The Pillars of Firemanship
A recent conversation with a colleague found us discussing the topic of firemanship. What is it that makes one a good fireman and how can we work to become better at this trade? The fire service is a dynamic craft that requires mastery in many disciplines. Our success is rooted in a few broad areas, which we attempted to break down. This discussion resulted in the development of the Pillars of Firemanship. Behind the haughty name is a simple idea. The five pillars are the general areas which support our craftsmanship. Each of us is stronger or weaker in certain areas, but true mastery requires holistic improvement. We must focus on strengthening our weak points, while maintaining our strengths. A deficit in any domain will stunt our growth or, worse, lead to the gradual collapse of our abilities as a whole.
The 5 Pillars are:
1. Knowledge – Knowledge of methods. Book smarts.
2. Skill – Ability to practically apply knowledge in the field. Requires countless repetitions/experience.
3. Humility – Recognition of one’s constant need for improvement. Checking your ego.
4. Wellness – Mental and physical fitness. Exercise, sleep, nutrition.
5. Mettle – Ability to face difficult situations with resiliency. Push through challenges and succeed.
These five traits support one another in our career development. They are all connected and none is more important than another. By understanding this, we can take an objective view at our own performance to identify weaknesses and correct them.
Knowledge is the foundation for our fireground abilities. It is one of the two traits, the other being skill, which we must attain after entering the fire service. The majority of our fire service knowledge is acquired after joining the trade. Our basic knowledge is developed during initial academy training. We then build on it with continued education throughout our career. Knowledge includes the contents of textbooks, like IFSTA manuals. It also includes data, like that obtained from research by UL and NIST. With that said, we must realize that knowledge alone will not give us the ability to perform on the real-world fireground. That is where skill comes into play.
Skill is the ability to combine learned knowledge with experience and practically apply it in the field. Experience is obtained from a few sources. Our initial experience is gained by proxy through our senior firefighters and officers. They impart years of field tried and tested experience upon us. They correct our textbook methods and teach us the right way to do things in the real world. Though it may be written off as anecdotal, handed-down experience proves to be accurate and effective. As our time on the job increases, we develop our own experience. This may come in the form of actual fires or in training. To master the skills of our trade, we must complete hundreds or thousands of repetitions. Reps on the drill ground will always pay dividends on the fireground. Experience gained during training should not be discounted. At the same time, we tend to be terrible at gauging our own level of experience. This is where humility becomes a factor.
The human mind is a fickle thing. To approach a given scenario and complete the necessary task, we must have some measure of confidence in our knowledge and skill. We build this confidence through completing repetitive skill evolutions. Yet, without care our ego can allow our confidence to exceed our ability. This can lead to ignorance of our weaknesses and the progressive decline of our skillset. In the words of Epictetus, “It is impossible for a man to learn what he thinks he already knows.” We must find a balance by regularly checking our ego.
Keeping a personal skill log is one way I try to keep an accurate measure of my experience or lack thereof. This is a tally of specific skills performed and lessons learned on runs and in training. It allows me to look back on tangible data and see the number of times I’ve performed a skill in the last six months, rather than guessing based upon memory. Generally, our memories give us more credit than we deserve.
Another excellent way to keep your ego in check is to get out of your local fire service bubble. Train with other companies, shifts, or departments. Attend classes in other counties or states. Leave your departmental safe space. You are sure to encounter individuals who are more skilled than you in every area of the fire service. This is a great way to remind yourself that you have room to grow. Plus, you’ll meet new peer mentors to gather knowledge and experience from. By keeping our egos under control, we retain the ability to expose the areas where we are lacking (knowledge, skill, wellness) and continue our self-development.
Wellness is much more than being able to run far or pick up heavy weights. It encompasses our physical and mental fitness as a whole. Exercise is a major factor for sure. All the knowledge and skill in the world is worthless if you can only work for five minutes before becoming gassed. We must have a firm foundation of basic strength balanced with aerobic conditioning to work for extended periods. Too much strength training will erode our conditioning and vice-versa. There is no general workout plan for the fire service as a whole. A fitness regimen must be tailored to each individual’s strengths and weaknesses.
Yet, wellness goes beyond exercise. Our bodies our complex machines. In order for them to perform well, we must consume the right fuel. You wouldn’t put straight gas in a chainsaw and expect it to run long. This doesn’t mean that we have to swear off ice cream or cookies. Have one bowl instead of two. Moderation is key. We must also allow our body and mind to recover. Engage in relaxing activities off-duty and get adequate amounts of sleep. We may need to decompress by talking about tough calls or frustrations with peers. Once again, nutrition and sleep requirements vary between people. Without getting technical, if you feel like crap most of the time, something is off. Find what works best for you.
The final Pillar, perhaps the most important, and the hardest one to learn. Mettle is the ability to face difficult situations, push through the challenge, and succeed. Mental toughness and resiliency are other ways to describe mettle. When things get tough in a workout, training, or real-world scenario, mettle is the attribute that allows us to ignore the hardship and persevere. As important as physical wellness is, our mind usually makes us quit long before our body is truly exhausted. The human mind seeks out comfort and safety, but to improve we must face hardships and challenges. Mettle allows us to switch off the comfort-seeking voice in our brain.
Developing mettle requires dedication and determination to a cause. If you are determined to run more and improve your endurance, you’ll get up earlier to go for a run. If you want to get more reps in throwing ladders, you’ll fit it in where you can, even if it means training alone after dark. If you want to complete a tough evolution, you’ll dig deep and make it happen.
Considering a few influential senior men in my career, mettle is the trait found between them. None are powerlifters or marathon runners. They aren’t health food gurus. Yet, time and time again I’ve seen them work circles around firefighters half their age. Part of that may be wisdom through years of skill acquisition, allowing them to perform their given assignment with no wasted effort. However, some of it must be attributed to a determined work ethic and resiliency. The will to work until the job is done, regardless of how tired they may feel.
Resiliency and mental toughness can be developed over time. There is specific training directed at helping you overcome your mind. There are also resources outside the fire service, particularly from the military, to guide you in improving your mental performance.
In closing, we must realize that firemanship encompasses more than one’s ability to stretch a line, recite a textbook definition, or deadlift twice their bodyweight. It is a sum of many parts and true mastery of the craft requires a balanced and holistic approach. We must be willing to admit where we fall short in order to improve. We should help others whose weakness may be one of our strengths and, likewise, seek to learn from those who excel where we are deficient.