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Behavior Modification and Self-Fulfilling Prophecy

One of the items that we discuss in the Training Officer’s Desk Reference is Mentoring and Influence. Regardless of what rank you hold, each of us has the ability to mentor. As Lt. General Hal Moore (Mel Gibson) stated in the movie We Were Soldiers, “learn the job above you and teach your job to those below you…” When you begin to understand how your influence affects those around you, you will begin to understand how important you are to the core of your crew. One of the stories that I tell is from working in Gwinnett County Station 4 (Truck and Engine Company) as a driver/engineer and these were the days of my acceptance into the Georgia Smoke Diver Program and competing in the Scott Firefighter Combat Challenges. My co-hort (retired Ironman – the other driver/engineer) Alan Hurd would set up obstacle courses with fire department stuff, gear up, and drill as a daily routine. At first it was just me and him making up “stuff to do.” After a while (without forcing, mandating, threatening, etc.,) we had 90% of the entire station (12 personnel) including the lieutenant and captain training with us to some degree. In addition, when we encountered probie firefighters they had no choice but to join us or they would have been exiled on day one. There are two actions that occurred here, 1) is behavior modeling and 2) self-fulfilling prophecy. Both of these are learning and motivational theories at work in this one example.


Let’s take the behavior modeling theory and discuss it first. We have all been affected by this in one manner or another whether we realize it or not. The theory states that we will model ourselves after the environment we are placed in. So, if I see someone performing at a high-level of excellence and I recognize it as excellence I will model myself after that environment. However, if I see you sleeping on the couch on truck day and you get away with it I very well may model myself after that as well if I don’t know better. As a senior firefighter or officer, a gut check is for you to determine how you are perceived by others. Once the introspection is complete (with your necessary changes) then you can move forward with raising the bar for the minimum expectations of your crew. If I was to tell the guys at station four to gear up without me gearing up first it would not be as effective and no behavior modeling would occur. However, the fact that the others understood what excellence was and wanted to be an active part of it, they invited their selves into the obstacle course punishment. And, when there was a day that I did not feel like setting it up or competing, it was the other guys that motivated me to get up. So, it worked both ways – they became as important to me as I was to them.


The second part to discuss is the self-fulfilling prophecy. This theory states that what we perceive as reality, is reality. As well, if I perceive excellence as completing the obstacle course every day in turnout gear then that is what I will conform to because I want to be excellent with gear acclimation, dexterity, etc... Case in point, as probie’s were assigned to our station they automatically conformed because of how they perceived excellence – they knew no other way. Their minds had not been given the chance to be corrupted.


As senior firefighters, company officers, or training officers – you have the chance to establish what excellence is and what you consider the minimum standard. When you do this several things occur, including teamwork, comradery, and improved knowledge and skills for all. It also creates a level of motivation and buy-in regardless of any generational differences (our age range at station 4 went from 24 to 50). By setting this example, you are mentoring those around you and establishing the next generation of the fire service. As experience leaves every day from our industry, we need people to take the reins and lead us into the next phase.


Be Safe, Train Hard and Take Care



Brian Ward, Chief of Emergency Operations, Georgia Pacific – Madison (GA). Author of Fire Engineering - Training Officer’s Toolbox and Managing Editor for the Training Officer’s Desk Reference. Brian serves on the ISFSI Board of Directors. He is a member of the Georgia Smoke Divers, currently pursuing his Master’s in Organizational Development from Columbia Southern University and Founder of

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