How stories make firefighting safer

Stories of success and failure add context to the tactical skills and research data of fire suppression


I just spent a great week at the New York State Association of Fire Chief's annual conference. But what made it great was the people, and the stories.

Those in the fire service are not well known for their writing abilities. The individuals who we place on pedestals tend to be those of action, but just as importantly not individuals who are likely to place their actions into written words.

There's a great deal of recognition that this lack of writing ability hampers some of our larger efforts, particularly in comparison to our partners in public safety.

I, however, see an additional shortfall — the loss of the art of stories. And it is not confined to written stories; it extends to oral story telling.

The new kitchen table
In today's age of sound bites and limited space on whatever social media page you're using, we lose the fire service story. Our hectic lives can make time at the kitchen table both limited in time and attention span.

So when does the rookie learn? And when I say rookie, I mean everyone who hasn't faced the scenario you faced.

Often, we shy away from story to not look like braggers — sometimes because were not sure we did the right thing and sometimes because we simply want to forget what occurred. But others within our organizations need to know that what we all do is important, that sometimes we fail and that sometimes we hurt.

If, as I believe, fire suppression is a science, then it's a science of collective consciousness. I've written about and studied the outstanding work being done by Underwriters Lab and NIST. 

The data they've quantified is not only interesting, but also applicable to what we do. But I also have learned from the "lab work" of firefighters from my own and other communities.

Context of firefighting
I believe in learning through bruising. Ours is a tough business where the rubber meets the road. Drilling on the tasks that we must carry out is a continuous process to achieve more than mere proficiency. We work ensure that we will carry out the task flawlessly.

And although I don't mean to take anything away from the value of the task, it's the task as part of tactic that matters, and tactic as part of strategy pulls the dance together. 

If we're participating in a ventilation drill, starting and using the saw and knowing how it works are all incredibly important skills. But the story at the table gives the skill context.

The stories about the how, when, why and what we do, give members a better understanding of the science and art of fire suppression. I am concerned that the art gets lost with the lost art of the story.

I've discussed with pride our success and have had individuals share in my sorrow and moments of doubt. These discussions are educational and helpful, both to myself and I know to those listening and sharing.

So, the next time you're at the station, put away your electronic device for a while and start talking.

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