“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.
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.)
“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.