The Journey: Real Experience

A leader's experience will often be the true litmus test of their competence.Ingrained in fire service leaders must be, among other things, care, concern and competence. In this article we continue our series on the leadership journey and we will...

Hands-on training offered by reputable training instructors under the strictest safety regulations, NFPA 1403 are a good second best. The live fire training and exposure to the real thing under "controlled" conditions will be a valuable learning experience. I have "controlled" in quotes because we are still talking about live fire training and can we ever "control" the situation? We can take measures to reduce risks from known hazards. There is still danger, but competent instructors will do everything to eliminate as many dangers as possible, but accidents can still occur.

Learning from others with the training allows us to spread our knowledge to others. I call this, the "don't pet the skunk approach." Does everyone need to have been sprayed by a skunk to learn it is not a pleasant experience? This is one of those times when a very valuable lesson can be learned from the experience of someone else.

Similar lessons can be learned from listening to firefighters tell stories. Firefighters tell stories to pass on information learned at fires and emergencies. Listen to the stories, ask questions, gain from the perspective and make the experience your own. Analyze the story and break it down to lessons learned. Analyze the story because there may be an occasion when a firefighter may have embellished the story, but the basic truths will remain the same. This is what we will learn from.

Learning from stories is no substitute for having done it yourself, but how does a young firefighter learn the lessons of a careers worth of knowledge from a senior man? He listens and learns from the story.

The goal is to have a base of knowledge so that when you are faced with something for the first time you can recall the story and the lesson and act accordingly, safely. You may just say, "It happened just like they said it would."

There are other places to get the stories. is a website that posts the near-miss events that occur to firefighters everyday. This site combines a nations' worth of stories of how firefighters got in trouble and lived to tell about it. This is an excellent resource to learn from others experiences. This is where you learn who pet the skunk!

Another option to learning from other experience is the NIOSH reports. These are often written because someone didn't live to tell about it. They analyze the facts that went into making the event the hellish reality. They make recommendations for improvement, and they confront the truth with an unbiased opinion.

As you can see as we progress from firehouse war stories through near misses and end with NIOSH, the consequences have become greater. Often the most important lessons learned in the fire service are paid for in firefighters blood. That is why training and experience of our leaders is so critical.

A long-time friend and prophetic fire instructor, Jerry Knapp, explains that instruction in the fire service is like putting a message in the bottle and tossing it in the sea. You never know if the message was received or read.

Jerry explains it this way, "the experience you seek must be reached for, you have to seek it out by reading, discussing, questioning... Aggressively reach out, grab the bottle and read the message, experience inside! By letting it float by, you never know what you missed may come back as an injury or death at your next alarm."

How do you know someone actually listened or read the message? Did they gain from the experience they reached for? You will know because you will be successful at your next alarm. Success measured in terms of a safe response and efficient operations. You will know because nothing bad happens! No one gets hurt, no near-miss, and no NIOSH report, that is a good day. You will know they must have learned something.

If ever in your career you use something that someone taught you, let them know. It is one of the small victories for an instructor.

As I continue with this series I would like to get some feedback from you. Comments and questions are welcome. Stories of success, as well as failure, should be shared so we all can learn from them. Share your stories with me by e-mail at:

Look for the next article, "The Journey: Missed opportunities." As always, stay safe.