Firefighter longevity: 5 tips to stay proficient

Critical thinking is the key to lifelong learning and staying relevant in a changing world

Every day, firefighters not only face new challenges, they receive new learning opportunities. New information and new fire/rescue tools and techniques become available almost on a daily basis. Only a dedication to lifelong learning and skills development can keep a firefighter ready and up to the task of modern emergency response.

What timeless firefighting truths do we hold onto? What practices have become obsolete as we learn better ways of doing our job? What tools and techniques are right for your department and what lessons can be learned from outside agencies? Five critical thinking skills can help us answer these questions and are the key to lifelong learning and effective firefighter professional development.

1. Seek opportunities for firefighter training

Only a dedication to lifelong learning and skills development can keep a firefighter ready and up to the task of modern emergency response.
Only a dedication to lifelong learning and skills development can keep a firefighter ready and up to the task of modern emergency response. (Photo/USAF)

Today is an amazing time for the fire service where information is being discovered, reviewed, evaluated and shared in ways we could not have dreamed of 10 or 20 years ago. This doesn’t mean that everything you encounter will be new, true, or applicable to you, but lifelong learning relies first and foremost on being open to information.

  • Take every opportunity to go on emergency calls you can learn from.
  • Continue to take classes pertinent to your profession or interests.
  • Read articles.
  • Watch videos.
  • Listen to podcasts.

2. Evaluate as you learn

When someone presents you with new information, it may be interesting, but is it something you can use? Check A2B2C2 to evaluate how reliable it is.

  • Authority – Does the source have expertise in this topic?
  • Accuracy – Is this information verifiably accurate?
  • Background – What is the context for this information?
  • Bias – Might the creator or supplier of this information have a bias?
  • Coverage – Is this information evaluated from different angles or only one point of view?
  • Currency – How up to date is this?

3. Question best practices

On any firefighting topic, such fire attack, extrication or technical rescue, whether information you encounter is new or has been around for a long time, question it. This doesn’t mean stop believing in it or stop doing it. It simply means that whether new or old, in a class or after a call, take a moment to consider questions like:

  • What are we trying to accomplish with this?
  • How does this compare with alternatives?
  • What is the evidence for this?
  • In what scenarios might this be a good option or a bad option?

4. Integrate tools and techniques

Almost every call, class or experience can produce something useful for you to add to your “toolkit” for life. Any firefighter will have their favorite tools and techniques, but when things go wrong, great firefighters are ready with PACE alternatives and can smoothly transition from go-to tool to hail Mary.

  • Primary – This is your preferred choice, your go-to tool or technique that you have at the ready.
  • Alternate – This is a backup tool or technique that you can switch to when your primary doesn’t work out.
  • Contingency – This is the option that you may not like, but may still work in situations where your first choice and backup don’t produce results.
  • Emergency – This is your last-ditch option and may not be as clean as your primary, alternate or contingency, but can still get you out of a tight squeeze

5. Share: contribute to the pool of knowledge

This doesn’t mean that everyone who learns a thing is an expert on that thing. It means that, for a lifelong learner, everyone has something to contribute. Rookie or experienced firefighter, busy or quiet, rural station or urban response district, everyone has something of value to add. Part of lifelong learning is contributing to the pool of knowledge. Effective teaching, just like effective learning, begins with listening before talking

Lifelong learning isn’t so much a commitment to taking long-format training classes for the rest of your life, so much as it is a commitment to taking little moments out of each day to reflect on what has happened to you to improve your knowledge, skills, and attitudes.

When you are a firefighter, every day is different, every day is a challenge. By seeking, questioning, evaluating, integrating and sharing, every day is an opportunity to get better at a job where people rely on you for their lives.

This article, originally published Nov. 6, 2018, has been updated.

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