“We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act, but a habit.” -Aristotle
After many years of observing firefighters at my department during training operations and on the fireground, it’s apparent that some of them perform significantly better than others, especially during unforeseen, dangerous events. Firefighters at my department undergo similar initial training programs (recruit academy) and on-duty recurrent training. So what makes one firefighter perform better than another?
Statistics from the International Association of Fire Chiefs (IAFC) Crew Resource Management Program reveal that approximately 50 percent of all firefighter line-of-duty deaths are attributed to some type of firefighter or crew error. Therefore, the reasons behind excellent performance versus merely acceptable performance should be a serious concern for company officers and fire departments.
It’s easy to identify and report the mistakes that firefighters make during training sessions. After all, firefighters are human, and all humans make mistakes. But we can do better than merely relying on post-incident reports. We can observe the attitudes and performance of those firefighters who distinguish themselves during training and fireground operations. Demonstrated excellence in a training environment is no guarantee of excellence during a true emergency. However, firefighters who display excellence during training and normal fireground operations will most likely demonstrate similar behavior during an actual emergency.
Excellent firefighters share certain attributes and attitudes that are present at all times. In my observation, excellence boils down to the following three critical success factors:
1. An intimate knowledge of and a passion for the fire service profession;
2. A professional attitude that includes understanding the job’s dangers, practicing situational awareness and reacting conservatively to a challenging event; and
3. The acceptance and use of the department’s operational procedures.
Let’s take a closer look at each of the three.
Critical Success Factor No. 1:
An intimate knowledge of and a passion for the fire service profession. Highly successful firefighters take pride in knowing their profession, much more than the minimum required training. They spend time reading articles in professional trade magazines, talking about tools and techniques with other firefighters, critiquing their own incidents, attending conferences or classes and, most important, reviewing their department’s operational procedures. They are very familiar with the tools and equipment carried on their apparatus, and how best to use them. They accept, understand and practice the Incident Management System (IMS).
Excellent firefighters are knowledgeable about building construction and pre-fire plans. They know the different types of construction and how they affect safety and operational tactics on the fireground. They are students of the fire service and are always seeking more knowledge.
Because they are human, excellent firefighters still make mistakes. But their mistakes are fewer, less serious and more quickly discovered and corrected than those made by other firefighters.
How does an intimate knowledge of and a passion for the fire service influence the daily activities of an excellent firefighter? The answer is simple: Firefighters are constantly making life and death decisions. To make a decision, they must collect and analyze the current information and compare it with past experiences and lessons learned. The excellent firefighter draws on a wider range of information, which leads to better decisions. Lacking important information, especially the understanding of basic operational and safety procedures and techniques, can result in disaster. In the fire service, knowledge is not just power; it’s safety.
Critical Success Factor No. 2:
A professional attitude that includes understanding the job’s dangers, practicing situational awareness and reacting conservatively to challenging events. Professional firefighters know that the fire ground is dangerous and that conditions can change rapidly, without warning. They are not complacent. They are skeptical. They are alert and are always asking themselves, “What if…?” “What will we do if we cannot contain the fire to this room?” Excellent firefighters are prepared with a backup plan should the initial plan fail.
Because they are skeptical, these excellent firefighters will sense abnormalities sooner than their peers. They will anticipate, and thus avoid, potentially hazardous events. When unexpected events do occur, they will identify and handle them more effectively than other firefighters.
A constant situational awareness is one of the most important aspects of the critical success factors. Firefighters who exhibit constant situational awareness always know what their objective is, how much air they have and most important, where they are with regard to some reference point in the structure. Many case studies from tragic fireground incidents cite a loss of situational awareness.
A challenging event is anything that occurs on the fireground that could potentially affect safety. An equipment failure would be considered a challenging event, as would a change in the weather; either could compromise safety. In response to challenging events, excellent firefighters take actions to preserve or enhance the current level of safety. Examples include not entering a fire building if the conditions are deteriorating too rapidly, or revising strategies because of changing weather. The first goal of any fireground operation is firefighter safety; everything else comes second. The excellent firefighter is aggressively conservative.
Critical Success Factor No. 3:
The acceptance and use of the department’s operational procedures. All fire departments should have a complete set of operational procedures called standard operating procedures (SOPs) or standard operating guidelines (SOGs). Regardless of the name, operational procedures provide structure for fireground operations.
Some firefighters rely on operational procedures more than others; some take them for granted, and some ignore them completely. When asked why operational procedures are important, firefighters might reply, “So everyone will do things the same way.” But there’s much more to them than standardization.
Operational procedures provide firefighters with time-tested, consistent, safe methods of accomplishing many normal and abnormal tasks. They help firefighters avoid the surprises that might occur if there were no prescribed methods for handling the event.
Lastly, adherence to the department’s operational procedures help keep firefighters prepared and ready to react to unexpected events, which might include a low air bottle alarm, a lost firefighter, or an incident that escalates rapidly in size or complexity. These challenging events can be anticipated and practiced. Department operational procedures provide firefighters with a set process for dealing with such events, and excellent firefighters embrace their use.
Are You Observing?
The lesson learned by observing excellent firefighters is clear. The excellent firefighter has a passion for the profession, understands the dangers of the job, is aware of their surroundings, responds conservatively to challenging events and accepts and uses operational procedures.
How do your firefighters measure up against these critical success factors? Do they continually study their profession and practice the responsibilities of their position? Do they take seriously, the potential dangers that come with their job and prepare for them? And do they review, accept, and practice the department’s operational procedures in order to perform safely and effectively?