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Why generalists are so well suited to the fire service

Fostering a learning environment at work means that no one gets to be an expert and stop at that


The fire service is made for generalists – those people who have a wide range of knowledge about a large number of things rather than a very deep specialized knowledge of only a few things.

AP Photo/Marcio Jose Sanchez

One of the things I liked most about being a firefighter was the fact that I never knew what was going to happen on any shift – and I could also be sure that no two shifts would ever be exactly alike. I liked the variety and challenge of this ever-changing work environment and so did my coworkers. If they had wanted more predictability, they would have chosen careers in fields that demanded more standardized process and routine.

The fire service is made for generalists – those people who have a wide range of knowledge about a large number of things rather than a very deep specialized knowledge of only a few things. Not that some firefighters don’t have specialized knowledge and expertise; they do. Some firefighters choose to become rescue specialists, some focus on hazmat or fire alarm systems or hydraulics. Having different people know a lot about particular areas is extremely useful, especially when the group as a whole has wide-ranging and diverse interests and abilities.

Still, except possibly on very large departments with full-time special teams, the average firefighter needs to know something about everything from building construction to swift water rescue, from narcotic overdoses to plumbing. When you show up, it’s your problem, and you need to know what to do or who to call to help.

Specialization and the problem of narrow focus

Specialization has often been promoted as the optimal approach to problem-solving. And to be sure, specialists definitely have their place – the pilot flying your airliner or the surgeon replacing your knee come to mind. But more recently, the power that lies in a more generalist approach is getting attention.

In his book “Range: Why Generalists Triumph in a Specialized World,” David Epstein uses multiple case studies, including some from the fire service, to illustrate situations where generalists are going to make better decisions than specialists. In particular, he talks about scenarios where the best decisions can be made only with some perspective apart from specific knowledge and expectation, and where the best outcomes occur when people defy those expectations.

When roles and responsibilities are strictly and narrowly focused, bad outcomes can occur when reality deviates from expectation. Epstein discusses wildland fires, starting with the 1949 Mann Gulch Fire, where firefighters died because they refused to drop their tools and run for their lives in the face of imminent threat. This pattern was repeated over the subsequent decades: In four separate fires in the 1990s, 23 elite wildland firefighters defied orders to drop their tools and run and ended up perishing beside them.

Specialization goes to identity, and those firefighters identified themselves in the context of the work they were specifically deployed to do. That work necessitated their connection to the tools they carried – the chainsaws, the packs, the hand tools.

One survivor of the 1994 Storm King Mountain Fire in Colorado, which resulted in 14 deaths, had run for his life 900 feet uphill before he realized he still had his chainsaw over his shoulder, and then took time to look for a place to safely put it down before he continued running. “I remember thinking, I can’t believe I’m putting down my saw,” he said later.

When focus on a job or task is too narrow and intense, it can keep people from seeing things they need to know to effectively solve the bigger problem. This is an aspect of groupthink, but it also happens on an individual level, as it did for the Storm King firefighter. As Norman Maclean wrote in his book “Young Men and Fire” about the Mann Gulch tragedy, “When a firefighter is told to drop his firefighting tools, he is told to forget he is firefighter.”

Promoting a generalist approach and cross-training

One alternative to this outcome is to honor the role of generalists in every aspect of firefighting work. People need to have standardized skills, but this should not preclude someone advancing a new and possibly better technique for doing something. You want new recruits to have all their firefighting certifications in hand, but you should also be curious about what else interests them, what other abilities they have, what they would like to learn beyond what they already know.

Fostering a true learning environment at work means that no one gets to be an expert and stop at that. Everyone should be given the opportunity and even the obligation to challenge themselves with new experiences and information. Cross-train members between prevention and operations. Have every firefighter do a shift alongside a dispatcher. Require firefighters to develop and deliver training evolutions. Encourage members to attend events and conferences that are outside their normal comfort zone.

Encourage ongoing learning

Specialized knowledge and ability are assets to the fire service, and you want to honor and recognize those achievements. But when the whole world is your workplace, you need more than specialists. You need people who know something about a lot of things and are always eager to learn more.

Take your department in the direction you want. Get expert advice on how to effectively lead your fire department. 20-year veteran Linda Willing writes “Leading the Team,” a FireRescue1 column about fire department leadership.