Matt McDowell: What Does “Street Smart” Really Mean

By Matt McDowell

During Recruit School, I was young, eager to learn, and hanging on every word the instructors said.  The exciting prospect of fighting fire and the “fear of the unknown” made me like a sponge.  Like so many others, once we hit the drill field, I had questions about how the skills would be applied in the “real world.”  This is usually the part where things got fuzzy.  Too often, the response seemed to be, “When you get back to your stations, they’ll show you how they want it done.”  While it is true that the firehouse can, will, and does give you answers to mostly all questions, during Recruit School, this response usually only spawned more questions (and doubts) about the skill at hand.  In reality, for many, those real-world answers never come, and we are left with firefighters who could fall into a number of categories.  Too often, the categories they fall into are either insecure or falsely secure.

Fast forward quite a few years.  I have been teaching firefighters and recruits for a while now.  When I started on this instructor path, I decided that I would not be “that guy.”  I decided that I would take the time to explain and differentiate why things are the way they are in training and why they may be different on the street.  So here we are.  As the years have rolled on, I have noticed that firefighters can range from strictly by the book or wildly not.  What we are going for is somewhere in between.

Like most things, the skillset of a firefighter is about balance.  The ability to be fluid with the application and adaptation of our skills is absolutely vital to a successful outcome for us and the people we serve.  Too much safety, and you can be paralyzed into untimely actions.  However, too little safety, and you are a disaster waiting to happen.  People’s lives depend on our ability to maintain a balance of safety that allows us to take calculated risks to perform difficult and dangerous work in a timely manner.  We serve the public.  However, civilian safety is a function of firefighter safety.  Your ability to do your job is directly related to your ability to stay in the fight and serve your citizens.  To help keep you in the fight and stay safe, you need to be S.A.F.E. – smart, aggressive, fundamentally sound, and efficient.


We all had while growing up the friends who seemed to have the world by the tail.  They were smooth, seemed to get what they wanted, and usually got away with whatever they wanted.  We often refer to these types of people as street smart.  They seemed to be comfortable in otherwise uncomfortable situations.  However, if you look a little deeper, despite their apparent comfort level in otherwise awkward and stressful situations, they were true masters of their craft.  Most of my buddies who were swindlers were pretty average guys who took the time to learn the system and had the gumption to use the system to their advantage.  Sound familiar?  That is what being street smart is all about.

We all know people who can pass every test and recite every National Fire Protection Association number and pump calculation.  We also know people who can tell you every whiz-bang trick for every skill.  As we’ve already discussed, you need to have a balance.  Mrs. Smith is calling us to perform a job, not read her a book report.  Likewise, Mrs. Smith expects us to perform as professionals when we show up.  When we arrive at any incident, regardless of its severity, we are showing the public what their tax money or donations are paying for.  We live in an age where people complain about a generation that always asks “why”.  Knowing the “why” is what being a street-smart firefighter is about.  It is the question that all too often is left unanswered in recruit school.  Knowing why is what gives us the ability to adjust to a situation we could not prepare for (photo 1).

(1)  An instructor reviews emergency nozzle operations with students. (Photos by author.)

Photos by author.

We need to know what the safety factors are so when we have to adjust the angle of the ladder or use a saw in an awkward position we understand where our adjustment can be made and what the limit is.  Not knowing where the limit is can lead to more damage or danger for the civilian because we don’t adjust enough.  It could lead to more damage or danger for us because we push too far.  Being smart is about knowing why, knowing where the magic line is, and being willing to adjust your tactics based on that knowledge.


The word “aggressive” has been getting a bad rap in the fire service most of my career.  The reality is that fighting fire is about the survival of the fittest.  Simply put, either we win or someone gets hurt, dies, or loses everything he owns.  This profession is not for the timid.  We have historically and stereotypically attracted the “alpha” into our ranks.  Alphas thrive on achievement, challenges, and overcoming obstacles.  What better challenge than one of the most volatile forces of nature?  Nothing is more challenging that pulling up at a good working fire first-due and knowing that the outcome rests on your shoulders and those of your brothers and sisters coming in behind you.  “As the first line goes, so goes the fire.”  It’s what we thrive on.

It is also a very true cliché that we are behind the eight-ball from the start.  When we arrive at these fires, we understand that the situation is dynamic and quickly changing and that swift and correct actions are necessary to help us “catch up” and eventually get ahead of the situation.  All too often, we hear people refer to themselves as “aggressive interior” firefighters.  The rationale is that, if it’s not hard and fast through the front door, it is not aggressive.  That is not true.

We cannot pick and choose what we are good at and call ourselves professionals.  Likewise, you cannot be aggressive at fire attack and neglect ventilation.  Doing so could have very poor results.  If you are a professional and you work for a professional crew and organization, you owe it to yourself to be well-trained, efficient, and aggressive in all areas of firefighting.  Going back to the balance thing, if we want to be truly safe at these fires, we have to be equally as assertive with water supply, ladders, and forcible entry as we are with fire attack. Though not as glorious, all are equally important at a fire in terms of safety for civilians and firefighters and effectiveness.  A more appropriate approach to being aggressive is to be as assertive and as proactive as the situation allows


If you are going to be smart, you have to know the “why” of both the books and the street.  If you are going to be truly aggressive, you have to be skilled to point of mastery.  Mastery, whether academic or practical, is rooted in fundamentals.  Even professional athletes constantly train on the most basic skill sets required for their positions.  Why is this?  Well, let’s talk about eighth-grade science.  More specifically, let’s talk about fight or flight.  Very simply stated, when you are faced with an intensely stressful situation, your body reacts by releasing adrenaline, your pulse increases, and you begin to lose your fine motor skills.  The only way to combat this is to build muscle memory through intense repetitious training to the point that you will be on autopilot during the most stressful situations.  This allows your body to carry out functions while your mind is busy doing other things.  A common reference to this is “training until you can’t get it wrong.”  In the book On Combat, Lt. Colonel Dave Grossman and Loren Christianson wrote, “You do not rise to the occasion (in combat); you sink to the level of your training” (photo 2)

(2) While at the burn building, a truck company firefighter practices carrying multiple ladders of different lengths together.


Once you have all the pieces put together; you understand why and you have mastered how. Then, you start to tie it into the overall operation.  It is naïve and unrealistic to believe that any one fireground task is any more important than another.  Likewise, we can assume that we will have to perform multiple tasks at any given fire.  For any fire department, the mark of efficiency is reflected in the ability to carry out multiple tasks simultaneously and create the desired outcome.  For smaller departments, it may be the ability to prioritize and then assign tasks to achieve the desired outcome.  Either way, efficiency boils down to maximizing the work potential of the resources available given any scenario.


We have established that safety is not a traffic vest or a self-fastening cloth with your name on it.  To be safe, you have to make sure that your people understand why we do things a certain way, where it fits into the big picture, and how to use that knowledge to adjust to the situation at hand.  We have to make sure we are training until we cannot get it wrong.  We have to achieve mastery of our skills so that when we undertake a balanced and aggressive fireground operation, we have the muscle memory needed to perform our duties under highly stressful circumstances.  To achieve these things, we have to make a commitment to constantly improve on the front end.  Remember, civilian safety is a function of firefighter safety.  By being S.A.F.E. –smart, aggressive, fundamentally sound, and efficient–you become a “street smart firefighter.”


MATT McDOWELL is the chief of training for the North Charleston (SC) Fire Department, instructor for the South Carolina Fire Academy, and president of SAFE Firefighter, LLC.  He has previously served as president of the Low Country FOOLS, captain for the Bluffton Twp. (SC) Fire District, training officer for the Hardeeville (SC) Fire Department, and firefighter for the Hyattsville Volunteer Fire Department in Prince George’s County, Maryland. He has a degree in fire service management and had done course work in occupational safety and health with concentrations in fire science. 

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