Yogi, Edison, Topsy, and Tesla

Even though it may or may not be true, the great Yogi Berra is credited with saying, “We made too many wrong mistakes.” That comment is an interesting take on human error if you think about it. From the home office, two of the all-time best firefighters of our generation have said the same thing in slightly different ways. The first said, “No one ever has to be wrong for me to be right and their being right doesn’t make my position wrong.” The other said, “No one is wrong or right; it’s just their point of view; we’re products of our environment.”

Throughout the ages, we have struggled with the opinions and motives of others; firefighters are not immune. It is almost impossible today to go online and not read someone commenting on what someone else “thinks.” We have all had thousands upon thousands of conversations where we or someone else described in great detail the motives and opinions of others. We do so sometimes with so much certainty that when we’re doing it we don’t even recognize our own hypocrisy.

That is not to say that we should not have opinions or positions; we should, and we do. But it is also important to recognize that others have opinions and positions, which deserve our respect and consideration. One of the behavioral rules written on my desk says, “Do not fight (argue) with those who are not willing to see another perspective; when in battle (argument), repeat the other side until they say you have their argument.” This is great advice but sometimes very difficult to do. Seeing someone else’s perspective requires that we let go of our own preconceived notions and allow ourselves to see the world through a different set of eyes. This is easier said than done.

One of the great stories from history about perspectives, motives, and opinions involves the great Thomas Edison and the genius Nikolai Tesla-two giants deeply involved in the early days of electricity. The story goes that Edison hired Tesla and tasked him with designing a way to better carry electrical power-specifically direct-current (DC) distribution (which Edison had heavily invested in and was deeply committed to but in several correspondences revealed that he had reservations about). Edison had promised Tesla a $50,000 bonus if he could produce a system for the more efficient carriage of electrical power.

Tesla was successful in designing a system; unfortunately, it was alternating current (AC), which was able to move electricity for greater distances with significantly less power loss. This did not sit well with Edison. Edison refused to pay Tesla the bonus. Tesla resigned and went to work for a competitor, the Westinghouse Corporation. With Tesla working for Westinghouse developing AC systems for electrical delivery, a huge rivalry ensued between Edison and Westinghouse. Several things were at play here: First, there was the money. Edison had equipment and facilities already built based on DC power. Also, and perhaps more importantly, there were pride and reputation.

The war between the Edison Company and the Westinghouse Electric Company involved many things, including accusations of intentionally putting people at risk of electrocution from using AC to save money. Edison tried to have lawmakers place restrictions on AC transmissions and even began a campaign of electrocutions to show the danger. Probably the most famous and horrific involved an elephant named Topsy, whom Edison electrocuted with AC in 1903 and filmed for the world to see.

In the end, Westinghouse’s AC became the most common and widely used form of electricity. However, direct current is still critically important in many facets of electronics and in the delivery of high-voltage electricity long distances.

There is a tremendous opportunity for us as firefighters to learn from the great AC/DC wars. Neither Tesla nor Edison was wrong or right, to quote my good friend; they were both just products of their environments. Today, we have much discussion in the fire service regarding tactics, operations, tasks, and evolutions. There are strong opinions and positions on both sides. There are those who are staunchly embedded in their more traditional positions and those who are equally embedded in new, alternative positions. One could argue that Tesla was more curious than embedded. One could argue that Edison was more right than wrong. The market, in their case, selected them both but for different reasons.

As to the fire service, I would say that 99 percent of us are insatiably curious and at the same time incredibly traditional. It is the number-one leading attribute of a firefighter: a relentless, compelling desire to learn, improve, and exceed expectations while simultaneously embracing a solemn respect for our traditions and legacies.

As with AC and DC, we now know that there are times when both are preferable. So it is with tactics and operational procedures. It is clearly obvious that given certain conditions, resources, and opportunities, it is best to favor one tactic over another. To embrace one default tactic is clearly unacceptable at every level. To believe that one mode of operation is the only acceptable way to approach any situation is to deny evolution, progress, and basic human instinct. There are times on the fireground when we use unique solutions and times when we apply standard solutions. Understanding the difference is the true test.

It is okay to protect and defend a tactic that you know is effective, safe, and efficient. It is perfectly acceptable to be embedded in such a way, provided that you are also open and willing to look at, explore, and be ready to operationalize a new curiosity when appropriate. But to be embedded staunchly one way or the other is to be “making the wrong mistake.”

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