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What makes a good firefighter?

We each need to take the time to learn and teach to ensure that we are a mix of intelligent and aggressive

Editor’s note: This article was updated in September 2014.

By Tom LaBelle

The transition toward a “safer” fire service has actually occurred in a relatively short timeframe. I say transition because we’re not there yet. And I place “safer” in quotes, because not everyone is in complete agreement on what safer means.

In some circles, if you question the new orthodoxy of firefighter safety, you’re branded a killer fairly quickly. But questioning how firefighter safety should be approached shouldn’t be discouraged — in fact, it should be required. The only way we truly reach a new level of understanding is to question things.

What do we want and how do we get there? These are two vital questions. Seldom does a single person hold the answer to these questions; it’s usually a long (in fact, never-ending) process of analyzing what we believe to be truths and constant questioning to discover these truths.

In the fire service, we want aggressive firefighters. When I do drills, I’ll ask the group how many of them really want to perform an aggressive interior attack. Pretty much everyone raises his or her hands.

If I ask chiefs if they want a group of firefighters who can perform an aggressive attack, they pretty much all say they do. But often with hesitation — they, naturally, desire safe outcomes as well.

When to charge, when to retreat
It seems we want aggressive, but intelligent firefighters; to have chiefs, line officers and firefighters who can tell when to charge, when to retreat and how to transition between the two effectively. But to be able to tell when go means go, you must be intelligent first, aggressive second. But unquestionably you must be both.

Regardless of our discussions, the people we want to recruit most often are aggressive individuals. I’ve never gone to watch an academy class to hear a recruit’s chief officer comment with glee about how well they are doing figuring out friction loss. They want to see their guys being aggressive — safe, but aggressive.

We continue to subliminally advertise for aggressive guys and gals. Every picture on the front cover of a newspaper, trade journal or website shows the exploits of aggressive firefighters. Should we therefore be surprised when that’s what we get? Should we be surprised when academies push for aggressive behavior or when our newest members push too far, thinking they’ve got a Superman “S” on their chest?

Finding the balance
We must put in the effort to ensure that the intelligent part of the equation is added. This doesn’t mean removing aggressive. It’s about being able to understand what savable means, in terms of both lives and property and recognizing we’ve sworn to protect both. Training to be able to read buildings, smoke and heat all allow for intelligent aggressive attack.

Not knowing these things simply leads to the type of aggressive attacks that rely on luck for positive outcomes. One of my favorite screenwriters is Aaron Sorkin; most of you would remember his work from “A Few Good Men.”

In the movie, at the climatic court scene, Jack Nicholson is playing the character Colonel Jessup. He’s being interrogated for the actions of his men leading to the death of a marine, based on what are considered questionable orders. Sound familiar?

In his diatribe to the young Tom Cruise, he explains that men under his watch might die so that the overall rights of the citizens of our country are safe. That safety of the many outweighs the safety of the few, particularly when those few have sworn to protect society.

At the end of the day, we have sworn to protect. That doesn’t mean that we should give away our lives or wellbeing foolishly. It doesn’t mean that our leaders should gamble with them either.

What it does mean is that we each need to take the time to learn and teach to ensure that we are a mix of intelligent and aggressive.

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.
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