Stepping Up: Parlaying Your Experience

By Ron Hiraki
You train to develop your knowledge, skills, and abilities in preparation for the opportunity to use them some day in a real life event, to gain real life experience. Whether that event went smoothly or could use improvement, the experience is valuable. If the event was successful, you will probably feel that your training was good and that you “passed the test under fire.” Even if the event was “not so successful,” you will probably know what didn’t work or what was missing. This is still a valuable experience because you will know what to look for next time; you may change your methods or fill in the missing elements.
For firefighters, getting real life experience in a real life event is itself an “odd event.” Since our primary mission is responding to other people’s problems, our opportunity to get real life experience means someone in the community is having a real bad day from a fire, an auto wreck, a heart attack, or a broken water pipe. Although we desire real life experience, we don’t wish for people to have a fire or other emergency. Other real life experiences come from solving or working through problems such as helping a new firefighter or a fire officer struggling in the job, resolving a conflict between two firefighters in the station, creating new training program on a “shoestring” budget, or resolving problems with a new piece of equipment or procedures. Some firefighters wait for years for these problems to present themselves, thereby creating an opportunity. Some experiences are so tragic, such as a serious injury or the death of a fellow firefighter, that we would be thankful to work 30 years and never have that experience.
Some people tend to value experience when it is acquired only through applying the knowledge or skill in a real life event. They believe that credible experience comes only from responding to a number of fires, rescues, or critical patients. Real life events and real life experiences give you the best credibility. Firefighters can ask to work in the busiest stations in their fire department to increase their odds of acquiring real life experience. However, there is no guarantee that they will get “a lot” or “enough” real life events or opportunities to “fill their resume.”
There are ways to enhance your real life experience, get other types of experience, or tap into the experience of other people. Experience can be “parlayed” to be more beneficial to you and those you serve. Parlaying is defined by as, “to increase or otherwise transform into something of much greater value.”
Firefighters at a real life emergency are intensely focused on putting out the fire or saving people. That experience can be enhanced by taking the time to review, analyze, and critique the operation to get the most value from it. Ask yourself these basic questions:
  • What worked well? What would I do again?
  • What previous experience or training helped me at this event?
  • What did not work well? Next time, what will I do differently?
  • What training, equipment, or tools do I wish I had at this event? How will I get that before the next event?
  • Can I replicate this event for training or practice? If so, how?
  • How will I remember what I learned so I can use it at the next event?
Once you have answered these questions, consider sharing your new knowledge with others in formal and informal training situations.
Some of you may be “waiting” until you get “enough” experience before you take a promotional exam, become an instructor, or consider yourself a resource for others. Remember that if the information you learn is important to you, it is probably important to other firefighters. Consider sharing what you have.
Consider acquiring and parlaying experience in other ways:
  • Apply knowledge or skill in training scenarios.
  • Observe the knowledge or skill being applied by others in training or in real life.
  • Talk with experienced people.
Training scenarios are worthwhile because they increase your experience in a controlled way. They offer repeated opportunities to participate in and observe realistic application of the knowledge and skills. If you mess it up, you can try it again. The ability to change elements in a training scenario multiplies the information and experience that can be gained.
Don’t discount the value of acquiring experience through observing knowledge or skill being applied in training or in real life. Sometimes you can learn a lot more by observing because you are not concentrating on performing a specific role. Observation allows you to gain information about a person’s role and how he interacts with the remainder of the team and the environment. If you are observing a training session, you can learn how knowledge and skills are being taught or practiced.
Observation opportunities can be found in many situations. When I administered an assessment center, I frequently used someone looking for “more experience” as the role player. The role player always walked away saying what a valuable experience it was to see how a dozen people handled a personnel or leadership issue.
Hopefully, you are able to attend classes, workshops, and seminars in addition to watching videos and reading articles. Don’t just listen to presentations; watch videos or read the articles by subject matter experts. Try to gain a deeper understanding by learning additional information from their experience. See if you can e-mail and schedule a phone conversation with these people. Ask specific questions, or describe your project or situation. Most people will be glad to talk with you. Much information can be shared in a 20-minute telephone call.
Find experienced people, and talk with them. Some of these people may be in your fire station; it will take more effort to contact others. Seek them out and have a discussion. Take a goal-oriented approach by talking about the subject areas you are researching. Ask specific questions. Don’t just say, “Tell me what I need to know about xyz.”
Listen to their stories, and ask questions. You may be surprised at what they will share with you. Begin with some simple questions to get the conversation going:  
  1. When doing xyz, what is the most important thing to remember?
  2. Tell me about your best experience doing xyz.
  3. Tell me about you worst experience doing xyz.
  4. What would you have done differently in that situation?
  5. How did you do abc before the xyz method was introduced? 
Real life experience is great and provides a great deal of credibility. However, while you are waiting for that real life experience, step up and look for ways to make the most out of your every experience of any kind.
Ron Hiraki began his career as a firefighter in the Seattle (WA) Fire Department, working in a variety of operational and administrative positions, leading to his final assignment as assistant Chief of employee development. Completing his career as an assistant chief for a small combination fire department, Hiraki has nearly 30 years of fire service experience in urban and suburban settings. He holds a Master of Science degree in human resources development and is a consultant to a number of public safety agencies for their selection and performance evaluation programs.

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