Hump Day S.O.S.
B y D a v i d R h o d e s T oday’s firefighter typically completes around 240 hours of basic firefighter training, 320 hours of emergency medical services (EMS) training, and 24 hours of hazardous materials (hazmat) training during recruit school. More information is currently covered during this time than in any other period in our history. Therefore, we should have the best rained workforce in our history. But what does that
mean? Has increasing the hours and expanding the
subjects created a more competent workforce?
Several factors have influenced the competency of
the workforce. We still overwhelmingly use old training methodologies that haven’t changed in generations. Firefighters have traditionally been hands on
programmed: Tell me what it is, show me how to do
it, and let me practice it until I have it. Not everyone
learns in the same way, and the increase in material has brought with it hours on hours of death by
PowerPoint®. Many in our newest generations come
to us without mechanical skills, so our training has to
change to develop those skills.
At the same time, we sometimes self-impose and
accept outdated deployment models that fail to take
into account technological advances, real-time data,
and emerging management strategies, just to maintain our old “Class” rating. This, compounded by a
change in employment culture, brings us an employee
base that is mobile with their transportable 401(k)s.
Newer employees will up and leave in a matter of a
few years for a better deal across the county line (good
for them, bad for organizational sustainability). As a
result, management needs everyone to be able to do
everything. We need you to staff the ambulance one
day, the ladder the next, the engine the next, and possibly fill in on the technical rescue truck after that.
This plug-and-play mentality was born out of
treating an organizational symptom, not the disease.
It is chic and hip to think you have such well-trained
members that they can function like this and your
organization will not lose any operational efficiency.
Talk about a normalization of deviance, here is one
for the management books. You do lose operational
efficiency, but your overtime numbers are tolerable
because you have a warm body in the seat.
Let’s throw in on the fire side that the number of
fires continues to decrease for most departments,
EMS calls are on the rise to the point of burnout,
special operations calls remain high risk/low frequency, and then we add on all the other modalities
of expectation. Let’s throw in the culture of frequently
reassigning or rotating officers and commanders
to different areas within organizations. This well-intended philosophy has a horrible cost in the need
for expertise and perpetuates the generalist movement. When does anyone have the time and experience to gain expertise?
Malcolm Gladwell laid out the model for expertise,
stating that it takes 10,000 hours of practice in a given
skill to gain expert status. Expertise leads to better decision making and more efficient and SAFE operations.
It also provides knowledge to the organization that can
help develop others and sustain the expertise. There is a
noticeable decline in expertise in a fire service that can
no longer just be considered the “fire” service. The fire
service is an all-hazards response agency that responds
to and is expected to manage everything that is not a
crime (and with many violent crimes, the fire service is
there to handle the outcome).
With a handful of exceptions in some very operationally focused organizations, the elevator person, the
hydraulics person, the EMS guru, the truck spec person,
the hose and nozzle person, the ladder person, the saw
person, the forcible entry person, the chemistry person,
and the command person have all retired. There might
be a presentation or two left and people assigned to
deliver the lecture, but they are often without expertise
themselves. THIS IS A PROBLEM, FOLKS!
We need specialization, and it is impossible to think
that we can each specialize in everything. The International Association of Fire Chiefs published many years
of firefighter near miss reports stating that a lack of
situational awareness and decision making led to the
majority of close calls. The fire service began treating the
symptom by teaching situational awareness classes or
by simply telling us that we need to make sure we have
it. Really? You don’t gain situational awareness from a
class on situational awareness (although it is beneficial
to help you understand what it is, not as a stand-alone
solution), and you don’t gain it by being told to have it.
Know a Little About Everything?
Caution: We are losing our experts
in the push for generalists