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Beware of absolutes in firefighting

Stories are valuable learning tools, but not the building blocks of sound strategy and decisions

It seems that with greater frequency we are hearing the maddening cries of “neverisms”. Too often, individuals choose not to learn our craft and instead lean on neverisms.

To suggest that strategic decisions (those 50,000-foot views) can be boiled down so that decisions are really made by the incident commander is naive at best.

At the end of the day, it’s about protecting life and property. Luckily, in most communities — through public education and smoke detection systems — we are seeing fewer occupants in the building on arrival than we did in the past.

However this still leaves preservation of property. In some communities our homes don’t sit on multi-acre lots. If one home burns unchecked it will transmit into the adjoining exposures. An aggressive action (interior or exterior) must be done to address this fire.

Curbside service
Most firehouses are made up of similar groups of people. As the saying goes: “The name on the circus tent changes, but the clowns are the same.”

Most departments have that guy whose been there, done that and is more than happy to tell you (especially if you’re a new member). What they tend to forget to mention is that they participated from the curb. They would have gone in but they loss a glove, their bottle malfunctioned, they forgot their tool(s), they heard their mom calling or any other excuse.

Now chances are there are other roles this person can play without jamming up your fire ground. It doesn’t take long for even the new members to recognize these guys for what they are. Most of us are able to shake our head all the while recognizing that if we could take what this person is saying and get it in our vegetable gardens we’d have a bumper crop of tomatoes this year.

Unfortunately these sidewalk dwellers tend to speak in absolute terms. Their lack of training, education and experience all combine to create an incredible lack of knowledge.

But their stories are compelling and their use of neverisms make it difficult to respond. Because we don’t want to appear as if we are not cognizant of firefighter safety, we often won’t disagree with their statements.

But stories play an incredibly vital role in the fire service. Sometimes the stories are structured, like a good post incident critique; sometimes they are less organized, like around the coffee table. Regardless a good story and story teller allows others to gain knowledge.

But sometime the stories are wrong.

The operating process of a fire department should go like this: We have an experience, we create or modify a standard operating procedure to address the experience, we train to that SOP, we have another experience where we use the SOP and the cycle starts again.

Probability over possibility
To that end we need to focus on the probable outcomes, not all the possible outcomes. If we look at all the possible dangers we couldn’t ever leave the station as it turns out the world is a pretty dangerous place.

We need to speak up when the Joey Sidewalks start to talk in absolute terms. When they use the latest catch phrases in an attempt to cover up the fact that they are too lazy to learn, we need to stop them.

It can be done politely, but must be done. There are impressionable ears listening and some of those ears belong to people wearing fancy collar brass.

Out stories tend to turn into the unwritten values of our departments. Those values tend to turn into strategy on the fireground.

Strategy based on life safety is outstanding; in fact it’s a must. But strategy based on a neverism is dangerous.

It creates a disconnect between what we say we do and what happens. It is a disconnect between our SOPs, training and fireground actions.

At the end of the day, if we decide not to take actions based on definable, defendable policy, we can make that work. But if our strategy doesn’t match up, trouble is brewing for all involved.

Learn how to make your department a safer place in Tom LaBelle’s FireRescue1 column, ‘The Butcher’s Bill.’ LaBelle provides tips, advice and opinions that balance accomplishing strategic objectives with making sure every firefighter goes home.