Getting good at getting by can get you killed
The rookie sits in the jumpseat straightening out his SCBA straps, lost in thought. He thinks to himself, that the fire was nothing like what they taught at academy. He wonders if they are all like this. Nothing seemed to happen the way it was supposed to. He forgot to put on his hood, the Lieutenant didn’t seem as squared away as he normally was. Why was everyone standing up? Weren’t we supposed to stick together? The Chief sure didn’t do accountability like they said he would at the academy. Man I hope I didn’t let the Boss down too much.
The Lieutenant comes around the rig and calls the rookies name, startled the rookie looks up and answers, “what’s up Loo?”. “Hey kid, good job tonight. The fire went out and no one got hurt.”
At the end of the day, that is a reasonable goal for any fire department. After all, it probably is in most departments’ mission statements. But it needs to be a goal by design, not one that is achieved through luck.
Now the real world isn’t the academy, and most will agree that your training begins the day you are assigned to a company or station and begin to work with your crew. But the academy is the foundation that all the rest of your training will rest on. But this is less about the rookie and more about the department.
So what does ‘good job’ mean in your department? How often have you been sitting on the tailboard, taking a break, and wondered how the hell your department managed to get the fire out? Wondered why you bother training on everything from ICS to Search Tactics, when every time the rubber meets the road, your department defaults to a catch-as-catch-can level of operations?
Every department has to determine how it is going to operate based on manpower, resources and even capabilities. It doesn’t do any good for a department to adopt their neighbor’s practices, if their infrastructure won’t support it. The critical part of this statement is that every department must plan. Each department must DECIDE how it is going to fight fire, what resources it will bring to bear, what tactics it will use. While the goals may be the same….”fight fire, save lives”……way more thought must go into it than often does.
If your “accidental outcome” is that the fire went out and no one got hurt, you are hurtling down a path for disaster. Luck will only get you so far, and the day when your least experienced crew goes up against your most difficult fire, well that isn’t the day to find out your luck has run out.
Before you can train your department you have to decide how you are going to fight your fires. You decide this and then develop good solid Standard Operating Procedures (or guidelines if you must) that accomplish your goals. Then train your people. Train them in the basics and train them to your SOPs. These two things go hand in hand. Learning the skills is only part of the problem, knowing how to apply these skills and when is just as important.
Finally you must hold your people accountable. It doesn’t do any good to point at a piece of paper and say “do this”, if you don’t point out and correct them when they don’t “do that.” Just having SOPs in a book on a shelf is not enough. This document is, or should be, the very fiber of your department’s soul. When followed it ensures that everyone does things the same way, or at least within a certain set of parameters. What SOPs don’t do is stop you from thinking. They don’t take away your choices and options. They don’t turn you into robots.
What SOPs do is give you a framework. Like a playbook they outline how your company, your shift, your department is going to operate given a certain set of circumstances. They give you the flexibility to react and deviate, but they should also give you most of the answers to the problems you may face.
Now back to our Lieutenant and his effusive praise to our new firefighter. In this scenario, we have a rookie who is full of doubt, wondering if he did wrong, and wondering why things happened as they did. While in the midst of his doubt, he gets told he ‘done good’. What happens now? Well for one thing, he begins to formulate the idea that some of his training wasn’t that important. He now doubts much of what his instructors taught him, and a message…often not stated…is driven home. “This is the real world, never mind that stuff you learned for the last 14 weeks.”
Our rookie now begins to develop his own set of rules. He decides that since no one else was crawling, he won’t either, failing to realize that some of his ‘mentors’ are basing their actions on their years of experience. He decides it isn’t important to leave his accountability tag with the Lieutenant. He decides a whole host of things based on his sub-standard performance, and his Lieutenant's praise for a job well done.
Fast forward five years and ‘Lucky’ the rookie now has more time on the job and more fires under his belt. His lessons from that first fire have been reinforced countless times over. He often operates without his face piece on, because the smoke isn’t that bad. He has been burned on the hands because he didn’t have his gloves on. He has become a ‘mentor’ to another rookie. Spreading the ‘luck’ even further.
And now we come to the present. ‘Lucky’ is now ‘Captain Lucky’, and his company is the mirror image of him. They get the job done and the Chiefs love them because they are an aggressive bunch. When a tough job needs to get done, they are the first ones into the breach. Sure they a little rag tag looking, and sometimes they bend the rules. But when it counts they are all any good Chief needs.
At his funeral the big Chief told the assembled crowd of families, friends and brother firefighters about Lucky’s extraordinary career. How time after time he had faced grave danger, and always come out unscathed. The Chief talked about duty and commitment and in the end told Lucky to go forward peacefully, and that he’d done a ‘good job.’
The fire went out and nobody got hurt. A fairly reasonable goal for the fire service, just make sure you get there through planning and training, not by accident with luck.