Professional Development for the Firefighter in 2014 and Beyond, Part 2

By John M. Buckman III

For Part 1, click HERE

Being a competent firefighter encompasses physical, mental, and emotional skills or, as educational psychologists like to say, the psychomotor, cognitive, and affective domains. Being a competent firefighter means riding all three of these horses simultaneously and consistently well. Obviously, this is not an easy task, and some will balk at the attempt to achieve such competence. But a firefighter who can’t control his emotions during an emergency is not exhibiting good firefighter behavior. True firefighting requires physical, mental, and emotional competence. Specific benchmarks for these areas of firefighting are left for individuals or organizations to develop according to their type of firefighting.

Expertise demands consistency. The demands of firefighting operations are constantly changing, like the lights on a stereo equalizer that move up and down depending on the nature of the music. One part of an emergency operation may require concentrated risk analysis as when you are faced with a hazardous situation, while the next emergency operation may require close teamwork or a decision based on personal capabilities and limitations.

Because we seldom know where or when the next emergency challenge will arise, we must be consistently prepared in all areas. Our actions should be congruent with our personal assessment of our team and ourselves. This is not to say that we can’t have a bad day; even the best professionals in major league baseball don’t get a base hit every day. In major league baseball, you can get into the Hall of Fame with a .300 batting average, but an expert rides out the rough days with an expectation of success the next time out. This confidence is built on real skill and knowledge and leads to consistency of action and well-deserved success.

“Surprise” is a bad word in firefighting. Unfortunately, it can’t always be avoided when it comes from an outside source, but we should never surprise ourselves. Consistency means avoiding surprises by approaching each situation with a confidence born of preparation. Given a common set of circumstances, our approach to the situation should be nearly the same each time. We should not be surprised when we succeed at something for which we are prepared. Likewise, when we operate near the margins of our performance capabilities, we should not be surprised with less than perfect results. If you surprise yourself on a regular basis, you are likely lacking consistency or unable to make accurate self-assessments.

A natural consequence of taking a holistic viewpoint toward firefighter competency is to ensure your firefighter structure is in balance. This means making a conscious effort to advance firefighter training and education along two fronts: maintenance and development. We all have strengths and weaknesses, and our natural tendency is to gravitate our attention to our areas of strength. We like to be good at things, so we do the things we are good at. However, this is only appropriate after we have achieved competence in all areas, which means addressing our weak areas first no matter how uncomfortable it makes us.

While we are shaping our weaknesses into strengths, we must not completely neglect our strengths. This maintenance function is often a tricky proposition because only you know when your proficiency is beginning to deteriorate. Try to give your strong areas enough attention so that they are maintained as strengths. Our ability to shift our education and training focuses to areas of need while simultaneously maintaining areas of strength and specialization is one of the clear indicators. The standard is competence across the board.

Specialization occurs only after balance is achieved. All of us are eager to be the best at something—a recognized expert. Some of us are drawn to tactics, while others are drawn to strategic procedures, building construction, special rescue, or medical care knowledge. But, whatever our area of interest, specialization first requires balanced competence and readiness.

A firm grasp of all areas of firefighter skills imparts credibility and relevance to the area of specialization. Remember, nothing in a firefighter skill package exists in isolation, so a solid grounding in all areas is required to fully appreciate and develop any selected area of specialization.

Much like the principle of balance, specialization demands readiness, and readiness means that our firefighters are fully up to speed. Seek first to be a competent firefighter, then to be a specialist. There is no room in a good firefighter for intentional deviations from accepted regulations, procedures, or common sense. Violations of discipline create a slippery downhill path toward habitual noncompliance. Once you take that first step in this direction with a willing and intentional deviation, you are far more likely to do it again. Competent firefighters are not compatible with minor or major discipline violations of any kind or of any magnitude.

It is not enough to practice good discipline; you must also make it clear that you do not tolerate poor discipline in others with whom you fight fire. This may be initially difficult, as many feel uncomfortable confronting others and value loyalty to friends above safety. Real loyalty speaks out against unsafe practices and makes it clear that poor flight discipline by anyone is unacceptable. Firefighters share a moral obligation to each other to maintain safe operating conditions.

Good firefighters fight fire well. They also understand that firefighting skills are perishable, and constant vigilance must be maintained if skills are to be preserved. Unless we are in a formal training setting, this vigilance will take the form of self assessment. A firefighter must have or develop the kind of maturity that allows recognition of weaknesses as well as the discipline to work on these areas (even though we would much rather be practicing on areas of personal proficiency which we feel much better about). Competent firefighting goes beyond merely being able to quickly don personal protective equipment and self-contained breathing apparatus (SCBA). It means honing and refining procedures and techniques to a personal level of excellence where a missed checklist step or botched communication no longer occurs. Error-free firefighting as well as “good hands” is the mark of a safer operation.

Proficiency in all areas of preparation and procedural perfection is the key. Note the three parts of this standard, which follow.

Accurate and mature self-assessment must become part of your postincident routine. Only you know whether you were caught by surprise or if your stomach tightened up in knots when the smoke changed color or the heat escalated. No instructor can ever be as effective at pinpointing your weak areas as you can; use this gift.

Seek to achieve procedural perfection. This is one area where there are really no shades of gray. There are a finite number of checklist items and associated procedures. Learn them all and practice them until you make no omissions. This requires personal discipline and habituation, but it is well worth the effort.

Continuously hone your firefighting skills. Be aware and focus on fixing your weak areas, but never let your strengths atrophy; they represent what you at your best.

Throughout history, superior firefighters have drawn from deep pools of knowledge in several areas. We cannot hope to reach our potential without following the path they have established. Begin with the six “pillars of knowledge” identified by researchers as essential to a good firefighter and then add what you feel are relevant to your personal firefighting type. Expert firefighters possess knowledge of themselves, their equipment, their team, the physical, regulatory, and organizational environments, mission tactics, and risk. Work on these areas systematically until you reach a comfortable level in each, and then establish a procedure for periodic review.

Instant recall of critical items and sufficient knowledge of self, equipment, team, environment, mission, and risk to maximize performance is critical.

No one maintains perfect situational awareness (SA) at all times, yet a consistently high state of SA is another mark of a superior firefighter. Situational awareness is directly correlated to a fire officer’s attention or lack thereof. Each of us only has a certain amount of attention to spread around to all of our tasks, so development and expertise is lower parts of the firefighter model, frees up more attention for SA.

For example, a disciplined, proficient, and knowledgeable individual does not have to give much conscious thought to the procedures and skills required to don SCBA; his preparation makes it almost second nature.

The point is that each of us has an attention saturation point beyond which we lose SA. Firefighters are constantly preparing themselves through discipline, skill, and knowledge to have the maximum amount of “leftover” attention to handle the unexpected distraction. But since any of us can become overloaded, we must also be able to recognize the symptoms of lost SA and have the critical actions for recovery “hardwired” to prevent disaster.

There are three standards of SA, which follow:

1. Understand components of preparation for maintaining SA.

2. Recognize lost SA in yourself and others when it occurs.

3. Know what immediate action steps to take to recover from lost SA.

 

Maintaining SA requires a solid under girding of firefighter, with all that that necessitates. Perhaps the most important aspect of understanding SA, and the one that should be committed to memory first, are the steps to take to safely return home in the event of an episode of lost SA. These steps follow:

1. Get away from danger.

2. Stabilize conditions.

3. Give your mind a chance to get caught up.

4. Once back at the station, analyze the situation that led to the loss of SA so that it doesn’t happen again.

 

Judgment (or lack thereof) has taken on an almost mystical quality among firefighters. Once all of the prerequisites are in place, good judgment becomes a natural and automatic consequence of firefighter preparation. You show me an example of poor judgment and I’ll show you poor preparation. In nearly every case of poor judgment, you will find a problem with discipline, skill, or knowledge which existed prior to the episode of poor judgment.

There is an old adage that “You can’t teach judgment.”  Like many dangerous misconceptions, this is partially true. Judgment cannot be taught as an independent objective, but it can certainly be accomplished by learning the fundamentals of firefighting. This is achievable and relatively uncomplicated. Yet the myths that judgment is either “something you have or you don’t,” or that “it can only be obtained through experience,” is simply wrong. Those who have not taken the time to understand firefighting have accepted these myths for decades. In fact, teaching judgment to ourselves is really quite uncomplicated, although certainly not effortless. All we must do is build a solid and complete training structure, and good judgment will naturally flow from it.

Nothing of value comes easy. You can’t win judgment in the lottery or wake up with it one morning. It is a personal journey through firefighter training based on individual strengths, weaknesses, and desires. The trip itself is enlightening and enjoyable, and the destination is well worth the price of the ticket.

Good judgment is the ultimate measuring stick of a superior firefighter. Nothing makes a firefighter feel better than to have someone tell them that they exercised good judgment in a tough situation. But, even poor firefighters can make good decisions, and the true standard of judgment is consistency. Superior firefighters use their superior judgment to stay out of situations where they must use their superior skills to save their own life.

Superior skills, discipline, and knowledge create conditions (i.e. stability, SA, and so on) where good judgment is easy to apply. These attributes of a firefighter also create consistency in decision making—the mark of a superior firefighter.

Firefighter competency is self-sustaining and contagious. The pursuit of excellence is exciting, fun, and infectious. When others sense your enthusiasm with the journey, they too will begin to take a closer look at their own levels and approaches to being a firefighter. Share your efforts with them. Peer review is one of the most effective and efficient forms of improvement known. Find a partner and start to build a team.

Share what you’ve learned; although the pursuit of firefighter excellence is by definition an individual project, there are great personal and organizational advantages to sharing your efforts with others. First, it is likely that your colleagues desire to improve. Their predictability directly benefits you as well as all others who follow. Second, it is always easier to stick with an improvement plan if you know that you are not alone in the effort. Finally, have a moral obligation to share what works in a high-risk endeavor like firefighting. The little bit of information that you pass along may be what saves their life—or yours—someday.

The 10 principles of being a firefighter are not designed to be all inclusive or as a magic panacea for being a poor firefighter. They are offered in the hope that they will reinforce the material contained in the preceding chapters and remind us of the essentials as we pursue personal excellence. The traps of early specialization and gaps in knowledge are all too frequent in many of today’s firefighters who then fail to understand why they occasionally get in over their heads and make poor decisions. By keeping the principles in mind, it forces us back to the work to be done—building and refining the entire firefighter package.

Firefighters come in all sizes, shapes, religions, sexes, races, creeds, and degrees of proficiency. We fight different types of fires in different locations such as urban, suburban, and rural with a complete different set of resources that impact one’s ability to deliver a level of fire protection. We fight fire for different reasons: some for money, some for prestige, and some just for fun. But, regardless of what background we bring to the fire service, what type of fire department to which we belong, or what our motivations are for doing it — we all have a moral responsibility to each other to practice sound fundamental professionalism in the way we prepare for the emergency responses we know are going to come from the public.

The cure for the rash of human error accidents and incidents lies at our fingertips. Through self-improvement we, as a brotherhood of firefighters, can effect a cultural change in the fire service. We can make undisciplined, unskilled, or unknowledgeable firefighters a thing of the past. Before we can expect changes in others, we must make certain that our own camp is in order.

The essence of what it means to be a firefighter cannot fall by the wayside. We need a shared sense of who we are and what we stand for. The common structure, principles, and standards set forth in this article may be the first step in this direction. The next step is to institutionalize it and begin to peel off the next layer of the onion to assess the current training programs for coverage of these areas and commit to filling the gaps.

Institutionalization as a model of excellence is a mandatory first step toward establishing formal benchmarks of professionalism or training toward those benchmarks. Focusing on the positive attributes of experts is a much more productive endeavor than a laundry list of “thou shalt nots.” If and when the professional community can agree on a common view of professionalism, a serious assessment of training, education, and regulatory guidance should follow. This “gap analysis” should provide a strategic vision for the future across the spectrum of training, education, certification, and regulation.

Photo found on Wikimedia Commons courtesy of Farmercarlos.

 

JOHN M. BUCKMAN III is the director of firefighter training for the State of Indiana. He has served 41 years as a volunteer firefighter and 35 years as chief at the German Township (IN) Volunteer Fire Department. He was president of the International Association of Fire Chiefs in 2001-2002 and founder and chair of the Volunteer and Combination Officers Section from 1990-1998. He is a co-author of the 3rd Edition of Recruiting, Training and Maintaining Volunteer Firefighters, editor of the Chief Officer’s Desk Reference, and co-author of Lessons Learned from Fire-Rescue Leaders.

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