 79 different places!!

 

  • Stage 2: 1st Written Exam
    • Part 1 – The candidate will be provided three routes between two points, he must pick the shortest one based upon his knowledge. This is repeated 5 times for 5 different routes. If you score well, you can continue. If not, see you in a few months for the re-test.
    • Part 2- The candidate will be given 25 landmarks (i.e. – the Train Station, Hospital, etc.). For each location you will be given 4 possible addresses, identify the correct one. You must get them right to carry on to the next step.

 

  • Stage 3: One – to – One with your evaluator
    • Starts with the examiner asking you two specified points of interest within a radius of your sector (in FD terms, your 1st due). You must give the correct address of the two points and then describe the shortest route possible.  This is repeated 4 times.
    • Simply answering is not acceptable; you “must demonstrate a high level knowledge and precision and fluency in your answers”. You hesitate = you don’t know the answer = see you again in a few months.

 

  • Stage 4: Almost there!
    • You will receive the two specified points of interest again but this time, the points of interest will be from areas inside your sector to outside your sector. In FD terms, this would be demonstrating directions from a point in your first due to a location in your 2nd or 3rd due.
    • At this point, you will not be permitted to correct any errors when reciting your route. If state it wrong, it is wrong, no mulligans.

 

  • Stage 5: Getting closer….
    • Time to take off the training wheels see what you know. The candidate must be able to provide the shortest directions to any area within their sector area, plus any addresses within a 6-mile radius of central London. For us in the fire service, this would not just your 1st due but your 2nd and even some 3rd due area.
    • You knowledge must be up to date! The candidate must be aware of new hotel names, high profile events like Fairs or theatre productions, and new attractions.

 

  • Stage 6: The light at the end of the tunnel
    • The candidate must learn 25 routes from their respective sector but 21 of them coming from the outer fringe of your home sector. Imagine not only know all of your 1st due area but now you must know 25 of the major thoroughfares leading into your neighboring areas…..and know them well.

This exhaustive and comprehensive process is all done on the candidate’s dime – you pay for each test and if you fail, you still pay! All of this for job that offers no awards, no accolades, only average pay, simply just the honor and privilege to be called a London cabbie. The best a London cabbie can hope for is a large tip from a jet lagged tourist eager to feel like a ‘Brit’ or that a Hooligan will not get too rowdy in the back of his beloved black cab on ride home from the pub.

Now, put this in comparison to our chauffeurs, emergency vehicle drivers, technicians, or whatever name you dub your firefighter who is responsible for operating your vehicles. These are highly professional individuals charged with driving a 20-ton vehicle competently and safely at a high rate of speed, often against drivers who do not yield appropriately, or more accurately just have poor driving skills in perfect conditions. We reward these chauffeurs when they demonstrate proper operating and controlling of the vehicle. Not just pats on back from the Captain but also an award for safe driving and most likely, a salary increase. Yet, do we require the same of our Chauffeurs as London does of their cab drivers? And remember this entire test is long before they ever think of operating the vehicle? I think not.

Fire departments adopted a reactive response to loss of life and monetary losses from vehicle accidents by taking the initiative to implement a comprehensive safe driving process. This process focuses on the candidate safely handling the vehicle on the open road through documented practical training. Talk about putting the cart before the horse! The London cab driver never even gets behind the wheel of a black cab until he successfully passes the ‘Knowledge’. We let a firefighter drive a fire truck once he can properly demonstrate he can operate the ‘vehicle’ but he doesn’t have an idea where he is going while he is driving it like he stole it!

Included in a comprehensive process for vehicle operations, an intensive and relevant knowledge-based process of your response area must be done before you ever grip the wheel of a fire truck.  This is not a how-quickly-can-you-read-a-map test, this is knowledge based upon your passion, commitment, dilligence to know the area you have sworn to protect. Knowing your area eliminates just one of the multitude of stressors that your driver has when the fire of your career is toned out. If they can focus solely on the incident at hand and not fret over which way to pull out of the firehouse, or how quickly will the officer be able to look up the street, or leave it to chance the scale for success tips in our favor.

The ‘Knowledge’ for our emergency vehicle chauffeurs should include, at a minimum:

Buildings & Landmarks:

  • Target Hazard* building names and addresses (Hospitals, Malls, etc.).
  • Name and occupancy type (restaurant to mercantile) of new buildings in their 1st due area.
  • Location of Fire Department Connections of standpipe/sprinklered buildings in their 1st due area.
  • Location of Fire Alarm Panels and Fire Control rooms for all equipped buildings in their 1st due area.
  • Any special considerations for buildings in their 1st due, such as positioning issues, water supply problems, etc.
  • Long lays for residential structures in their 1st due area including areas with pipe stem or flag lot driveways.
  • Limited water supply areas that would require tanker or rural water supply operations.

* Target hazard refers to any building that possesses the possibility of large loss of life (nursing home, school) or high visibility (Government facility, etc.) if involved in fire.

Streets:

  • Name, location and shortest directions to every street in their 1st due area.
  • Shortest route directions from anywhere in your 1st due to another location within your 1st due.
  • If you operate in a grid system, knowledge of Unit and Hundred blocks.
  • Name, location and shortest directions to every dead-end street and split streets in their 1st due area.
  • Name, location, and travel direction of every one-way street in their 1st due.
  • Name, location and shortest directions to every major artery leading into neighboring areas.
  • Hundred blocks on major arteries.
  • Firm knowledge base of water supply system for your respective area (this can range from knowing all hydrant areas in your area to where dry hydrants are for rural water supply)
  • If an urban area with Interstates, exit numbers and names and access to each area in the shortest manner.
  • Location of water supply for operations on Interstates.

            Think this is too much for your drivers? Consider a London cabbie driver doesn’t drive with burden that one error, one wrong turn, one mistake can mean the difference between life and death of a civilian trapped in a fire that we swore to protect. The worst they lose is a tip; our lack of knowledge can lead to death. Exercise the pride in your position and understand your predecessors had this ‘knowledge’ for a reason – because it is required to be a Combat Ready Chauffeur!

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