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.
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.
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.
Solving the problems of the world has long been a favorite activity at the firehouse kitchen table. Now that we are in the “Facebook Age”, the discussions have expanded on to a national, online forum. This change has resulted in some great benefits through exposure to new ideas and methods. However, the instant and impersonal communication can also create stubborn stances and impolite responses that would likely be avoided in a face-to-face encounter.
Social media discussions allow one to reply instantly, but anonymously, and without the accountability found during direct conversations. The most obvious consequence of this is the decline or lack of manners between participants. In addition, internet arguers often become staunch and immovable supporters of their positions. The comfort of remote debates makes it too easy for one to dismiss all differing ideas without any consideration. A discussion over the use of radio straps versus a radio pocket turns into a repetitive chorus chanting, “I’m right; you’re wrong!” The most zealous will go beyond just disagreeing and declare all differing methods to be idiotic or deadly. Threads spool on for dozens, or hundreds, of comments with proponents of all sides screaming, “Your way will get you killed!” like two walls talking to each other. The truth of the matter is that ANY way will get you killed if you are unfamiliar with it.
The benefit of the online forum is that we can hear these new ideas, push back from the desk for a minute, and physically try them for ourselves. Rather than arguing perpetually, put the method in question to a real life test. By setting aside your preconceived notions, you might learn something new, or you may just prove your point. Either way, you will accomplish more than if you had continued to angrily slap your keyboard. Regardless of the outcome, remember that just because a method doesn’t work for you and your department, it doesn’t mean that it is automatically a “death trap”. You must accept that it may work very well for another department with different staffing, different equipment, or a different mindset.
In the end, we must often learn to just agree to disagree. Whether you like it or not, there is “more than one way to skin a giraffe”(and some of the best methods aren’t listed in the “red book”). Perhaps it would be best to limit our Facebook activity to clicking “like” and “share”. Leave the big debates to the tailboard, the kitchen table, or a bar in Indianapolis. The next time you find yourself sucked into the vortex of misunderstanding and hate that is a Facebook debate, have an open mind and remember the words of the Dude, “Yeah, well, you know, that’s just, like, your opinion, man.”
It’s been a long week at ELAFF HQ and the list is a little late going out, but here it is:
- We Are Not Cyborgs – Gea Leigh Haff, Fire Service Warrior
We had an especially tough fire in the “ELAFF Local” last weekend. This post went up on the FSW main site within 48 hours, just in time to read it prior to heading to the CISD myself. A fine article and excellent reminder.
- 35′ of Getting the Job Done – Firefighter Basics
“There is hardly a reason to have more than 2 members raising the 35′ ladder. The job does go quicker with 3 people but usually the 3rd person gets in the way.”
- That Idea Would Never Work Here! – Craig Nelson & Dane Carley, Fire Engineering
“Why are new ideas important to the fire service and, more specifically, to your department? Ideas turn into innovation, and innovation is how departments adapt to a changing environment.”
- Tactical Nozzle Considerations – Dan Doyle, Fire Engineering