Knowledge and Experience: Becoming the Senior Firefighter

By Jeff Johnson

Every day on fire apparatus across this country, senior firefighters are relied on for decision making during incidents. As company officers, apparatus operators, and firefighters, we depend on that experience and decision making to keep us safe. When assigned to a company, a junior firefighter arrives with the knowledge received from the fire academy or a firefighter training program he attended and possibly some previous experience. We must understand that although these junior firefighters have received the same basic training that the senior firefighters received, they do not have the experience and practical application to understand and make decisions like senior firefighters. Junior firefighters fresh from the academy or training program “do not have strategic or tactical knowledge”; they have “task” knowledge, and that is it. Below, I discuss how firefighters gain practical useful knowledge and put it to use.

When firefighters complete their basic academy or training program, they leave with the basic knowledge to implement whatever task their company officer assigns them. We may assume nothing beyond this. Absolutely, the academy training is a foundation on which they can build, but after that, they experience learning. Each time a firefighter practices pulling a handline from the engine, removing a ground ladder from a truck to clean it, or removing a cot from the ambulance, that person is learning. Senior firefighters and company officers can use these opportunities to teach tactical knowledge. Although it may be simple learning, it is building muscle memory. On arrival at a fire that necessitates a handline be stretched, the firefighter who has regularly practiced basic stretching at the firehouse, will be more capable and successful in stretching a handline than one who has not.

A senior firefighter shows new firefighters how critical it is to vent a metal deck roof without compromising the roof's structural integrity. (Photos by author.)

A senior firefighter shows new firefighters how
critical it is to vent a metal deck roof without
compromising the roof’s structural integrity. (Photos
by author.)

System 1 vs. System 2 Thinking

Combining classroom and practical hands-on training will reinforce the retention of the skill desired. Here’s one way to demonstrate that repetition improves proficiency: Think about the math problem 2 + 2. You most likely immediately had the answer without thinking about it. How did that happen? When you were in grade school, you were taught this math problem and how to solve it. Then, through repetition and application, solving the problem became effortless. According to Daniel Kahneman in Thinking, Fast and Slow, the mind has two systems.1 System 1 operates automatically and quickly with no effort, as with the math problem above.

Now look at the following math problem: 275 × 125. We do know how to solve the problem; however, we do not know the answer without thinking about it and working through it, which is system 2 thinking. Think in terms of fireground tasks: A firefighter who has conditioned his system 1 thinking through repetitive practice will stretch a handline more effectively and quickly because of the memory (system 1) he has built.

A newly promoted apparatus driver learns from the senior truck firefighter that, depending on how the apparatus is spotted and how the aerial device is deployed, the 105-foot platform will still not reach some places, the scrub areas.
A newly promoted apparatus driver learns from the senior truck firefighter that, depending on how the apparatus is spotted and how the aerial device is deployed, the 105-foot platform will still not reach some places, the “scrub areas.”

For system 2 thinking, consider the following. On arrival, the same firefighter steps off the rig, but instead of seeing a fire from a building with which he is familiar, he sees smoke coming from a rolled-over tanker truck. The system 2 thinking tells this firefighter that he lacks the memory and repetitive knowledge for this situation, and he searches for a possible solution. If a situation is unfamiliar, sometimes the solutions to apply are the best, “closest” solutions from previous incidents. The only way a firefighter can effectively operate on this type of incident is to have received training in this type of incident and be trained with practical memory-building evolutions. This firefighter will not recall the 50-slide PowerPoint® on tanker rollover emergencies clearly enough to jump into tactical decisions. At these types of incidents, the senior firefighters with more experience and knowledge must lead the way and identify the solution. Making sound decisions at incidents requires experience, knowledge, and practical training.

Let’s look at a house fire. A less experienced firefighter is entering a structure with smoke showing. Alongside the firefighter are the more senior firefighters and company officers. Now, this junior firefighter is making his way down a hallway with heavy smoke, no visibility, some heat, and lots of noise from his heart beating loudly in his ears. Firefighters from other companies are on the radio reporting their assignments and the conditions they are encountering. We have all been there, right?

But why, when we were scared to death, did we keep moving down that hallway while every fiber in our body was saying, “The fires in the drill tower in no way fully prepared me for this”? Because we had our senior firefighters and company officers right there encouraging us, telling us, “Kid, we got smoke but no heat. Keep moving!” Or the officer says, “The fire is in front of us; you’re doing well.” That learning moment not only expanded the firefighter’s knowledge and experience base for the next time the individual is on the handline, but it also will stay with the firefighter forever, until that person eventually becomes the senior firefighter.


A perfect example of this is Gary Klein’s story of a fire at which the lieutenant and his firefighters were advancing a handline into a kitchen area.2 Once they made the kitchen, the lieutenant told his nozzle firefighter to open the line and knock down the base of the fire, which he did. But something strange happened. The knocked-down fire flared right back up to the way they had found it. Something else was missing. The lieutenant could not put a finger on it. Something was not right (the gut feeling of intuition). He ordered his crew out of the kitchen area immediately. Within seconds, the kitchen floor collapsed into the raging inferno in the basement.

Firefighters learn the proper rope technique to perform a rope stretch of a handline, demonstrated by the senior firefighter.

Firefighters learn the proper rope technique to
perform a rope stretch of a handline,
demonstrated by the senior firefighter.


After the fire was out, the lieutenant’s firefighters asked what it was that told him to back out. Only then he realized what it was: The fire should have stayed down if they were hitting its seat. This fire was quiet; there were no sounds normally associated with a burning fire. What the lieutenant experienced was years of built-up experience and knowledge that led to a gut feeling of something not being right. The years of training and experience from practical application along with senior firefighters and officers that had his back came into play and probably saved his firefighters’ lives. Every firefighter who goes to any type of incident makes a mental file that will be stored for future recall. The more incidents, the more files essentially, and things that are practiced or used more often are readily accessible. Any incident is a teaching moment, and officers or senior firefighters should take the opportunity to teach. Our responsibility as leaders and senior members of our department is to train these inexperienced firefighters every day and prepare them for being the future senior firefighters and company officers.

Four Steps to Success

How do we train to build that experience? We can train to build practical and muscle memory using the following four steps: explanation, demonstration, application, and evaluation.

For example, say the drill is stretching the attack line.

Step 1: Explanation. We stretch the handline as shown because our goal is to have the fewest kinks and bends in the line as we place the nozzle and first coupling at the chosen entry point. For those who operate with limited staffing, the explanation might be, “We stretch the handline like this because we have one person to stretch the line, and this is the most effective method for a one-person stretch.

Step 2: Demonstration. Demonstrate the practical performance of the skill you are teaching. Physically stretch the line slowly and methodically, showing and explaining the steps needed to make the stretch successful.

 A senior firefighter demonstrates the one-person technique to force a metal door.
A senior firefighter demonstrates the one-person technique to force a metal door.

Step 3: Application. This is the most critical step because it’s where what has been taught and shown is applied. The firefighter uses the technique and steps shown during the explanation and demonstration to stretch the line. If at any point an error occurs, stop the stretch immediately and correct it. Once the firefighter has demonstrated the stretch properly, he must practice it over and over again until he can perform the skill without hesitation.

Step 4: Evaluation. In a successful evaluation, the firefighter demonstrates the stretch effectively without errors. Mental training is the next step-building scenarios that a firefighter can use to make critical decisions on the fireground.

We can build scenarios using technology as basic as the white board or as advanced as the computer. The best way to begin this training is to offer a situation-e.g., a commercial building fire. During this scenario, describe the building construction, the type of occupancy, the time of day, and the conditions on arrival. Draw out the exterior views and the interior floor layouts.

For example, the building is a three-story, Type IV (heavy timber) warehouse, occupied by a pool chemical company. Light smoke is showing from the second-floor B side. This scenario contains many teaching points, such as the following:

  • How is the Type IV structure built? What are the advantages/disadvantages of this construction type?
  • Since it is a three-story building, should we be concerned about elevators and movement of fire equipment and personnel?
  • Based on the occupancy type and the smoke showing, what should we be considering?
  • How are you going to stretch the line? To where?

A senior firefighter can give vivid answers to these questions and help build memory files of younger firefighters. Using the simulation, the firefighter will begin building knowledge through making decisions based on the information provided. To add real-time experience, have the senior person pitch in some situations where the firefighter has to change his thinking, such as, “When you enter the first-floor corridor, where do you think the stairs will be located?” The firefighter would respond, only to hear the senior firefighter tell him the stairwell is not there. How does the firefighter respond to this information? What you are creating is opportunities for the firefighter to think critically, to create a memory of a problem, and to solve the issue.

A final source of experience and knowledge is after-action reviews when the fire is out. The senior officer should lead personnel through the building describing what conditions were encountered and their actions to those conditions. Look at the building layout, where the fire started, and how it spread. Recognizing what did and didn’t go well through questions and answers with the companies involved creates impactful learning moments. This training can also take place on the site of a previous incident on a different shift. The company officer can conduct a walk-through and discuss the same things mentioned above and then question the officers and personnel who responded to the incident and see how the two groups would handle the situation.

Some claim they do not have proper training facilities or their department doesn’t provide that type of training, but there are unlimited opportunities for company officers and senior firefighters to train firefighters for incidents, particularly those that are low-frequency/high-consequence incidents.

We grow into our life’s calling as firefighters every day we go to the station and get on that engine or truck. We learn every day when we pull equipment such as handlines, appliances, and hand tools and go over how to use them properly. We learn every day when we go to a class and expand our knowledge base. We learn every day when we ask why and how decisions were made and then practice with that knowledge.

It is imperative that we as company officers and senior members of our organizations remember: “Tell me and I forget, teach me and I may remember, involve me and I will learn.” The junior firefighters are there, and they are ready to learn and be involved!


1. Kahneman, Daniel. (2011). Thinking Fast and Slow. Farrar, Straus and Giroux. New York: New York.

2. Klein, Calderwood, & Clinton-Cirocco. (1986). Recognition Primed Decision (RPD) Model. Klein and Associates: Fairborn, OH.

JEFF JOHNSON is a battalion chief with the Kansas City (MO) Fire Department and has 28 years in the fire service. He is assigned to Battalion 102 in downtown Kansas City. Johnson was an instructor at FDIC 2014 and will return for FDIC 2015.

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