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Losing Our Experts

A few years back you had your engine guys and your truck guys. You had the guy in the department that was the expert in friction loss and nozzle flow. You had your expert in elevators. You had your guy that knew how to write the truck specifications. The go to guy in forcible entry, the go to guy for search, the go to guy for just about whatever you wanted to know.

These experts were true craftsmen who spent their spare time studying what others were doing in other cities. They were constantly devouring any new information on their chosen area (their passion). Unfortunately they were not the type of guys that were seen as “promotable”. Nor were their talents recognized by the organization so that the knowledge could be harnessed into training systems and policy. These guys just simply put in there time, never lost their passion and retired quietly. The new guys coming along took no interest in spending the time needed to become an expert in anything. Instead we thrust them into the fire service and had them obtain firefighter, EMT, Haz Mat Tech, and so on. After a year or two we may have even piled on rope rescue, confined space and collapse. Once the training course was over and the certificate was in hand there was no need to continue learning. Why? Because you just needed the certificate to get promoted. You didn’t have to have a working knowledge in the discipline. You could just fake you way through it or in the best case someone else would know what to do.

Soon these guys got promoted and really didn’t have much to offer those they supervised other than basic management. Making sure they were at work on time and the right number of people were on the truck. They didn’t know if the training was being done right or wrong and so the cycle began. Fire chiefs facing staffing shortages needed guys with certifications that could work anywhere in the department. “I need you on the rescue today. I need you on the truck next shift and I need you on the engine next week.” Doesn’t sound so bad but it created a situation in which our members never got the opportunity to gain the experience in any one function to gain expert status. Its been said that it take 10,000 hours in an area to become an expert. Instead we float along basically at the apprentice level but with no one to teach us from their experience. We do our best to teach from what can be recalled from the training environment but never from actual experience.

Years later we recognized that our members were not making good fire ground decisions. We determined they needed training in “decision making and situational awareness”. Well unfortunately for us decision making and situational awareness in a given area are gained from experiences in which we get to apply our training and adapt to the realities that we are presented with. They are not gained from attending a class in situational awareness. If we are kept in a perpetual state of being used as a plug and play firefighter or officer we don’t get the chance to gain expertise.

By comparison our friends in the medical field recognize the need for specialization. If you break your leg you are referred to a “specialist” (orthopedic doc). If you have a heart problem you are referred to a “specialist” (cardiac doc). Oh and by the way have you ever seen the flight attendant be asked to stand in and fly the plane because the pilot called in sick?

Do we have a need to develop decision making and situational awareness skills or do we need re-focus on developing some experts within our ranks?


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