The Perpetual Climb
A more appropriate metaphor is that of walking up an escalator that’s moving in the opposite direction. Every time you stop, you lose a little ground. Every day you go without a workout, you get slightly more out of shape. Every month you go without practicing a skill, you become a little more rusty.
Professional athletes workout throughout the offseason simply to maintain their level of performance. So, why do we believe that we can go lengths of time without practicing a skill and maintain our proficiency? Why would we expect to go without physical training and retain the same level of fitness?
Keep moving forward and do good work.
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.
“I Don’t Feel Like It”
When it comes to avoiding work, training, or other activities; people come up with a variety of excuses. One of the weakest is that “I don’t feel like it.”
Humans are creatures of comfort who seek stability through monotony. Yet, self-improvement usually requires some uncomfortable action. If you plan on waiting until you “feel” like doing something to better yourself , you’ll never do it. Rarely will you “feel” like eating healthier foods, starting a new fitness routine, or cleaning up the dirty tools on the rig. Our human nature sways us away from endeavors of dirt and sweat and toward the safety of a couch and the warm glow of an electronic screen. To avoid complacency, we must push ourselves past that level of comfort.
Instead of waiting for the right mood to strike you, force yourself to push into uncomfortable territory and take the first step. Identify your weaknesses and take the action necessary to strengthen those points. The first steps are difficult , but once you establish a routine it becomes normal and comfortable. Soon you’ll see signs of improvement in yourself, adding motivational fuel to your existential fire. Before long, what was once an uncomfortable task will become part of your regular routine. Of course, then it is time to push even farther. The path to improvement is never-ending, paved with discipline, and marred by the potholes of excuses.
Drive on and do good work.
Depending on the size of your department and its turnover rate, the promotional process may be a bi-annual event or a rare occurrence. Either way, positions will need to be filled at some point. The time between the announcement of an opening and its being filled can bring out odd behavior in some individuals. Even the best team-players can be tempted to undercut other candidates in an attempt to earn the coveted opening.
The ideal fireman presents the attributes of a wolf. Wolves are strong, aggressive, smart animals on their own. Yet, they hunt in packs, as a team. Each wolf plays its role in the hunt, working together to bring down their prey. Wolves know that a successful hunt as a team is also a victory for the individual, as the fallen prey will be shared to feed the entire pack.
Sharks are similar to wolves as individuals; strong, smart, aggressive. However, sharks tend to be lone predators. Their only goal in attacking prey is to satisfy their own needs. A shark’s keen senses will often lead dozens of individuals to a potential food source. This “pack” of sharks may seem similar to a group of wolves circling prey, but their mindset is much different. When the group of sharks swarms a victim, it is brutal and uncoordinated. The sharks are just as likely to eat each other as the intended prey. The individuals are concerned with nothing beyond their own survival.
Turning into a shark may seem like a sound strategy for beating out the other promotional candidates. Pointing out their mistakes and seeking to destroy their credibility. It seems easy enough to turn back to your old self once your new position is secure. However, remember that your actions, and the reputation they create, will not be so easily forgotten by your peers. What good is a shiny new set of bugles if your crew will not respect them?
Ignore the temptation to compromise your character. Successful teams breed successful individuals. Perform your job properly and seek to outperform only yourself. The rest will follow.
Mission, Team, Self.
Another Tool in the Toolbox
This phrase is thrown around in the fire service more casually than stickers and challenge coins these days. I’m sure it started off innocently enough. The senior man, sipping coffee, tells a war story and shows the rookie a little trick of the trade he learned on that call. “You might not use it often, kid,” he says. “But, it’s another tool in the toolbox, right?” A tip here and a trick there. Standing on a firm foundation of the basics, these are the building blocks of a versatile, skilled fireman. Somewhere along the way, though, we lost the true meaning of this saying.
Sure, it’s great to have plenty of tricks up your sleeve and tools in your mental toolbox. However, it is becoming more common to see this phrase pop up as a retort to a critical comment about a questionable tactic. Someone points out that a more common and time-tested method will accomplish the same goal, with less complexity, and perhaps even faster. The peanut gallery quickly chimes in screaming, “It’s just another tool in the toolbox!” Absolutely, it is another tool, but should we be so quick as to toss every tool we see into that cranial box? Perhaps, we should be just a bit more discerning in our scrutiny of potential tactics.
There are options that only work in specific regional/departmental/staffing circumstances. Sometimes they work well, but just don’t make sense for your department. These examples are acceptable, but should be taken or left based on your local circumstances. A mechanic wouldn’t fill his bag with paint rollers, although they are efficient tools for their intended task.
However, when the trick peddlers are just re-packaging a more complicated version of a decades old tactic, it’s okay to shoot it down. Call it what it is. Sometimes, the method comes from someone with little experience in the field. A little real-world testing would have shown its ineffectiveness, but in a rush to make a name for themselves they skip that most important step. Often, a more experienced tradesman will comment, “We tried that 15 years ago. It didn’t work well then; I doubt it will work now.” Again, the crowd roars, “Another tool in the toolbox!” However, this response is misguided. Not every tool presented to us is worth keeping. We should be wary of picking up every free gimmick we find, lest we lose our go-to wrench in a toolbox full of dollar store multi-tools.
Black Sheep Rebel Club Rule #9
Use the words “always” and “never” sparingly.
Declare that you will “always attack a fire X way” or “never enter a structure under Y conditions” and fate will undoubtedly present you with an exception to your rule. Don’t paint your agency into a corner with overly specific protocol and policies. The fireground is dynamic and your tactics must be, too. A well-rehearsed general strategy is necessary, but leave room for skilled, experienced company officers to call an audible when the circumstances warrant it.
(Photo by Ron Burgess Jr.)
What’s Old is New.
“One hundred years unimpeded by progress.” A cliché that we’ve all heard and chuckled at. However, it isn’t very accurate. From horse-drawn steam carts to diesel-powered engines, wooden aerials to steel, fully enclosed cabs, SCBA’s, and TIC’s. The fire service welcomes marked improvements to our trade. However, we do approach all new ideas with skepticism, and rightfully so. For every true innovation in the fire service there are five more useless gimmicks peddled by those looking for profit or notoriety.
Take the example of the Hux Bar. Like our beloved Halligan, the Hux was designed as an improvement on an existing tool. Marketed as a pry bar/hydrant wrench, it was meant to be equally useful, whether opening a plug or the front door. It was new. It was different. It was innovative. So, why doesn’t every rig in the country carry a Hux Bar? The Hux performed poorly at every task it was designed for. Sure it was different, but that didn’t make it better.
Today, many gimmick peddlers use that old fire service cliché repetitively as their main argument in support of their product. When challenged by someone with 20+ years on the job, they utter things like, “dinosaurs don’t like change” and “just like a caveman to ignore something different”. When questioned by a younger member, their rhetoric flips over. “Get a few more years in and you’ll change your mind, probie”, they shout. The doublespeak is a weak rebuttal, though.
What’s missing from this exchange is actual evidence of why this new product is better than what’s already in service. The burden of proof should not be place on time-tested methods and tools. The things that have been working will continue to work beyond the length of my career. It is up to those with new methods and tools to provide the evidence that their product is better than what is currently in use. Note that being equal in performance is not sufficient. It must show marked improvement to justify changes to budgets and policies.
A thinking firemen is a skeptical one. Question everything. Demand a “why” for every “how”. Change is not synonymous with improvement. Different is not always better.
Black Sheep Rebel Club Rule #3
Do Good Work
No matter what, always do good work. You may have no control over administrative power-plays, departmental politics, or experimental policies. Don’t spend your time worrying about issues that are out of your hands. Focus on the things in your control. Keep your mind, body, equipment, and crew in a state of readiness. Let others worry about what shirt you’re supposed to wear today. When the tones drop, it really doesn’t matter. The important thing is that you have a seat on the rig, your tools are ready for work, and that, at the end of the day, you did your job.
Black Sheep Rebel Club Rule #20
Coffee, hot and black. The catalyst for starting a productive shift and the fuel for making it through a busy night. Some of the greatest lessons in the fire service begin with a fresh pot and a circle of firemen. Whether you gather around the front bumper, the kitchen table, or on the back ramp, it’s all the same. Seniors, pass down your knowledge; probies, open your ears. Fill your mug and your mind. These lessons won’t be found in a classroom or textbook.
(Contributed by Erik Heath)
Black Sheep Rebel Club Rule #7
Sometimes things don’t go your way. Your big idea may be shot down. Someone may disagree with your opinion. Occasionally, you may even be flat-out wrong. It doesn’t mean that the world is out to get you. Admit to your errors, negotiate around life’s obstacles, and move on.
(Contributed by Brian Brush of Fire by Trade)