One of the top reasons I love being a firefighter is the possibility of encountering something I have never seen before. My day can go any one of one hundred different ways each time I am on shift. The potential to encounter the unknown is there every single time the tones go off for a run. I have worked in retail settings. I have worked behind the counter in a bank. I have worked in a cubical day after day. My lack of satisfaction in each of these jobs was not based on the usual suspects of a terrible boss, mistreated employees, or even poor pay (though I would have always been happy to have more in my wallet). What drove my desire to find something greater was the monotony of doing the same things every day with little long-term impact.
Firefighting is a profession unlike any other. During any given shift, you could be called upon to perform CPR, put out a car fire, stop a gas leak, open a stuck elevator, administer medications, stabilize an overturned piece of construction equipment, and then install a car seat. Realistically speaking, this does not all happen on a daily basis. However, I can almost guarantee that you can throw together any number of random call types, and someone out there has had it happen to them. With that being said, are you prepared, regardless of what is found once the apparatus pulls up to the incident?
Thankfully, we are not expected to be subject matter experts for every response type we encounter. It is expected that we use the collective knowledge of both our crew and other available resources to come up with logical solutions. Most of us can relate to a time (or perhaps many times) when we truly had no idea what that solution was going to be. That helpless feeling should drive us to be better. Let that be the last time that particular scenario leaves us feeling stumped; in this profession, odds are it will come up again at some point in our career.
Hopefully, you have had the opportunity to work under either an officer or senior firefighter who had the uncanny ability to find a resolution. As if by some magic, these guys are the ones who seem to have all the answers. I can remember one particular incident in which multiple companies were called to a smoke investigation. The first arriving company was unable to locate any incident at the location provided. For several minutes, three engine companies were traveling up and down a residential block with no signs of smoke trying to locate anything that even resembled an emergency. Within a minute of arrival, the District Chief got on the radio and made the bold statement that the companies should be looking for a chiminea, based on what he smelling. Shortly thereafter, the first-in engine reported that a lit chiminea was found in a backyard. It was, in fact, the source of smoke. For those living in the southwest, this probably would not sound like a farfetched scenario. I can assure you though, when it happens in intercity Houston, one can really only laugh and shake their head in amazement.
Many will argue that the only way the aforementioned could be possible is through experience. There is no doubt that hands-on, life experience will do wonders for a firefighter’s ability to find the needed solution. Obviously, it takes time to build a similar repertoire of knowledge. However, for those with experience, there is always room for more. Likewise, we should not use lack of time or experience as a crutch for not striving for better. I would submit that pointed efforts can also net similar results to that of the previously mentioned District Chief. There are steps that we can daily take to become “that guy.”
Enter into each shift with the mindset that you will walk away a better firefighter than when you came. This will set the tone for your time on-duty, and leave you seeking opportunities to make that possible. Maybe you don’t remember a particular EMS protocol. Perhaps it has been a while since you last looked over a friction loss chart. It could be that you are unaware of the location of high voltage wiring on a particular hybrid vehicle. In many cases, these small bits of information can be committed to memory in a short period of time. Why not take that little bit of time to correct the shortfall the moment you realize a particular area of weakness? Surely, we would not let pride keep us from doing it, right? The trade-off could be an easily avoided cluster on an incident scene.
It is also well known that one of the best ways to learn a complicated task or concept is to teach others about it. In preparing for passing on that knowledge, it will hopefully clarify those areas of difficulty for you, also. Remember that teaching can take place both formally and informally. A five minute kitchen-table discussion might be all that is required.
The flip side to teaching is listening. Truly, listening. This is a skill that is vital up and down the ladder of authority. In an age when many of us listen only in passing, waiting to get back to whatever distraction is on the cell phone, we have to get back to listening intentionally. It is easy to forget that each person brings something different and usable to the table. Each time something new is presented, add it to your own mental roll-a-dex. Shadow those who have shown themselves to be a valuable resource. Learn from and apply the knowledge that they have passed along.
As the analogy goes, you cannot walk a mile without first taking a step. It is the small decisions that we make on a daily basis that will get us further over the course of a career. Put forth the effort to step into the role of a firefighter that others can count on when it matters. I have no problem admitting that it feels like I am far from having all the answers; I guess that makes it all the more easy to keep striving for more.
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