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2 a.m. calls and the importance of training

I have written at length about how experience is not always a valuable or reliable tool

It is 2 o’clock in the morning and someone is banging on the firehouse door, yelling that the house across the street is on fire.

You could theoretically engage in some rational standardized decision making, weighing in your mind various scenarios and outcomes, then comparing them.

Or you could engage in some sort of recognition-primed decision making, but that requires that you both recognize the situation and that you can map the problem you identify to some known solution. I have been taught to think both ways.

Obviously there is no time for critical analysis so the rational approach is of no use. Secondly, the recognition-primed models assumes one key thing: that your experience is a valuable and reliable tool.

However, I have written at length about how experience, especially in the face of the uncertainty involved in firefighting, is not always a valuable or reliable tool.

Take for example the case of a captain from the old section of town. All of his fires are in structures with legacy construction and quick response times. Tonight he is working a trade in the lightweight construction part of town, and the floors don’t hold up as long. Tonight his experience is of no use.

It is 2 o’clock in the morning and in the time it took you to read this far into this article, the crew has gotten dressed, found a hydrant, and is stretching into the unknown. What guides them?

It may be true that WALLACE WAS HOT, but no one thinks in pneumonics or benchmarks at 2 o’clock in the morning. At this time of the day, with such a short reaction time, the crew will move in auto-pilot.

They will likely just start doing stuff. How well they perform will depend on a lot of things, experience include. But mostly what this early morning will reveal for all to see are deficits in training.

For those situations, as rare as they might be, where there is no time for thinking, training is the only tool of any use.

You will only find the hydrant if you already knew where it was, you will only stretch proficiently if you have stretched a hundred times before in a realistic setting, you will only know it is time to withdraw to an exterior effort if the signs of collapse and flashover are deeply engrained in your mind.

In the aftermath of the fire, you will not be evaluated in terms of what you knew at the time of the fire or the timeframes in which you were forced to make decisions and act.

You will likely be evaluated against the very terse set of procedures, pnuemonics, and rational processes that you did not have access to when the fire suppression effort began. So it goes.

At some point a balance must be struck between the static knowledge domains and processes that are the framework of our academy and classroom-based learning and the automaticity of fireground efforts.

I say this knowing that such a balance is probably not possible. The impossibility is not the result of conscious acts but rather the silent, subconscious and insidious belief that standard operating procedures and the knowledge of how gusset plates will react to flame impingement will somehow lead to better decisions.

Don’t misread me; building knowledge bases is important, but presenting information-internalizing knowledge and making it all accessible at 2 in the morning are very different things.

Get information on the basic tactics of firefighting from veteran Charles Bailey’s FireRescue1 column, ‘Bread and Butter Basics’. Learn how to attack different types of fires and minimize risk to your crew.