Competence or Coincidence?
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.
A Short Note On Leaders
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.
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)
Black Sheep Rebel Club Rule #16
“I’ll remember when it’s the real deal” is a weak and tired fallacy. Building muscle memory through repetition occurs regardless of whether you are building proper or poor technique. Skip the step of donning your hood or grabbing a tool on ninety-nine false alarms and you can guarantee that you will arrive to that one working fire with a naked neck and empty hands. Do your job; do it right, every time.
“We do not rise to the level of our expectations. We fall to the level of our training.” – Archilochus
(Contributed by Dave LeBlanc)
Comfort and Complacency
When we first enter the fire service, motivation is easy to find. As a probie, we are well aware that we are the weak link of the team. We are at the bottom of our department’s ladder. Everyone is our superior. The urge to improve is strong. We strive to become a contributing asset to the company, rather than a liability that everyone must keep an eye on. We are constantly challenged and made uncomfortable as we are outperformed by those around us.
As we gain experience and our skills improve, we begin to rise on the ladder of seniority. New hires come in below us and we surpass the abilities of some less-motivated, senior “employees”. We begin to feel comfortable in our department’s little “bubble”. We are familiar with everyone’s abilities and how they compare to our own. We are safe and secure.
If we remain in this “bubble”, we can easily convince ourselves that we have little room for improvement. This is especially true if we are one of our department’s top performers. Slowly, the challenge to improve disappears. The drive to advance dissipates. Comfort gives way to complacency. We become stagnant.
Step outside the “security bubble” of our department and it quickly becomes apparent that we are not so great after all. There are individuals nationwide who outperform you on nearly every level. Expose yourself to new ideas and methods. Challenge yourself to match the skills of tradesmen across the country. Do your best to maintain a level of slight discomfort in your abilities; the knowledge that you may be good, but you can still be better. Spread this discomfort to those around you. Attack the status quo of mediocrity. Challenge your company and department to overcome the plague of apathy and complacency created by a comfortable existence.
Do not become stagnant. Keep moving forward. You aren’t as great as you think you are and you can always be better tomorrow.