BY BRIAN ARNOLD
Firefighters often proclaim that they are “jack-of-all-trades and master of none.” What does this mean? The job of today’s firefighter encompasses many skills; we are trained in areas such as fire suppression, EMS, hazardous materials, structural collapse, weapons of mass destruction (WMD), and water rescue, just to name a few. Our base knowledge increases with each class we attend and certification we obtain.
As a “jack-of-all-trades,” we learn about many trades and their related skills insofar as they relate to our profession, but we generally don’t try to learn every facet. Our base knowledge includes all of the skills we have learned throughout our lives, obtained from reading books and professional trade magazines, school, and bull sessions around the table after a good working fire. But your base knowledge doesn’t just include specific firefighting skills; it also includes all of the other skills you have picked up along the way. However, these other skills seem to be slipping away from some of our newer-generation firefighters.
When you came on the job, whether at the age of 18 or 38, you brought with you some basic life skills your parent or grandparent taught youhow to change the oil in a car, basic home repairs, servicing a lawn mowersimple stuff that would help you as you became independent. Some of us were introduced to more life skills than others and helped out with the family business as carpenters, plumbers, or mechanics. These firefighters may have carried on those trades and developed them into a craft on their days away from the fire station and had a high level of knowledge in these areas.
So when you started your firefighting career, your base knowledge level depended on how many different life skills you had learned up to that point. If raised on a farm, you probably would have had a good working knowledge of the various farming tools and equipment you operated. You may have helped with construction projects and had to figure out how to complete a project without a skilled carpenter. If you grew up in a large city, you probably knew more about high-rise structures and how elevators work, traffic problems, and occupancy rates in different areas during the day and night. We are products of the environments in which we grew up and in which we work.
As a firefighter, how did you learn about basic construction principles and how they will react to an internal fire if you have never framed, put up drywall, or trimmed out a house? How do you know about thermal layering inside a high-rise structure if you were never inside one until your first day on the job? What about the differences between vehicle extrication involving a car vs. a semitruck? Have you ever had to disassemble a PTO with someone’s arm wrapped up in it? At some point in your career, someone had to teach you all of these skills to prepare you to handle these types of incidents.
Although times do change, some changes are not for the better of the fire service. How many of our new recruits have never operated a chain or rotary saw until recruit school? They may have never used a hammer and nails other than to hang a picture on the wall, let alone smash and bash their way into a structure using a halligan and sledge. It’s not that these people will be any less of a firefighter, just that they will need to add different sets of skills to their base knowledge to become good firefighters.
Who will take the lead in teaching these new firefighters those skills that may be missing? How do we get there from here? If left to their own devices, some members will choose not to further themselves to learn new skills. Others will seek out firefighters who can teach them these skills and how to apply them to the fire service. We all need to increase our base knowledge, but sometimes we need someone to show us the way.
REALIZE HOW MUCH YOU DON’T KNOW
The first step in increasing your base knowledge is to realize how much you don’t know! The unknowns on the fireground are the toughest to plan for in an incident. How smoothly a fire incident would run if we knew exactly where a fire will travel to and exactly how much water it will take to extinguish it. You may be saying, “But I do know these things!” and you are right. You’ve taken the time to do the building walkthrough/preplan, study the hydraulics manuals, and practice stretching the lines and operating different nozzle techniques. But, what about the person next to you? What about the truck company that has never used its K-tool and the through-the-lock method? What about the engine company that’s never practiced stretching a 2½-inch line down a narrow corridor? Operating as a team, we are only as strong as our weakest link. All of the information we gather throughout our career makes up our base knowledge, and we should strive to add to it each day.
So you’ve done all of these things to increase your firefighting base knowledgetook every class your department offers and never missed a single opportunity to attend a fire conference or seminar. But how about those classes the fire department doesn’t teach but that provide valuable skills applicable to firefightingclasses covering basic carpentry, residential/commercial gypsum board hanging, basic welding, small engine repair, or a commercial driver’s class for big rigs and heavy machinery, for example?
Many fire departments nationwide pay an incentive to firefighters who obtain an associate’s, a bachelor’s, or a higher degree. They understand that the more base knowledge their employees have in any area, the more valuable they are. Now a master’s degree in English literature may not make you a better nozzleman, but it will sure come in handy if you are a supervisor who has to do a great deal of report writing. What if every firefighter had a master’s degree in architecture? Every single one of us would be experts on how the building was constructed and the types of loads it was designed to withstand. However, it’s not only the book-smart skills firefighters need to make them a better hand during an incident. It’s more about a combination of the book smarts coupled with the hands-on skills that make firefighters stand out.
Think about the last time you operated at a fast-moving structure fire and that seasoned officer or firefighter who knew before stretching the first line where the nozzle needed to go to get ahead of the fire. Chances are that individual possessed a good deal of knowledge in building construction in addition to fire behavior. Where did he get this knowledge? Some gather it over years in the fire service through the trial-by-fire method. But others actively seek out this knowledge before the alarm comes in; they are years ahead of those who wait for the years of experience to come to them. As the number of structure fires across the United States decreases, so does our hands-on experience in dealing with fires and how they react.
What about an incident in which you need someone to operate a forklift, a front-end loader, or another piece of heavy machinery? Where will you find such skilled people when you need them at an incident? Will you have to call an outside agency and wait for a skilled operator to arrive, or do you have qualified firefighters within your department? The combination of firefighting and forklift skills in one person would eliminate the exposure of a civilian to the fire’s dangers. No one wants headlines about a civilian being overcome by smoke while operating a forklift in a warehouse fire trying to move piles of stock so the firefighters could extinguish the fire.
THE IMPORTANCE OF TRAINING
The best way to increase your base knowledge is through proper training. We do it all the time and don’t even realize it when we walk through a vacant building. You make (or should be making) mental notes of the basic constructionholes in floors, ceilings, and walls. You find an open shaft that will act as a chimney when a fire gets going and will kill the firefighter who unwittingly finds it under zero visibility. Those familiar with the structure tell of previous events and problems they may have encountered. Your knowledge increases with each tidbit of information.
You may find that the bars on the windows and doors in the structures in your area are too fortified for your current forcible entry tools and thus seek out training on alternative tools to do the job. How many of your firefighters know how to use a cutting torch or burning bar? You may even have the best instructors in the world right there at your fingertipsyour firefighters! Or you may have to go to a local welding company or vocational/technical school. Either way, what a great opportunity to teach a new skill or refresh the old hands before the fire starts.
Live-fire training has taken a new form with the advent of gas-fired trainers, fixed burn facilities, and computer-based scenarios. Live-fire training lets everyone practice and hone their nozzle handling, search and rescue, and ventilation skills. But unless it’s an acquired structure that will eventually be burned to the ground, the fire conditions simulated in trainers will not exactly resemble those found in a normally constructed building. Although the above training facilities are helpful, they should be supplemented with videos, presentations, walk-throughs, and other hands-on opportunities. Live-fire training in acquired structures is incredibly valuable and dangerous in its own right. Whether using a gas-fired, fixed facility or an acquired structure, training must adhere to National Fire Protection Association 1403, Standard on Live Fire Training Evolutions, to accomplish the mission of a safe training evolution.
Seek out experts outside the fire service. Invite a local gas company representative to show your crew shutoff valves and how to properly plug a line if it’s in your standard operating procedures. The local small engine repair shop staff can show you some basics on your chain or rotary saw and some simple tricks to start a flooded saw when you really need it. Building contractors are a gold mine of information when they allow you into new or remodeled construction sites to observe how a building is constructed. Check out local auto dealers that service vehicles, and look at the new air bag technology that will impact your extrication techniques if you have to cut up a new vehicle. Such relationships with local business leaders bring the instructors to your firehouse door and into the classroom.
Knowing how every building and each piece of machinery is constructed and how they can be taken apart directly affects your firefighting career. This is truly what makes us the jack-of all-trades! A wise chief once said, “When you believe you have learned all there is to know about firefighting, it’s time to retire.” Every day is a training day, a chance to increase your base knowledge level. How much knowledge you gather over the course of your career is completely up to you.
BRIAN ARNOLD is a 21-year veteran of the fire service and a captain with the Oklahoma City (OK) Fire Department. Since 1999, he has served at the Fire Training Center at the EOC Technology Center in Choctaw as a lead instructor and is head of curriculum development. He is an International Fire Service Accreditation Congress-certified firefighter II, a firefighter instructor 1, an NREMT-P, and an EMT educator for the State of Oklahoma.