Tailboard Talk: Connecting the Dots

By Dane Carley and Craig Nelson

Many children love to play the game “Connect the Dots.” Many firefighters, being children at heart, also love to play games; sometimes, we may even be connecting the dots without realizing it.

In the children’s version, it is a simple game of going from dot to dot in the order of the numbers, but if we look at it from an emergency operations perspective, it can have much greater meaning and value to us. In emergency services, the game can be used as a tool for all firefighters, officers, and chiefs. We in emergency services can follow certain steps to ensure that we are constantly increasing the abilities of those working around us. The game can remind us that teaching our people can be like connecting the dots; there is a step-by-step process to follow. It also can remind us that for every firefighter, officer, and chief, we must remember to teach them the whys between each step to help connect the dots of understanding. When this is done properly, we can take our members to the higher levels of performance beyond knowledge, understanding, and application. We can take them to the upper levels, where we find the abilities to correlate, analyze, and create. If we remember to teach the Whys, we can successfully complete our game of teaching and learning taking those in emergency services to the higher levels performance.

The fire service has a lot of great people who are doing a lot of great things, but we are also very busy. When we get busy, we tend to rush, and when we rush we are prone to skipping the time-consuming steps like explaining why. This can lead to shortcuts and missing things, preventing our people from reaching the higher levels of performance. Some examples of this might be unfamiliar orders to complete a task that are not explained at a later time or a new person being told to “figure it out” on his own. Time constraints can lead to a “good enough” attitude. It could even lead to “what are the odds we’ll need to know THAT.”

This can happen in our operations, and it can also happen to our culture. Saying things such as, “What’s the big deal if we don’t eat together?” and “I didn’t know that retiree who passed away, so why should I go to the funeral?” can lead us off course. These are examples of what happens when we do not teach those following in our footsteps who and why we are.

We are the fire service. We are a brotherhood (this includes all women in the fire service).There are many reasons for this; some include having had a large amount of personnel turnover, sky-rocketing call volumes, or special projects aimed at making your department better. No matter what your reasons may be that cause you to lose sight, they should not get in the way of the why. Everyone in the fire service should be teaching and learning every day because every firefighter, company officer, and chief is always a student and a teacher.

When the constant learning culture takes hold, we can reach higher levels of performance by reaching higher levels of understanding. When we look at how our fire departments perform, there may be a strong correlation between how teaching and training is accomplished and the success of an organization. Some of the formal training should come from the training department or training personnel, but the bulk of it needs to come from everyone in the organization daily as the opportunities arise. The idea of always looking for a training opportunity needs to be institutionalized by every crew member and every chief. If things are left at the Firefighter I level, there is a good chance this person will have knowledge from the class and understanding from application in the hands-on portion, but to take these skills to the next level of correlation—to truly connect the next dot—members must be taught the why at every step of the way. Once a person has knowledge, understanding, and application, he can begin to build correlations. When a firefighter, officer, or chief begins to make correlations, we see the greatest progress and potential because he has broken free from the initial building blocks of basic comprehension and understanding.

Building correlations is the launching pad to a higher level of performance but, sadly, this is where we often stop with our teaching and learning. We must always remember that when we are busy, tired, or rushed, complacency will try to creep in. We must fight the temptation and push for greater understanding that the most successful people in the fire service not only strive for but often reach; this is where true high performance lies. The people who can build correlations fully understand not only independent fire service subjects but also how fire service knowledge, skills, and abilities fit into the surrounding world. When our people reach this level, they can begin developing the ability to analyze and create. The abilities to analyze and create are the peak of the learning mountain and are critical to the success of all high-performance emergency service organizations in today’s fast-paced world. At these higher levels, people can see the bigger picture; think outside the box; and create new ideas, projects, tools, procedures, and tactics. When you have people at this level in your organization, your organization has a greater potential for success, all just by teaching the why every step of the way.

Always remember, every one of us is a student and a teacher. As teachers, we must teach all those around us the why. As students, we must ask those around us why? This is how we begin to “connect the dots.” 


Craig Nelson (left) works for the Fargo (ND) Fire Department and works part-time at Minnesota State Community and Technical College – Moorhead as a fire instructor. He also works seasonally for the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources as a wildland firefighter in Northwest Minnesota. Previously, he was an airline pilot. He has a bachelor’s degree in business administration and a master’s degree in executive fire service leadership.

Dane Carley (right) entered the fire service in 1989 in southern California and is currently a captain for the Fargo (ND) Fire Department. Since then, he has worked in structural, wildland-urban interface, and wildland firefighting in capacities ranging from fire explorer to career captain. He has both a bachelor’s degree in fire and safety engineering technology, and a master’s degree in public safety executive leadership. Dane also serves as both an operations section chief and a planning section chief for North Dakota’s Type III Incident Management Assistance Team, which provides support to local jurisdictions overwhelmed by the magnitude of an incident.

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