WTF?

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 Robot Firefighterready 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. i quitThe 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,

Stay Safe

Chris

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New Partnerships and Free Training

A new and exciting opportunity has presented itself and I’ve jumped at the chance. I’ve recently been given the opportunity to work with Chris Huston of EngineCo.22, and John Shafer of Green Maltese in their joint venture Fire Training Toolbox. FTT began as their brain-child with the vision of a place where firefighters could go for free, top-notch training  that was easily accessible and available to all regardless of pay scale, department size or training budget. It is also not meant to be a handful of elitist instructors who lecture down to the minions of the fire service, impressing them with their knowledge and puffing out their chests to each other. At the risk of sounding a little Utopian, FTT is supposed to be a group of highly motivated and eager individuals who enjoy learning and sharing their knowledge with others in order to make the fire service better. It’s basically open to anyone who wants to contribute, both on the learning and teaching end. That’s how I got involved. I asked.

So I submitted my first training article to FTT a few days ago. Hopefully it won’t be the last. I decided to do an article on a subject that I really don’t remember ever seeing done before, not to toot my own horn or anything. I wrote about opening an overhead door for defensive hoseline operations. “Huh?”, you might be asking. Well, think about it for a moment. There are two main reasons we open overhead doors, but both have distinctly different objectives. The first reason is to force entry. Meaning, the garage door is in the way and we need to get into the structure behind it. Obviously we have to force the door in order to get into the building. The second reason to force the door is to get at the fire behind the door. In this case we are going to assume the fire has us beat and this is a defensive operation. We aren’t going in but we still need to open those big overhead doors to be able to hit the fire. Will the same method work for both objectives? Depends on which method you choose. Guess you’ll just have to read the article. The link here will take you to the articles menu on FTT. Look for it there and check out the other articles and training modules available.

I Will Be My Brother’s Keeper

* Image from Brodin Studios, Inc.

“You’re an a$$hole,” he seethed at me from behind his mask. “Sorry,” I replied as he made his way back out the window and onto the ladder he had just come off a minute before. I followed and held onto his SCBA straps as a safety. We didn’t need to hurt anyone for real during training. He went down a couple rungs and then looked back up at me again through his mask. Our eyes met. “You’re a dick!” I just waved, sighed and pulled back into the room waiting for the replacement crew to come rescue the victim that this now-burned firefighter could not. “Not my fault you took your gloves off,” I thought.

“This is stupid. This is going to get someone hurt,” was one of the first complaints I heard regarding a floor collapse prop I had built. “So how do we realistically prepare you for going through a floor and what to do to get out?” was my reply. “I’ve been here 26 years and haven’t come close to going through a floor yet! Be smart about it,” was the answer. “Congratulations,” I said. “I’m glad you’ve made it that long and haven’t had  any issues but you might five minutes from now. Or one of these new kids might in a day or a week and we need to train them as best we can to be ready to handle it.” The other firefighter took a long pull from his cigarette (don’t get me going on that dichotomy), shook his head and said, “It’s a bad idea.” We used the prop and did the training anyway.

“What would you do ‘Professor’?”

“Hey! Super-fireman! We need your expertise over here.”

“It’s easy to set up a sh*&$y drill when you don’t have to do it, huh?” (I’ve always done a drill I’ve set up, just for the record.)

It goes on and on. So why do those of us that stick our necks out in the training realms, be it at our department or in print, video or digital media, subject ourselves to the potential for conflict, frustration and occasional abuse? Because we have committed to being our brother’s keeper. And so should you, training staff or not.

I could have over-looked my brother taking off his gloves in drill. There was no fire in the room, no heat. But would I just be reinforcing bad behavior by doing so? Would I be letting him down in the future when he did it in a real fire without thinking and actually burned his hands? I would not be acting as his keeper if I hadn’t “burned” him and then followed up with a discussion later.

I could have just put another PowerPoint together talking about case studies where firefighters have been injured or killed in collapse situations and then gone over mayday procedures. But would that have been as effective as actually subjecting my brothers to a realistic drop; that moment of panic; in full gear; that disorientation and then making them call the mayday and manipulate their PASS and get out of the situation? If I did I wouldn’t be as good a keeper of my brother as I could be.

What if I just shied away from any sort of uncomfortable confrontation or corrective action? What if I just took the easy way out of every situation that required an instructor to stand up and say, “Stop! We need to talk about this.” Would I be acting as an advocate and protector of my brothers and sisters? Or would I simply be acting as a chump who wants some extra pay to do training, or some brownie points or whatever other selfish reasons people find to get involved not just with training but with other “extra” jobs around work?

This does not pertain just to me, however. Or to any of you who are training officers or instructors. It should pertain to all of us. Each and every one of us should be our brother and sister’s keeper when it comes to training and knowing our jobs. We should be holding each other accountable for our actions and knowledge. If you see a brother or sister that may not know the correct operation of a particular tool, offer to go over it with them. If you have a particular “thing”; EMS, pumping, ropes and knots, SCBA, whatever, pass on your knowledge every chance you see to those that are weaker in those areas. It is not just up to your training divisions and its staff. It’s up to each of us. We are all each other’s keeper’s. Or at least we should be.

I’ve said it in other posts and I’ll say it again. This job is too important to be taken casually. We need to be as absolutely proficient in every aspect of this job that our individual departments are responsible for. If we are not, we will be letting Mr. or Mrs. Smith down when we do not have the knowledge, cannot use a tool or perform a skill that is required in a given situation. Worse yet, we may not be able to do so when one of our Brothers or Sisters needs us to perform for them. And to me, that is unacceptable. That is why I continue to stick my neck out. That is why I continue to take the ribbings, good natured or not. That is why I continue to take the scrutiny that this blog is subjected to. Because maybe, just maybe, someone picks something up that makes them a better firefighter and may help them or someone else on the job one day. I am committed to being my Brother’s, and my Sister’s, keeper. It’s the way it is supposed to be. It’s what this job was based on.

Are you in?

Be safe!

Chris

The Tower of Bad Habits

* Image from the Boca Raton Fire Department website

So, back to business as normal. Obviously given the title of this post and the picture above we’re going to be talking about training towers today. And it really doesn’t matter what kind of training tower you have, the fancy state-of-the-art one, the on-a-budget-one, or the re-purposed con-ex container type. Any kind of permanent structure that your organization uses for on-going training can actually have some unintended consequences if you as a trainee or a trainer are not careful. The training tower can turn into a <key spooky music> Tower of Bad Habits.

If you didn’t think I had lost my mind after the last post maybe you are thinking I have now. But stick with me for a minute. How can something that is intended to give us a readily accessible, relatively safe and hopefully realistic training experience create bad habits in us? Well, it’s simple really. Its because of those things that we kind of get lulled into a sense of security when we head down (or up, or over) to the tower to do some training. After a while we know it’s so many steps to the second floor. So many to the third. We know it is so many crawling movements to the corner and then a right turn, then so many more crawls and another right turn. We know the floor is concrete or steel or whatever and suddenly sounding for stability drops by the wayside. We just know a fourteen foot roof will make the second floor window for rescue with a bit to spare, a twenty-eight will make the third for ventilation. We find ways to cheat that are specific to our tower that may be a detriment to us at an actual incident. Instructors are just as guilty. We don’t allow the guys and gals to use their flashlights because we’re not using real smoke today and we can’t get it dark enough in there. The steel floor has been tearing up the knees of the bunker pants so we let the troops walk around more than we should. Or we loose or imagination and start falling into the same-‘ole same-‘ole and as soon as the members hear what the drill topic is they already know what the drill will be, what the benchmarks will be, how they must accomplish them and have a pretty good idea of what the scenario will be.  Trainee and trainer alike must challenge themselves to treat each training evolution as the learning experience it is meant to be and to push outside the comfort zone.

Obviously the benefits of having your own, or shared, facility at which to conduct training far outweigh the negatives. Departments don’t need to worry about the availability of acquired structures, making them 1401 compliant, acquiring permits, etc. etc., and they are generally available whenever the department would like to utilize them. Unless you are extremely lucky your department is not going to be able to afford to build a structure that is representative of every type of occupancy in your response district. Therefor the structures that are built are either pretty generic or maybe representative of the worst target hazard in your town i.e. the biggest building is a 5 story apartment building so the tower was built to be five stories high. Look at the brand new facility built in Boca Raton. Is every structure in Boca Raton a five story perfect rectangle with exterior stairwells? Of course not. How about Vienna, North Carolina? Is every structure there  three stories with only one solid wall? Odds are probably not. So that means the respective departments have to get creative. They must find a way to practice the lead-outs from the standpipe down the hallway to the fire apartment. They must find a way to simulate a garage fire. How about basement fires? I don’t think that in my travels thus far that I have seen a tower that has an underground component to it. That would be cool though. To actually be able to go in on the ground floor, make the stairs, fight your way down, maybe practice shielding yourself with a wide pattern fog (smooth-bore guys don’t hang me), practice exterior vent in a coordinated manner to give an exhaust point. Adds a lot to the cost, though. Shame, that. So, we have to make do. We have to get creative. There are plenty of ways to mix-up the every day training in the same tower you’ve been going to for years. Maybe we go all the way up to the roof and put the fire on the top interior floor and fight our way down. Or use an exterior entrance like on the Boca tower to do the same and fight down a level. Think outside the square or rectangular con-ex box. Be careful though! Just because those steps are cast concrete or steel grate doesn’t mean we don’t have to sound. It doesn’t mean we don’t need to practice staying near the walls, over the stringers, because that’s the strongest area. We need to keep our basic firemanship alive in the tower of bad habits too.

I’ve seen the advertisements for the new, clean burning propane buildings that come with stainless steel mock-ups of beds, kitchens, living rooms, just about anything you want. It’s great because there’s no mess to clean-up like using traditional hay and other Class A combustibles. Propane is better for the environment when it burns. The structure can be easily cleaned and the props can be used again and again. The down side is those props are immobile. They weigh several hundred pounds or more and are generally bolted in place and pre-piped for the gas feed. So once they are down they aren’t going anywhere. After the first few “reported bedroom fires” you’re going to have a real good idea of where the fire is, how to get there, what the lay-out of the building is, how much hose you’ll need, primary areas for search and that about two seconds worth of nozzle work is all that will be required once you reach the seat of the fire. All while done in nearly clear visibility or through clean theatrical smoke. Talk about building bad habits! Now, again, I’m not really knocking the manufacturers of these systems. They saw a niche and they built a product to fill it. I think they have their place and are pretty good but they come with limitations and unintended consequences also. Just keep it in mind and take some personal initiative to keep yourself sharp even though you have a pretty good idea what’s coming.

Being a Parrothead I am reminded of Jimmy Buffett’s song, Bank of Bad Habits. In it one of the choruses goes as follows;

Bank of bad habits
The price of vice fortold
One by one they’ll do you in
They’re bound to take their toll
The wrong thing is the right thing until you lose control
I’ve got this bank of bad habits in a corner of my soul.

Now, any of you fellow Parrotheads out there knows that the song isn’t exactly talking about training towers, but I think it draws a nice parallel. The price of your vices that are continuously repeated on the training ground may well foretell your undoing on the emergency scene. They are certain to take their toll on your skills and your preparedness if you’re not careful. The wrong thing in the tower is the right thing until control is lost on the scene. And we all have that little bank of bad habits in the corner of our souls. Ahhh, yes. Words of wisdom from Jimmy.

Now. Fins up!

And be safe until next time.

Chris

How Do You Coach?

* Image from Sports Coaching Brain website

Recently the head coach of the University of Illinois men’s basketball team, Bruce Weber, found himself in some hot water after making some comments to the press after another frustrating Illini loss. Coach Weber said, “The sad thing about the whole thing I guess is it’s my fault. Instead of creating toughness and developing a team, I coached not to lose all year. It’s sad to be honest, but it is what is.” Now, to give a little context, the Fighting Illini had started out the season 10 – 0. They currently sit at a mark of 16 – 10 and only 5 – 8 in the Big 10. The season has gone a little down hill since its lofty beginnings and Weber has found himself in a precarious position in regards to his on-going employment. These recent comments have had many speculating he may need to begin looking for other avenues of income generation. Personally, I don’t care. Never been an Illinois fan. I’m a Domer. As in, Notre Dame. So the Illini don’t really matter to me as a sports fan, but what drew my attention was Weber’s outlook on coaching. It got me thinking about how we in the fire service lead others and train for our job.

Instead of creating toughness and developing a team, I coached not to lose all year.” Do we do that as a profession? I think in a lot of ways we do. As an officer do you lead your company, battalion or department to truly excel or just not to get into trouble either by your higher-ups or by the residents or media? As training instructors do we train the troops to a level that is high-functioning and truly professional or do we do just enough to try and ensure no one gets hurt or killed? Do we see certain things like VES, aggressive Truck work or self-rescue techniques as too lofty a goal to attain and be proficient in or something our department is not capable of? Do we see our abilities as a department and our people as limitless or do we see them as restricted or capable of only so much and only to a certain, usually low, level? Are we constantly leading and training for mediocrity?

Whether you are an officer, at whatever level, or involved in training in some way your job is the same. You are a coach. You are a coach to a certain number of members. A company, a battalion or the whole darn department. Your job is to evaluate your team, find their strengths and weaknesses, improve on both of them through practice, evaluate the competition and come up with a game-plan that will lead to a successful outcome. How you lead these members gives a lot of insight as to what your goals and your organizational values are. Are you simply leading and training to get by or are you shooting for the upper reaches of performance? The big leagues or the minor leagues. Local competitions or the Olympics. Your people will pick up on it and some will seek to achieve only the level they perceive to be required of them. Others will look to surpass that level but will there be enough of those types of individuals to make a difference on a grander scale? If your officers or organization is setting a tone of, “just don’t lose“, or in our case, “Just don’t do something stupid to get us on the news,” or “Just be good enough so that we don’t routinely create new available parking spaces every time we have a fire,” will those over-achievers have enough influence on their own to raise the collective bar? Probably not.

Training can be looked at in the same way. Do we show up at the drill ground and simply go through the motions of whatever subject we are covering that day or do we challenge our students and ourselves in the course of meeting the objectives? I’ll admit that in some of the drills I have put on the scenarios or the situations in which the students find themselves may have been on the extreme or unrealistic side. I’ve caught flack for it too. “We’ll never be in that situation,” ” We would never do that,” “I’d never be stupid enough to get into that mess,” are all things I’ve heard regarding something I’ve put together. My opinion is that if we train on the extreme side then the routine (and I hate that word in regard to our profession) becomes easy. Or, at least, easier. Are we training to win, and to advance that line in difficult situations, or make those rescues under terrible conditions, or are we just training not to lose and advance the line with no obstacles or make rescues when the people are fully mobile and easily accessible? You can’t train day in and day out for Cactus League play (in honor of the Cubs pitchers and catchers reporting today) and then go out and expect to be able to face mid-season MLB competition the next. While the bread-and-butter residential structure fire may be what we face the most often we should still be training for the Paxton Hotel or Happy Land Social Club, in my humble opinion.

I’ve worked with a particular officer who’s only standing order is, “Just don’t get me in trouble.” I kind of equate that to what Coach Weber said and how it got him into trouble. I know I’m convoluted so try and stay with me, here. Essentially Coach Weber admitted to coaching his team not to go out and take a win as if it were the only option but to try and avoid losing if possible. Two totally different mindsets, yes? What I take away from this particular officer’s credo relates in a way (at least in my brain). Don’t do anything I’m going to have to answer for, i.e. don’t do anything that might make me lose my job. And, although not outright said, I take it as implied that a level of status quo is to be maintained. In my ears I hear, “Don’t go out there and achieve greatness, just don’t do anything that might draw attention to me.” Does that make sense? Now I’m even questioning my own line between the two points. Oh well, I know what I’m trying to say.

As officers you can’t just lead to get the members to follow your wishes, they’re going to do that anyway simply due to your rank. You need to try and lead them in such a that makes them want to achieve greater levels of proficiency. Greater levels of responsibility. A great “can do” attitude. And that starts with you and how you coach them. As instructors we need to challenge our students and make them overachievers. We need to coach them as if every game is the Super Bowl, because if we treat every game as if it doesn’t really matter then we’re never going to get there.

Stay safe!

Chris