This post isn’t going to be what about what you think it’s going to be about. I’m not asking the question that comes to mind most often when we see the abbreviation that this post is named for. In fact, I’m stealing it from Chief Billy Goldfeder and the others over at firefighterclosecalls.com. You see, for at least a couple of years those guys would use “WTF” in their gallery of pictures depicting firefighters and other emergency responders doing some not so smart things. Many of us, myself included, assumed they were just asking what many of us were thinking in our heads, “What the f*&K?!?” They took some heat over it too. Some called it unprofessional. Some called it picking on undertrained brothers and sisters. Some just didn’t like the implied cursing. And for a long time the Chief and everybody else just kept quiet and continued to do what they did and used the attention-getting abbreviation. Then, one day, kind of out of the blue, an explanation was posted. Some of you already know the story, but for those of you that do not it turns out we were all wrong. “WTF” didn’t stand for, “What the f*&k” and they weren’t calling anyone out per se. They had fooled everyone. Turns out they were asking a question; “Well-trained Firefighter(s)?” OH! Duh! <Forehead slap> That was a good one! Which is what brings me to my rant today.
I, along with many others in our profession, have been touting training as the answer for all evils in the fire service for some time now. If we just train harder, train smarter, train more realistically, train more often etc. etc. then our LODD’s will go down, our injuries will go down and we won’t see as many brothers and sisters getting into trouble across the country. Slowly, however, I’m starting to change my tune a little bit. Not that I don’t think we need to train in all those ways, we do. But in many areas we have been missing a vital component; training our firefighters how to think.
We are great at teaching our candidates how to do a task. We read the chapter on forcible entry, we watch the power point presentation, a couple YouTube videos of real scenarios, then we take them out to the training tower or an acquired structure and have them break some real doors and locks. Just. Like. The. Book. Says. Rarely do we get into the “why” part of how we do things. Someone once said to me that, “An airline pilot never had to load baggage to learn how to fly the plane.” Nope, he never did. But damn straight he understands the issues surrounding weight and balance and how that affects aircraft performance and fuel consumption rate. If the ground crew asks him at the last minute if he can take a rush cargo package that is an odd shape and weighs a lot he better know how it will affect his aircraft and the flight he is about to undertake. Shouldn’t it be the same with our firefighters? Here is how you do something but equally important here is why you do it this way. If we understand the why it leads to an overall better education and will help the firefighter overcome obstacles that are met in the field when he or she isn’t on a training ground with good visibility, lots of room and a prop that is intended to break. If they understand the why they can figure ways around problems when options A, B and maybe even C don’t work. Without that part of their education when the one method they have been taught for a given scenario fails they lack a critical thinking component to be able to come up with another solution.
This issue of teaching why is becoming increasingly important as more and more scientific research is showing what happens in fuel rich and oxygen starved fires. Things like flow path are becoming very important parts of our teaching these days. But why does a Probie need to know about its existence and the possible ramifications of early and aggressive ventilation. Because it may get them killed, that’s why. If a firefighter is ever only taught, smoke + heat + interior attack = ventilation and sets about taking every window in the place prior to the hose line being ready can we really blame him or her when we’re still on scene two hours later trying to put the flames out from the outside? We need to be teaching, smoke + heat + all this research and stuff over here = controlled ventilation at certain key times and this is why. We need to be raising smart, thinking firefighters instead of dumb robots who are programmed to hit Halligan with flat head axe, repeat, repeat, repeat until set. Push on Halligan. Door open. What happens when door doesn’t indeed open but the robot has only been programmed with the one method of attacking this problem? Robots can’t think. They can’t adapt to a fluid situation and make decisions as to what the next-best course of action should be. Or to use information and clues from their surroundings to aid them in making those decisions.
My daughters are being taught using the Common Core curriculum. I hate it. I don’t get it a lot of the time. But you know what aspect about it I do get? The one that makes sense to me? They are being taught multiple methods of coming up with the same answer, particularly in math. Instead of sitting down with an 8.5″ x 11″ multiplication table and memorizing the entire stupid thing, like I did, they are given methods A), B) and C) to get to the same answer and allowed to pick the one that they understand the best. Heck, my oldest came up with her own method the other night that made sense to her and got her the right answer. How can you argue with that? I’ve seen her use different methods on different problems because it is easier or makes the most sense for that particular question. She’s being taught critical thinking without even realizing it. We need to do more of that in the fire service. Out with the old salt senior man screaming at the Probe, “Because I said so, that’s why”, and in with the here’s the task, here’s the desired end-result, here’s some different scenarios you may run into in the real world and here’s options for overcoming them.
Serving as an instructor at a multi-jurisdictional training at a burn facility I watched a crew give up and walk away. They were role-playing as the first-due Engine on scene of a working fire. The officer got off, did his 360, returned to his crew and gave orders. The line was pulled to the front door which was a forcible entry prop. They had to force their own door before the door to the tower was opened and they could advance the line. The prop was set with wooden wedges. Nothing crazy, not even soaked in water overnight. Just wooden wedges, two if I remember right. They worked on that door for what seemed like forever. The full assignment had arrived, received their orders and gone to work and still they were working on that door. The whole time using the same method that had not worked for them in the minutes preceding. Then they gave up. Literally dropped their tools, picked up the line and went around the tower out of my view. They eventually began their attack through a first floor window. Innovative? Sure. Adaptive? Yep. But I would argue that in a way it was kind of disappointing and deflating. This crew lacked resources upon which to draw when plan A didn’t work. They may have forgotten them over time. Maybe every forcible entry drill they had done over the last several years had only allowed them to practice one way and it had worked all those times. I don’t know. But it was an eye opening experience for me to observe. WTF?
Our profession has always had a strong and proud tradition of adapting and overcoming. Sometimes even to our detriment. We just fall back on this and maybe rely on it too much. As instructors, senior members, officers or just members with a passion for the job we owe it to those we serve with and those coming behind us to improve the way we instruct. We need to have a wide variety of weapons in our arsenal.
Until next time,