From The Jumpseat: Talking It Out

By Mark J. Cotter

Four of us volunteers made up a truck company at a townhouse fire. I was accompanied by another "veteran rookie" - a seasoned firefighter who had recently moved to town and joined our company, and who was actually driving the apparatus - and two well-trained, but otherwise unseasoned, firefighters. One of those members was the acting officer of our team.

The fire had started on the exterior of one of the units near the center of a row, on the street side. Even with an early discovery and rapid alarm, it had already extended to the interior on both of the two stories, and was licking at the eaves.

Upon our arrival, the two senior (in department membership time) firefighters immediately disembarked the truck, tools in hand, and headed for the apartment to begin a search. This left us rookies to throw ground ladders, ventilate, and position the aerial for roof ventilation. With the help of another truck and three engine companies, the fire was quickly controlled, with no injuries to civilians or firefighters.

When the smoke had cleared and we had returned to our apparatus, but before beginning to restore any equipment, we four met and recounted our activities. The firefighters who had searched the interior described the intense heat and smoke they had encountered and surpassed, and the speed and skill with which they had carried out their tasks. Their accomplishments were made even more difficult by the fact that they had to climb over and past the Engine crew to enter the dwelling.

After listening to this description of fearless and expert firefighting, my fellow newbie then asked the following simple, insightful, and illuminating question: "What was our assignment?"

The two "senior" firefighters almost simultaneously opened their mouths to answer, and then stopped when they realized they had not been given any such direction. Our acting officer and his partner had merely performed the tasks they thought were needed at the time. If the Incident Commander had preferred we first perform roof or window ventilation, each of which were carried out eventually, we never knew.

Furthermore, we, the other members of the team, had not been offered any direction by our "officer", leaving us on our own to determine the appropriate course of action. Surely, we had busied ourselves in performing the usual "Truck" tasks, and likely contributed to the ultimate control of the situation, but not in any coordinated manner.

This one question brought these facts, and more, to light, and in discussing the ramifications of the answer, we all came to a better understanding of the need, and methods, for working as a team.

"Tailboard" critiques - those that happen on the fireground, and usually involving just one company - are probably the best opportunity to teach and reinforce firefighting knowledge. They truly capitalize on the "teachable moment" that almost every emergency call offers, and for that reason should be performed after almost every call.

Often, such discussions just support the appropriateness of the actions performed, but other times they provide a chance to change behaviors and beliefs that otherwise would have manifested at a subsequent incident, possibly with dire consequences.

These on-scene discussions differ from more formal critiques, which are usually performed after large, unusual, or complex incidents, especially after some problem occurred. Those debriefings, while valuable in their own right, are often complicated by the presence of a large audience, which may stymie frank and honest dialogue; delays in scheduling, relying more on the potentially limited memories of participants; and the overall bias brought on by the urge to avoid criticism and promote praise.

Meeting immediately after the incident, while still on the scene, and in the relative safety of your own team, much more can be gained. Actions are still fresh in everyone's memories, the area can be viewed by all as the discussion is carried out, and the impact is immediate.

Even if the entire team's performance was flawless, the examination of the techniques utilized serves as a concrete demonstration for new firefighters, and reinforcement for veterans. Powerful lessons can be learned in this manner.

Being able to phrase a question that is both probing and non-threatening, as our driver had done, is a real gift. Even persons who lack that level of tact and insight, though, can be effective participants in such an exercise.

The basic method of starting such a discussion is to ask these three questions: What did we do well? What could we have done better? What do we need to do to be better next time? By honestly exploring the responses to these inquiries, every member of the team can improve their overall understanding of firefighting, and their fellow firefighters.

Performing this exercise at virtually every incident, the negative connotations of critiques become muted. Eventually, company members will become more comfortable with the process, and even expect to be given the opportunity to ask questions and learn. Furthermore, the benefits extend to the both the persons asking and answering questions.

There is no more powerful motivator for further study than to be asked a question you cannot answer.

I ask a lot of questions, and the answers usually serve merely to deepen my understanding of the operations of my newly adopted department. Sometimes, though, something I am trying to comprehend better is something that no one else has yet considered or addressed. Being willing to invite those questions, and take the time to seek, as a team, the correct answers to the problems that are thereby illustrated, is the basis of a priceless education.

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