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Cowboys or cowards: Fire service language determines behavior

The words we use sets the tone for our firefighting culture, which then influences how we behave on the fireground

"…as enabling as a root metaphor can be, it can also present limitations for a members of an organization. Predetermined vocabularies can obscure alternate ways of looking at the world, alternate ways of framing relationships, and alternate possibilities for member agency.” — J. A. Thackaberry from “Management, Drop Your Tools: Military Metaphors for Wildland Firefighting and Public Resistance to ‘Safety’ Legacies of Tragedy Fires”

It seems redundant at times to keep going back to notions of metaphor and language. However, how we talk about things; the language we use to frame our discussions also frames our worldview and ultimately our behavior.

Arguably, my discussion is hampered by the fact that most of my experience relates to larger suburban departments and has a definite Mid-Atlantic slant. There is no way I can claim to characterize a collective national firefighting ethos without having a more broad range of experiences to draw from. For the record I do believe that there is a dominant national firefighting ethos despite my lack of qualification to speak to it.

Language of command and control
I have written before about the idea of the root militaristic metaphors that undergird fire department discourse. This idea states simply that our generalized way of approaching the universe revolves around bureaucratic and hierarchical structures that place a large emphasis on rule (standard operating procedures) following as the primary basis for control.

Command and control is one of the central tenets of this structure and the notion of control speaks volumes about decision-making and the prevalence of adverse fireground outcomes.

It is unreasonable to believe that an organization steeped in the idea that it must follow the SOPs — or even that the SOPs are a gold standard for behavior — will produce firefighters and officers capable of functioning well outside of the SOPs.

What happens more often than not is that officers attempt to force situations into the SOP box instead of using the SOP in more appropriate ways such as a tool for framing decision-making.

Thinking inside the box
The danger of the militaristic metaphor in general and command and control specifically is that collectively they create an organization that is so beholden to the “box” and the language of the “box” that they are unable to quickly and efficiently recognize when the box is not appropriate or develop alternative solutions.

The evidence of this failure is most often found in post mortems that use phrases like, “no policy violations were noted.” Failure cannot be limited to policy and rules alone but must be considered in the wider context of whether competent actors were able to apply appropriate rule sets to the given problem.

But metaphors are not the only problem. Sinister issues lurk in other language choices.

Chump change
At a recent shift change I heard an officer explaining the layout of a building in his second-due response area. He was telling his crew how he managed to get a line on a small fire in the basement utility area of a high rise before the first-due company could even figure out where the fire was. I paraphrase, but, he said that knowing your buildings was how you could show up the next guy.

That statement struck me hard because it demonstrated that the focus of the operation was not the effective assurance of life safety, nor was it the coordinated approach to fire suppression but rather how one could go about making the next guy look like a chump.

Unimpeded, a discussion like this works its way into the fabric of how fires are talked about and ultimately into how firefighters behave. He never said the objective of his operation was to beat the next guy, but he didn’t have to.

A firefighter concerned with chumping the next guy is not concerned with doing his part to safely manage incidents. In a pinch, the dominant notion of chumping will prevail.

This was made clear at another fire where the first- and second-due officer had a heated debate over who was going to stretch the first line inside a structure while the basics of water supply were neglected.

There are myriad examples of such behavior and they do not relate to rules per se but rather to the language we use to frame our actions and how that language subsequently informs our behavior.

On multiple occasions after fires with significant firefighter injury the post mortems failed to identify similar underlying cultural issues. They focused instead on the rules and adherence to them, assuming invariably that if the rules were followed no one was at fault — it was an unavoidable tragedy and if they were not followed that simply enforcing them more strictly would prevent recurrence.

Cowards and cowboys
Perhaps the most intense debate in recent memory is the one surrounding victim survivability. The primary question is whether a firefighter can make reasonable determinations about the likelihood of someone surviving a given fire?

That debate was polarizing with the one side proclaiming itself as the savior of the universe in stark contrast to the cowardly profilers. The other side talked about itself as the champion of reason attempting to replace a dangerous cowboy ethos.

Reductio ad absurdum — ad infinitum.

Who is right is a topic for another day. But what was interesting was that the language of the discussion had less to do with science, physiology and reason and more to do with how the fighter placed his or herself into a more universal construct of what it meant to be a firefighter.

At the end of the day there are no readymade answers. A dilemma is only a dilemma if there is at least a kernel of validity in both arguments.

My caution is not that we should replace the militaristic metaphors, though I think we should, nor it is that we should not be ready at each working moment to engage (be it combat ready or simply ready), but whether or not our language — and in turn our culture — is properly suited to manage firegrounds.

As organizations engage in developing new or revising old SOPs, it is critical that they pay close attention to the language that they use to frame the rules. In the realm of firefighting and other emergency services there are few “SOP” fires; fires that fit neatly within the box. More often than not successful outcomes are the result of a series of improvisations and those improvisations are only effective where there is shared understanding of a suitable language.

Cowboy or coward, battalion or response area, first in or not due at all, how we talk about what we do is just as important as how we do it.

The question really is whether our benchmarks, policies, post mortems and awards ceremonies truly reflect how we claim to feel about safety, everyone going home and crew resource management, or are they just the wool we metaphorically pull down over our eyes while racing to the next fire, combat ready, prepared to chump whatever gets in our way?

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.
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