“Step by step walk the thousand-mile road.” – Miyamoto Musashi
The process of skill development is a thousand-mile road, from novice to competence to proficiency to expert/mastery. Without diving too deep into the subject, the more that you develop a skill, the less you have to think about actually executing it. A common example is learning to tie our shoes. Initially, we have to consciously think about putting the laces in the correct position and in the proper order. Many of us used rote memorization (“the rabbit goes around the tree”) to expedite development through this novice stage. After many repetitions, we were able to tie our laces without looking at our shoes, though we were still consciously thinking about it. Eventually though, we performed the process enough times that it became a habitual process and we could perform it without dedicating any thought to the action (autonomy), freeing our mind to process other things like carrying on a conversation. On the fireground, autonomy in performing basic skills frees our cognitive processes for more important things, like sizing up the building and fire conditions.
As we progress in our skill level, we can begin to focus on strengthening more detailed areas of performance. For example, rather than carrying ladders on a flat, level drill ground or parking lot, practice moving up and down stairs, curbs, or grassy hills. Rather than always carrying a ladder on your right shoulder, work on the left side. Without the prior repetitions to develop autonomy, these changes in surface, grade, or position will require us to refocus our cognitive processes to negotiate them. To some, this level of detail may seem like splitting hairs, but the difference between competence, proficiency, and mastery is all about the details. As our abilities improve, we must critique them on a smaller scale if we wish to further improve. Otherwise, our performance will stall into complacency.
I recorded the following videos recently while working on left side ground-to-shoulder/carries and traversing stairs. The first repetition on the ground to shoulder is a perfect example of autonomy (muscle memory) as my brain attempts to follow the strong neural pathway developed by hundreds of reps to the right shoulder. I had to take a second to reset and mentally rehearse the left side movement before properly executing it.
Understanding the psychology behind skill acquisition is key to our abilities as both instructors (knowing how beginners learn and develop new skills) and as individual firefighters (understanding how we can continue to improve our abilities beyond mere competence for the length of our career).
Get weird. Get nerdy. Get better at your job.
In 2008, Alex Honnold completed the first free-solo rock climbing ascent of Yosemite’s Half Dome, climbing the mountain’s 2000’ vertical face without a rope or other safety devices. At that point, he had committed nearly twenty years of his life to climbing. He was, without a doubt, “into” his craft. However, he decided to skip any serious preparation for the Half Dome climb, practicing the route with a rope just two days before his planned free-solo attempt. He hoped to bank on his decades of experience as a climber, rather than continue to prepare for the specific mission ahead. During the ascent, he ran into a tough section requiring a movement that he was not confident in performing. He froze and struggled to continue, but finally passed the obstacle and successfully finished. The climbing world lauded his accomplishment as a momentous achievement, but he viewed it differently. In a TED talk describing his climb, he stated, “I was unsatisfied…I knew that I’d gotten away with something. I didn’t want to be a lucky climber. I wanted to be a great climber.”
In 2017, he returned to Yosemite to attempt the first free-solo of El Capitan’s 3000’ rock wall. This time, he was determined to succeed through more than luck. He spent a year practicing the climb with a rope, breaking it into sections and repeating them until he knew each handhold by memory. During this time, he found a weak spot in his performance. To pass a part of the route, he needed to be able to reach out to a foothold with his leg, but found it to be difficult. To improve his flexibility for this move, he began a stretching routine which he completely daily for the year leading up to the climb. He went on to complete the climb smoothly and with much more confidence than at Half Dome.
Honnold worked everyday for a year to master a specific movement that he would perform just once on a single climb. He had nothing to gain, but his reputation and only his own life at stake. Donning an SCBA mask is a skill that we perform at every single fire and our speed and proficiency may mean the difference between life and death for the citizens we serve. Yet, how many of us take the time to practice this vital skill everyday, let alone every shift? The same may be said about stretching lines, forcing doors, throwing ladders, or performing searches. Lives literally hang in the balance of our ability to perform these skills quickly and flawlessly, but for various reasons we may fail to practice them regularly.
It is easy for us to fall into a rut where we begin to lean on luck rather than skill. Our state certification says that we are a firefighter, as does our job title and the badge on our uniform. We have shirts proclaiming our status on a fire department and maybe a sticker on our vehicle. However, none of these objects have any bearing on our actual skill level. We tout our years of service as a measure of our abilities, but it is the quality of the experiences during that time, and how we learned and grew from them, that truly matters. We slide to the side during training and don’t attend outside classes and conferences to avoid exposing our weaknesses. We feign proficiency so long that our ego allows us to believe our own charade. We go to fires and are successful, but are we skilled and performing well or are we just getting lucky?
Repetitive training aimed at attaining mastery, not just mediocrity, is the difference between competence and coincidence. A humble, honest, objective critique of our own performance, like Honnold’s, is the only way to expose our weaknesses, so that we may improve. We should strive to perform at our best for the citizens, our team, and our families at home. We must put forth the effort and action to achieve excellence, rather than rely on luck while hiding behind the facade of hollow words, excuses, and assumed capability. We don’t want to be lucky firefighters, we want to be great firefighters.
June 5, 1944. General Eisenhower speaks to airborne troops preparing to board aircraft for the invasion of Normandy. An iconic image of leadership.
As supreme commander of Allied Expeditionary Forces, Eisenhower could have easily remained hidden in a command tent. Instead, he chose to spend time with some of the men he was leading. Time to speak with them face to face, to hear their concerns, and to encourage them.
True leadership can not hide behind a desk or computer screen. It demands that you be willing to stand, both face-to-face and side-by-side, with those under your command. And if you aren’t willing to act like a leader, then you shouldn’t be surprised when nobody follows you.
A little over a year ago, I had a short talk with a colleague about how we track our progress in fireground skills. When I was just a volunteer/part-timer, I realized that I simply couldn’t equal the skill acquisition of a career firefighter by training just one night a week. Even a mediocre full-timer would perform certain tasks more often through the course of 10 shifts per month. So, I started a log to record every time that I performed critical skills (stretch a line, throw a ladder, force a door, gloved mask-ups) during training or on the fireground. This helped me hold myself accountable, so that I could supplement those instances with additional repetitions on my own. The goal was to perform each skill a certain number of times every month, even if it wasn’t required during drills or calls. I continued logging reps after getting a career position. Although the need to supplement decreased, it still keeps me honest about how frequently I perform certain skills.
My colleague said that he did something similar and asked if I ever worked fireground skills into or around my workout program. For instance, practicing gloved mask-ups after completing some tough conditioning to simulate stress or cleaning ladders instead of a barbell. I told him that I occasionally worked out in gear, but that I didn’t really follow a “program”. I ran once or twice a month if I felt like it. I occasionally did push-up/pull-up circuits. Sometimes I’d do barbell work. However, there was no rhyme or reason behind it.
Later on, the hypocrisy of that statement weighed on me. “I don’t follow a workout program.” I was willing to spend so much time gathering knowledge of the trade and developing the skill necessary to apply it on the fireground. I had a binder of articles and notes from conferences. I had a notebook tallying every time I threw a ladder in the past year. Yet, I wasn’t willing to commit to a standardized program aimed at improving my physical fitness, the very attribute that would allow me to perform various physically demanding skills in quick succession and under stress.
I’ve always been a good distance runner. Endurance work is my safe space. If I decided to workout, I would almost always go for a run. I was good at running. It was easy. It was comfortable. Meanwhile, my strength was terrible and my anaerobic conditioning was only average, as I rarely pushed myself. I let the fact that I was skinny and could run far convince me that I was fit enough. I settled. Worse yet, I had a poor view of coworkers who were “out of shape”. How could I feel disdain toward others for not working to improve themselves if I wasn’t working to improve myself, as well? Rather than focusing on their shortcomings, I should have been pointing out mine. Working to be better than I was yesterday, in all aspects, and nothing more.
Last December, I changed that. I started following a standard, progressive program. I committed to three strength workouts per week and three conditioning workouts per week, regardless of my work schedule or other events. I try to get up early to fit my workout in before life’s distractions can get in the way. Sometimes I have to squeeze it in at night. Other days, I have to double-up on workouts. Either way, I get it done. I still have a lot of work to do, but I’m continually getting stronger and faster. Plus, I feel better on the job and in general.
As individual attributes; knowledge, skill, or fitness alone will only get us so far. In order to truly excel in this trade, we have to take a holistic approach. We must work to improve in all aspects of the craft, even the areas that aren’t comfortable for us. A fact that I’m still working on myself. Drive on and do good work.
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.
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.
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.