Drills, Firefighting, Leadership

From The Jumpseat: Spotting Talent

By Mark J. Cotter

It was in a darkened, cluttered room, while searching for a simulated victim, that I caught a glimpse of a potentially gifted firefighter. Three of us volunteers were participating in a department-wide series of training drills in a group of houses slated for demolition. The exercise in point was a search for a reported victim, while wearing SCBA with blinded masks. The instructors, though, had other lessons to teach.

The other two participants in my group were rookies – cadets, in fact, as they were both under the age of eighteen. The team preceding us had failed to locate the prize, and we were the last crew of the evening to attempt that drill, so we had some extra motivation to succeed, and thereby prove our abilities. The simulated search was complicated enough by its artificial nature – knowing it was a drill deprived us of the usual adrenaline boost from such activities, and the need to maintain building integrity until the final burn prevented us from venting windows as we searched. With temperatures in the upper seventies, wearing full turnout gear, and the building closed up tight, we were sweating as soon as we entered.

Our department’s victim prop looks something like a life-size Ken doll, weighing about 175 pounds, but with unnaturally articulated joints that allow him to move more like Raggedy Andy. It had been stashed behind a sofa, and we located it with a methodical and thorough search that seemed almost too easy. Meanwhile, our officers were practicing the common fire instruction method of providing a scenario to address, and then introducing unexpected hazards and obstacles to manage. They had rigged wires about the room, looping them over our SCBAs as we searched.

My entanglement was ended quickly with the wire cutters I always carry in my right turnout coat pocket (along with a retractable drywall knife, and nothing more). One of my cadet teammates, though, took a different tact. When he realized he was unable to disconnect the wire, he grabbed onto it tightly and pulled it free from its attachment on the wall. This brought a howl of protest from the instructors, who used this teachable moment to vehemently inform him of the unlikelihood of breaking a wire by merely pulling, despite the fact that he had just succeeded in doing so. The rookie, on the other hand, had quickly, and accurately, determined that such an artificial impediment had likely just been nailed to a wall loosely, and therefore could be pulled free with relative ease, allowing him to continue the search unimpeded.

Experience, in this instance, had been somewhat of a hindrance. Having participated in enough of these makeshift “simulations”, I was accustomed to the need to play along when presented with an unlikely problem (like someone dropping a looped wire over your SCBA), and to endeavor to learn the intended lesson (in this case, Disentanglement). The cadet, on the other hand, was problem solving with no such preconceptions, and actually did quite well for himself, the instructors’ comments notwithstanding. Being able to think rapidly and clearly in such a stressful, albeit contrived, setting is a real gift. True to this early taste, I have witnessed this same cadet demonstrate repeatedly that same ability to think quickly, and occasionally “outside the box”, to the benefit of the department and our citizens.

Rookie firefighters are in many ways like children: they are energetic, eager to learn, and need lots of care and attention if you want them to turn out right. One other attribute they share is an inability to deceive well. Except for the immediate impression they project, which is often bravado or shyness, what you can discern of their true natures in their early days and weeks with the department provides a pretty accurate prediction of the long term product. This insight offers an opportunity to nip bad attitudes in the bud, while fertilizing their strengths, to the organization’s advantage.

Another indication of a newbie’s skills was gleaned from a comment after a late-night alarm. We had been dispatched to a dormitory at the local university for a structure fire at about 3 AM. We found smoldering clothing from an unattended, illicit candle, with smoke also contaminating one adjoining room. Our department uses a recall system, with pagers and a station horn, to alert volunteers and off-duty career members to respond, and that call, at that hour, brought more than enough assistance.

A few days later, as we were re-hashing our activities at that incident, the rookie in question commented that she had not responded to the alarm as she had an early class the next day, and she knew that any fire in that dorm could not involve more than two rooms because of its construction. She was subjected to an immediate and heated lecture from veteran members on the necessity of responding to all alarms due to the possibility of additional alarms or unusual circumstances (multiple coed victims of smoke inhalation would come to mind), which taught her, among other things, not to explain her absence from alarms with such candor.

What her excuse showed me was someone who has an uncanny ability to perform risk analysis. Her assessment of the construction was quite accurate, especially considering she was awakened from sleep with the location information. The building involved is, in fact, built like a concrete motel, with all rooms opening onto an outdoor balcony, and separated from each other with solid walls, ceilings, and floors. Again, we need all possible hands at any such fire, but I was duly impressed by her grasp of building construction and fire behavior.

We can be annoyed by these “skills” if we allow it. One of our probies had a particular knack for working our department’s administrative system in ways that were unheard of previously. Personal protective equipment in our organization is dispensed by a quartermaster after he receives a written work order from a company line officer. Our rookie was interested in obtaining the latest edition of turnouts, despite a tradition of equipping new volunteers with hand-me-down gear and ensuring they show some staying power before purchasing custom-fitted items.

He went from officer to officer, sometimes playing one against the other like a con man, eventually receiving a set of the newest turnout gear we had, all the time using methods not (exactly) prohibited by our policies. This member’s gift to the Department was the motivation to tweak the gear policy to prevent such abuses. Also, he will be my pick for a spot on the grant-writing committee.

These individuals, in light of their violations of department rules, policies, and culture, show the need for careful mentoring and training to correct such habits and maintain order. Still, the strengths and talents they demonstrate through those impertinent actions must not be missed in our zeal to enforce compliance, lest we lose the baby with the bathwater. Indeed, firefighters must be able to follow orders, policies, and procedures, but we can teach that to the willing, and dismiss those resistant to such obedience. Being able to think and problem solve are also a great assets, while teaching those behaviors is much, much harder. Holding onto those who already exhibit such attributes is vital.

Mark Cotter, a member of the fire service for more than 30 years, is a volunteer firefighter/EMT-B with the Salisbury (MD) Fire Department and is employed as an emergency department physician’s assistant. Previously, he served with departments in New Jersey and Pennsylvania as an EMT-paramedic, an emergency services consultant, and fire chief. Cotter is author of the column “From the Jumpseat” on FireEngineering.com.