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Back to Basics is a Flawed Concept

Back to basics is one of the most commonly used phrases in our fire service it seems. Every time you listen to a podcast, read an article, or interact on social media someone is using that line in regards to training and subsequently to the fireground. There’s nothing inherently wrong with the idea of getting back to the basics, but I think it is actually a flawed concept.

Quite simply, everyone's basics are different. East, West, everywhere in between, our structures, response models, and approaches are all different. Similar certainly, but varied enough to stir up strong passions about the best way to fight a common enemy. No one can seem to agree if it should be RECEO-VS or SLICERS, mask up en route or at the door, is the fire being pushed or not? How then, can we determine what the basics of firefighting are and how we should practice or employ them?

I believe one of the unintended, though real, consequences we create in using the phrase back to basics is that of comparison to others. When a member of department B sees a member of department A doing a particular technique or tactic they want to emulate it. The technique looks smooth, polished, and highly effective. The tactic seems to work without issue. However, we get into trouble when we fail to realize that what is normal routine (basic) for department A is actually highly skilled (advanced) for department B. Simply put, department B can’t fight fire the way that department A does.

This does not make one fire department better or worse than another, it’s just reality. A basic tactic for a larger city is quickly getting to the roof for operations. A smaller municipality considers a 20-minute response from a mutual aid ladder to be basic. A rural department excels in the basics of shuttling water whereas an urban department is slowed considerably when the hydrant systems are inadequate for the needed flow. Different departments have different ways of attacking similar problems.

Perhaps an improved phrase should be “Back to YOUR Basics.” Train on the tactics and techniques that will be used by your department, with your staffing, and your resources. Stop worrying about what the others are doing, start practicing what your department does. Get better at the local and regional basics and your department will improve significantly.

Identify the types of calls your department experiences the most and train on the basics of handling those. If it’s laying out on every automatic fire alarm get good at that. If your department has routine runs for auto extrication due to a particularly dangerous roadway then make it a basic skill for your members. Triple, flat, Cleveland or unknown, I don’t really care what you call your standard attack line load. Get good with it! The concept is the same regardless of the name. Pull the right line, at the right time, to the right location, with the right stretch. How’s that for basic?

Get back to YOUR basics. Are you proficient and efficient at them? If not why not? If so can you do better? Drill on the basics for your department so that they become second nature. Then, and only then, should you start trying to increase your skill set with the things that those other guys do.

It is possible to practice the basics for your department and still try new things, different ways of accomplishing something, or fresh techniques that might increase your skill set. In fact, in doing this, you might just realize your basic level was too low and that it’s time for an upgrade to a new basic. But don’t just blindly adopt every new thing that comes down the pike or has made the rounds of social media as “the way it should be done.”

Get back to the basics that make the most sense for where you are right now. Train, learn, gather experience in whatever way you can. Stop comparing yourself to someone else’s department, the grass isn’t always greener over there. Your basic skill sets, properly applied at the correct time will go along way to mitigating the issue that your citizen is having.

Perhaps this is all just a matter of semantics, of adding one simple word to a phrase. Yet, I think that it is a crucial mental addition that needs to be made. There is nothing wrong with getting back to basics. But if we can not agree on what those basics really are, how can we get back to them?

We can, however, take a realistic look at our personal capabilities and thus define more clearly what the basics look like for us. We will be less concerned with what other departments are doing and more focused on improving ourselves.

When you get back to YOUR basics, you win, your department wins, and, most importantly, the citizens that depend on YOUR basics win.

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