The Fire Scene: Failure as a Motivator In Firefighter Training

Nobody likes to fail, least of all firefighters. We take our business seriously and none of us likes to even do a decent job – we like to do a great job!

Having said that, I guess you’re wondering how failure fits into our high standards. Believe it or not, it does. Failure is in fact a great motivator. Not for every activity or tactic, but it can and does work. Let’s take a look at failure and how it can be good.

Makes mistakes at a drill,not on the fireground

I was talking with a few fire officers recently and one of them, a company officer, asked whether letting his firefighters stumble and even fail during a drill is a good idea. I asked him to explain and he said that during a recent rapid intervention team (RIT) training evolution, he didn’t let the first several teams rescue the “lost” firefighter. He said he knew the firefighters were unhappy with the results. They looked and felt bad that, first, they failed, and, second, their brother firefighter “died.”

Not making a great roof cut or not moving an attack hoseline into a fire rapidly enough could be considered failures, but the results and how a firefighter feels about them are dramatically different. The officer further explained that he set up the evolution so the involved firefighters could not succeed. This may seem cruel or ineffective or just plain wrong to you, but it worked for this officer.

I told the officer that I agreed with him and that tapping into the high standards of our firefighters is a great way to motivate them to do better, work harder and think more clearly. Sometimes, failure is the spark that ignites success. Sometimes, coming in second sets the stage and lays the groundwork for the win the next time. RIT training is a particularly fitting subject to use with this concept.

When firefighters are learning, training and practicing rapid intervention skills, they know it is all on the line. It’s not simply making a search or forcing a door. It’s about the survival of a fellow firefighter. It’s about our own survival. That’s why when we train on rapid intervention, and perform hands-on evolutions in particular, we pull out all the stops. Every firefighter, officer, team and company is in the spotlight and everybody is watching. Don’t you think the other teams are watching, measuring and, yes, judging the first team as the members go through the hands-on challenge? They sure are and we all know it. The team members who are on their hands and knees, working to “rescue” a missing firefighter, know it too. They know everyone else is watching and they know how well they are doing.

So let’s add the failure into this. Now we have an officer or instructor who designs the first couple of RIT evolutions so the goal is not achieved and the firefighter in distress is not rescued. What have they accomplished? They have immediately gained the full attention and cooperation of the involved firefighters. We don’t like to fail and the first priority after a failed operation is learning what went wrong and how to do it correctly next time. The stage is now set for a very attentive crew that needs answers and want nothing more than to try the evolution again and succeed this time.

Another issue unique to RIT operations is that few firefighters and officers have extensive rapid intervention experience. Add to that the fact that RIT operations are difficult to set up and conduct and many departments provide limited training to their members in that field. These conditions combine to create a fantastic opportunity for valuable and effective training. Firefighters who have not received much RIT training already know they need more information and experience.

Once you organize and begin the training evolutions, you will see a noticeable elevation in the attention that the firefighters and officers are giving to the subject. Combine the fact that a team has “failed” in its first RIT performance and that a considerable amount of information needs to be discussed and practiced, and you are in the enviable position of having a motivated, eager, interested and raring-to-go team of firefighters waiting for the next demonstration.

No, on its face failure never looks good, but do not be too quick to judge. In certain situations when training on specific topics or skills, a dose of failure may just be the best medicine! n


John J. Salka Jr. presents “You Are Not In the Front Seat to Beep the Horn” at Firehouse World 2014.