A firefighter's biggest mistake

In striving to reach perfection, many firefighters overlook chances to learn from mistakes


In their service to others, firefighters are compelled to conduct themselves under the incessant pressure to be error free. This pressure is tremendous.

This is reflected every month in fire-related publications. It is preached by fire instructors and constantly drilled into us during trainings. It hovers around the firehouse reflected in stories and myth.

The problem with this premise of perfection is the straightforward reality that mistakes happen. Despite the best intentions or any amount of training, things can and do go wrong.

Successful firefighters understand that the key to lessening the impact of mistakes is to not allow them to repeat themselves, or more importantly, to gain momentum.

Repeating the same mistake over and over can diminish a career. Mistakes that are compounded on the fireground can lead to delays, changes in strategy and tactics or an unsafe incident.

Mistakes in the fire service come from many sources. Improper training, poor communications and lack of focus are a few of the origins of errors.

Folly of youth
Overzealous about everything and completely self-critical, the new recruit is totally stressed out every minute of the duty day waiting for that one slip, that one errant moment — the one critical mistake that could spell disaster on the fireground or at the grocery store.

Interestingly, it is this basic fault of youth and inexperience that sets the tone for dealing with the more substantial mistakes throughout a fire department.

As firefighters, we agree that the emergency scene is made up of tasks linked together in an appropriate and effective sequence that results in accomplishing a tactical objective.

Mistakes arise when this sequence of events is repeated time and time again with success. Complexity gives way to routine and routine results in complacency.

Even more critical, it is during this "sacred" routine that we tend to be closed to outside stimulus, whether from the public or from one of our own. This isolation can lead to missed opportunities, poor decisions or inappropriate conclusions — all of which can result in mistakes.

In and around the fire station, the customs surrounding a mistake are a little harder to define. There are some firefighters who simply won't admit that mistakes occur and certainly not by them. This leaves issues unresolved and little opportunity for improvement.

Key to lessening mistakes
Interestingly enough, the first mistake a newly promoted firefighter makes is denial. "That didn't happen on my watch."

Experienced firefighters are a bit more realistic but quickly learn the art of deflection. "I didn't drop the nozzle; the nozzle fell out of my hand."

For their part, skilled firefighters administer two philosophies: try to eliminate mistakes or at least control their fallout by taking full responsibly, whether it's warranted or not.

The key to lessening mistakes is not to preach perfection, but to teach the credo that mistakes do exist and that they are not failures. We must adopt a culture in which the first mistake is a learning opportunity, not a source of ridicule and punishment.

The "old academy" is gone, or should be. The same mistake made a second time should by all accounts be the last. Now is the time to question completely and honestly, without blame. The objective is to simply confirm a solution.

It is only after the third time that a mistake becomes some type of serious breakdown and it is our job to find it and eliminate it. And for the repeat offender, it is their responsibility to never do it again.

Mistakes: A harbinger of change
As a firefighter, you must develop and reflect a departmental philosophy wherein mistakes are dealt with by honest acknowledgement, objective identification and a thorough resolution. This ensures a lack of repetition while allowing them to serve as a source of increasing success.

Out in the open, they can be the seeds of doom or the roots of opportunity. It is up to you.

But it is not just about winning achievement. Mistakes are the harbinger of change. You and your department must be open to the possibility that some policies may be outdated or inappropriate.

Are you hypercritical in your pursuit of perfect performance or do you modify behavior through tolerance and understanding in your mission to create a better fire department?

Mistakes, like all agents of change, must be incorporated into our fire service culture. To deny or diminish their worth by relegating them to fault and blame by criticizing and punishing is the ultimate error in judgment.

Our ultimate goal should be to maintain quality of service and value to the community by aspiring to a principle of growth and progress free from the fear of failure rather than perpetuate a vapid quest toward perfection.

Perfection can only lead to satisfaction or disappointment — never joy. Joy is found in the spirit of tradition and the excellence it inspires whatever the challenges.

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