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A firefighter’s greatest fear – and 4 ways to tame it

We want firefighters who are willing to take risks, even if that means the occasional fail

Extinguishing Fire 2

“We can’t find out what we are truly capable of without pushing to and sometimes beyond our limits. To achieve excellence, we must fail,” Frank writes.

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Firefighters are a fearful bunch. I’m not talking about fear of physical danger. Any firefighter would risk life or limb to save someone else’s. I’m talking about a different kind of trepidation –the fear of failure. And that keeps them from being as good as they should be in this high-stakes profession.

Over the course of my fire service career, I noticed this increasing unwillingness to take risks involving something other than physical danger. It reared its head everywhere, from practicing evolutions to handling personnel issues to community involvement. Some of this due to the fire service’s paramilitary roots. Leaders tend to be drill-sergeant derisive instead of supportive in response to errors. Also, somewhere along the line, we adopted a “Document. Document. Document!” mantra, which has backfired because we still have underperformers, and decent firefighters have become scared of a piece of paper landing in their file.

To make it worse, external forces have magnified the problem with social media, a camera in everyone’s hands 24/7, and a fault-thirsty press. So not wanting to be the nail that sticks up is understandable … but not acceptable.

Many might be tempted to characterize the fear of failure as an attribute: “Don’t we want firefighters who avoid botching things up?” But that outlook contains a fallacy. We can’t find out what we are truly capable of without pushing to and sometimes beyond our limits. To achieve excellence, we must fail. So, the answer is, no, we want firefighters who are willing to take risks, even if that means the occasional botch. We need them to be brave enough to dive even if it means sometimes they’ll belly flop. It’s time to face the fear.

Here’s four thoughts on how to overcome a fear of failure.

1. Make mistakes

This is where many stall out, asking, “Why would I risk failure on a training drill by pushing my limits when I know I can meet the minimum standard by cruising?” Firefighters have fallen into this mindset because they hate what failure feels like. Buffed-out heroes crumble a little on the inside when they get something wrong, reverting to their 5-year-old selves getting scolded and humiliated in front of siblings or classmates. I don’t say this in jest; it’s real.

To fix this, we need to change our relationship with failure. We need to lean in to making mistakes instead of avoiding them, so we become comfortable both with the push and the outcome. Obviously, this is circumstance dependent and requires assessing the right time and place to gamble. But a fantastic place to start is the training ground.

What if we thought of firefighter training like ice-skaters think about their training? In 1882, Axel Paulson performed a novel jump. It was named after him and is still considered the most difficult type of jump in ice-skating. In 1948, a skater named Dick Buttons became the first to land a double-rotation axel in competition. Thirty years later, a skater hit a triple-rotation, which then became commonplace in medal rounds. And last year, a 17-year-old landed the first four-rotation axel in competition, earning him first place and the nickname “Quad God.”

For over 100 years, skaters have raised the bar by practicing something they will fail at. They jump and fall, and jump and fall, and jump until they can do it without falling every time. And then they reach for the next level, relentlessly pursuing improvement, even if it means lots of belly flops.

What if we trained this way? Fearlessly. We’d start hearing things like, “I can shave 2 minutes off my time to set up the rig for a rope rescue.” “My team can make an interior attack look like a choreographed dance and get a stop faster than any other crew.” “Let’s do a bigger drill –something beyond the sixth alarm – because these days, fires are ripping through entire towns.” And so on.

By getting more comfortable making mistakes and pushing our limits on the training ground, we can reverse the mindset that failure must be avoided in all instances. We can create a new muscle memory that makes us better decision-makers at any rank, and in all aspects of the job.

2. Treat policies as guidelines

At some point, we became policy-junkies. Both management and labor played a part in over-“policifying” the fire service. The “thous” and “shalls” made everyone treat policy as if it were cardinal law where absence of it meant a free pass and a violation drew a penalty of eternal damnation.

I am not encouraging anyone to blatantly violate department policies, nor am I addressing those with chronic poor-performance issues. But as people in the business of making life-and-death decisions, we need to put policies in perspective. We need to be able to assess the situation and make the best decision given the circumstances. And by assess, I mean legally, morally, ethically, operationally, etc. I do not mean, “Well, I might get in trouble.”

We all know that too many policies are based on one stupid act that put the department in a bad light. After the idiocy, labor would claim, “There’s no policy prohibiting [insert specific stupid act].” Management would respond with a knee-jerk policy. And station personnel became snakebit, afraid that any deviation from policy, no matter how defendable, would be punished.

Here’s an example. Let’s say someone on the street captures video footage of a fire engine dropping off a bikini-clad female in front of a neighborhood strip club. (For anyone not following fire news, this happened this year in California.) Most departments would churn out a policy forbidding sworn personnel from allowing civilians to board non-transport emergency vehicles, or something to that effect. Now, think about the myriad instances in which that policy might not play well in your jurisdiction. Maybe a kid is being bullied and needs a quick safe haven. Maybe the fire engine finds a lost Alzheimer’s victim a block from the care home. Maybe the city’s finance director needs a ride-along to understand why apparatus costs so much. Maybe. Maybe. Maybe. Maybe you need to do the right thing and risk the consequence of violating a policy that shouldn’t apply to your situation.

3. Understand that getting in trouble might suit you in the long run

Let’s say your supervisor disagrees with your decision or is too scared to back a good call to violate policy or even change the policy to make it more appropriate. Again, I implore you to maintain perspective. Perhaps you get chewed out, or a letter goes in your file, or you get a few days on the beach. I’ll tell you a secret: It’s worth it. Any chief you would want to work for looks for people who are willing to make bold decisions and accept the consequences. In fact, those are the people we want to move up in the organization. If you’re scared of a piece of paper in your file, I can’t trust you to make decisions that have far weightier consequences.

4. Start the discussion now

These suggestions are meant to start conversations you should have with your peers, subordinates and supervisors. Make it a point to have an open discussion about the role fear of failure plays in the fire service, in your department, in your personal actions. Talk about the conundrum fire leaders face, which Mark Twain succinctly rolled into a single sentence: “Good judgment is the result of experience and experience the result of bad judgment.” And talk to each other about how each of you can play a part in cultural change – reversing the trend of fear-based actions and leadership. With one conversation, you all can begin a new trend. You have to. You’re the next generation of chiefs.

Clare Frank served in the fire service for 30 years, rising to the rank of fire chief at the Milpitas (California) Fire Department, then to CAL FIRE’s chief of fire protection. She also served as a lawyer and peace officer. Now retired, she writes and speaks about her life with firefighters, lawyers and cops. Frank is the author of “Burnt: A Memoir of Fighting Fire.”