Many of you will agree to the value of the critique–this post-operation ceremony of data gathering. Many of you also may have different ideas of just what, when, why, how, and of what value a critique is. The fire service critique is traditionally (bad word on the West Coast) divided into two categories: the formal and the informal critique.

Formal critique. The formal critique is usually conducted too late after the operation. It occurs because of a large and complicated operation, loss of life, or standard departmental operational procedures; or, it occurs because it is ordered by another. Its value is usually questionable at best (at least for immediate operational enhancements of the first-arriving units).

Let me explain: It occurs too late after the operation. Stories related are not factual–they represent regurgitations of standard operating procedures already in place (at least the ones that cannot be checked). Untruths are made up and told and retold until they become truths–both to the speaker and the listener.

Many of the players are not in attendance–because of vacation and sick leaves, transfers, shift swaps, and even retirements.

Formal critiques usually are not for operational improvement. Look around. How many of the people are members? How many are appointed and promoted and not elected? How many are writing on small pieces of paper accompanied by someone holding a light or flash camera?

Informal critique. This critique is a little more valuable but still misses the mark. It is conducted, by definition, by “the” incident commander or interim incident commander. As defined by almost all fire service texts (pretty much by rote because no author seems to want to change), it is conducted “…soon after return to quarters AND the apparatus and equipment are maintained and made ready for response AND the responding personnel`s physical needs are attended to (the traditional three Ss and a change of clothes).” This ceremony is to be held in an informal atmosphere around some form of nourishment–coffee, tea, milk, etc.

This is also too late! People say what they wish happened, what no one can check on. It is not that they are lying; it is just that they have told the story so often, in their own minds during overhaul and take up, and to their buddies over the motor compartment during the return trip to quarters. Certainly they have edited it while listening to others talking while readying the apparatus for the next run.

Proper critique. The time to have a critique is right after being released by the incident commander and before beginning to take up. Information is fresh in everyone`s mind. All are present to participate. All equipment is still available and some is still in place. apparatus is in place and relational to the fire structure and other apparatus. Hoselines are still stretched, and hydrant hookups are still made (at least the important ones). Most important–the building (or other operation event) is still in front of you and accessible! All can see the engine chauffeur point out pump and supply problems/ lessons, “too much hose” is still in its lump state, forcible entry problems are visible, and interior search difficulties can be shown to others (go to the floor below on burnouts). Roof operations, problems, and results can be reviewed on location, on the actual roof when necessary, as can the unseen sides of the building–especially the rear and the shafts.

A few qualities about this critique must be in place for it to have any value. The company officer plays a key role in this procedure. Not only must he gather the team, but team members must “believe.” They must believe that it will occur every time (even if all agree there are no lessons). This will not only encourage the memory of each member, but a firefighter will aggressively seek lessons that can be shared later. All firefighters must believe that this critique is a great asset to the operation of the unit. Most important, they must believe that there are no mistakes–there are only lessons! The only mistake on the fireground is if the member “does it again.”

There must be trust among all the troops. All must believe that each must relate exactly what happened and that what is said in the critique stays there. There are many benefits to this operation that may be apparent. Let me list a few that may not be so apparent.

The officer should begin the discussion at the apparatus. Ask members what they saw; what they did; what was different; what difficulties, problems, and results they encountered (good or bad); and what they would do next time.

If a member outlines a problem that any member has trouble visualizing or understanding, go to the location, get a piece of equipment, and try it out.

Each member will get the experience of the other position for the same fire. In the engine, the second and third firefighters on the line will understand the difficulties and lessons of the nozzle person. If this is not done, the only lesson is, “When you have the nozzle, kid, keep screaming for more hose!” All will have the benefit of review of the pump operator (how many of you listen to this story after the fire is out?).

In the truck, all will get the advantage of roof operations. Accesses can be reviewed, and actions and problems can be seen. Forcible entry problems can be reviewed, and search difficulties can be enhanced by suggestions from all the members. Ventilation problems can be discussed from the perspectives of those inside the structure and those outside the structure. Results of fire behavior can be vivid for those conducting these interrelational operations.

One of the most important results of always conducting this critique is that each member begins to understand the entire operation and his or her part in it. It is result-oriented. Each position or assignment begins to have a “why” and “how important” to it. Couple this with interchangeable assignments at all roll calls, and you will build an unbeatable team within a few months.

Again, the company officer is the key! He must call the meeting and begin the discussion. It is helpful if the officer focuses on what he wishes he personally could do better next time; it sets the tone and builds the trust.

I often think of the great line from a baseball movie that referred to a yet nonexistent ballfield and team. The star of the movie was told (as is the company officer intimidated by the prospect of holding a critique), “Build it, and they will come!”

Besides, if you do not adopt the procedure of conducting a company critique on the fireground, the only option left for you is to help pick up hose!

TOM BRENNAN has more than 33 years of fire service experience. His career spans more than 20 years with the City of New York (NY) Fire Department as well as four years as chief of the Waterbury (CT) Fire Department. He was editor of Fire Engineering for eight years and currently is a technical editor. He is co-editor of The Fire Chief`s Handbook, Fifth Edition (Fire Engineering Books, 1995).

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