Many years ago, on the last day of training at rookie firefighter school, one of our instructors gathered the class together for a last-minute pep talk. This instructor was the youngest of our six teachers and he was the one that we most related to. He sat on a desk in front of the class and told us...
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Many years ago, on the last day of training at rookie firefighter school, one of our instructors gathered the class together for a last-minute pep talk. This instructor was the youngest of our six teachers and he was the one that we most related to. He sat on a desk in front of the class and told us that our training was now over and that we would receive our first station assignments by the end of the day. He told us that he wanted to have a straight talk with us before we went off into the real world of firefighting.
The instructor said that for the previous three months, we had learned almost everything that had been written about the art of becoming a firefighter. We had practiced and drilled countless different methods and techniques until we performed them like mindless robots, and now that we were about to start practicing our trade, he was going to give us the best advice that we could ever get.
What he said next not only shocked us, but it left us totally confused: “Forget everything that we taught you in the last several months and just learn how to innovate.”
Two weeks later, I finally understood his advice. While at a call for a sofa fire, I was the fifth man, or can man, on the engine. The nozzle man and I were crawling into the smoke-filled apartment behind our officer when he turned and gave us two orders. The first was to hit the burning sofa with the can and the second was to prepare a pre-connect line.
Now, I was confused. Operating the can was my responsibility and the preparation of a pre-connect was also part of my responsibility, along with that of the pump operator, the nozzle man and the hydrant man. We had been drilled at fire school that we all had specific tasks to perform in a pre-connect maneuver. I stayed with the can and hoped that the others would be able to get a line on the fire without me.
Back at the firehouse I explained to my officer how confused I was. He set me straight and then reinforced what I had been told on my last day of rookie training. Textbook maneuvers are just a guide. What is important is to be flexible and to be able to adapt to any situation. If we could learn to innovate, then we would be able to beat almost any problem that was thrown at us. Many years later, I am still teaching this bizarre principle to all who will listen.
In all of my years of firefighting, I have never been to the perfect textbook fire. Every incident is different and therefore each one presents its own individual challenges. Each problem or situation also requires its own unique solution.
Becoming a good innovator does not require a great deal of skill, but it does require some imagination. The hard part is learning to be flexible and to be able to look at a problem with an abstract point of view.
You can learn everything about forcible entry and master every cutting and prying tool available, but you will still come across the door that just won’t let you in. It could be a two-inch-thick solid oak door with the best anti-theft locks on it. Given enough time and patience we will get past this door. The firefighter who is a skilled innovator will be able to solve this problem with almost no effort. By standing back and thinking out the problem, he or she might decide on one of several different methods of getting through this locked door. The firefighter’s decision might be to attack the weak side of the door, the hinge side, rather than the locks. Or maybe he or she will dismantle the frame from around the door. Many times, the door with the best hardware is supported by the flimsiest frame. If none of this is possible, perhaps the fastest way past this door is by breaching the adjacent wall. Whichever solution succeeds, you can be sure that it will be the result of abstract problem solving and innovating.