You Must Become a Student of Firefighting

My friends, the time has come to share an important principle with you about education in the fire service. Knowledge does not float freely through the air in the world around you. You cannot take a deep breath and inhale a whole bunch of information. You do not gain knowledge via osmosis. Simply holding a book firmly in your hands will serve not purpose in the gathering of new facts, figures, and operational principles.

Regardless of how hard you try there is no way for knowledge to suddenly pop up as a part of the gelatinous gray matter of your brain by the simple act of wishing. Experience has taught me that you must consciously work to search for new data. You must then actually do something to make it stick within you brain so that you can recall it for use when you need it.   Unfortunately, there are lots of folks who are book smart and operational dumb. As a matter of fact I had a buddy like that who had two conflicting knowledge-related attributes:

  • Photographic memory for information
  • Inability to use that knowledge efficiently during an emergency

This was not a great thing to see at work. That man knew what to do. He just could not make it work under pressure. We tried to shy away from him during times of trial.

Let me suggest that when you suddenly find yourself placed into a leadership role, you are being given a great deal of power, authority, and responsibility. Your people expect you to keep them safe and your fire department expects that you will do all within your power to get the job done. Heaven help you if you fail.

Leading people in pitched battle, under emergency conditions, is not a simple task by any stretch of the imagination. Being a company officer, chief, or incident commander can be a challenging job. Or as I have said time and again over the decades of my career: "… relax gang, this is only a life or death job."

Let me suggest that it is for this reason you must become a student of the firefighting and emergency services field. After nearly five decades in the business it is my sad duty to inform you that you will never know all that you need to know. Although I have seen a growing number of younger officers who hold themselves up as people who know it all. Sorry gang, it does work that way,

Heck, I have been at this since Lyndon Johnson was the President and I am still learning. However, it is my wish to caution you that if you fail to develop an ongoing affection for learning more about your duties, you run the risk of becoming a danger to the people whose lives have been entrusted to your care.

Many of you who know me personally know all about my love for teaching and learning. You are also aware of my status as a student of our professional field. Not too long ago I crafted a commentary on the importance of the leader as an instructor. The other night, as I was out on the front porch in my thinking (and cigar-smoking) chair an idea came to me like a bolt out of the blue. Golly! How in the heck can I urge someone to be a teacher if I fail to create within them a need to become a student?  That just does not add up.

During my earlier life as a member of the Newark Fire Department circumstance created within me an awareness of the need to study. Yes, this became apparent to me early on in my career. In that world, the only way to advance in rank was to study the professional literature and then take the civil service promotional examinations when you could. Since these tests only came about every three or four years, it was critical not to waste any opportunity which came your way.

Back in those days, one of the great compliments that you could have applied to you by your friends and associates was to be deemed a 'student' by your peers. Far too many people only picked up a book when the promotional tests were announced. That was normally far too late to allow most people the time to absorb, assess, and assimilate the necessary knowledge in a useful way.

A student was one who always had their nose in the books. Students were those who were studying simply for the new things that they could learn. Back in the early 1970's, there was no such thing as a published list of books for us to study. When you called the civil service department in our state capitol for guidance, their answer was simple. Any book which had been on the market at least six months before the test was announced was fair game for those who created the examinations. Oh, and by the way, the many volumes of the IFSTA manuals (the old Red Books) from Oklahoma State were considered one book.

You can see that a person's future depended upon their ability to continually read and understand the knowledge into our memory banks which was out there for all of us to use. I can still recall a countless number of day shifts and night shifts spent hiding out in the upstairs radio-relay room at Engine Company #11 at Central Avenue and South 9th Street in Newark's West Ward. I could generally be found with a book on my lap and a dream on my mind. It was a quiet place away from the hubbub of the firehouse kitchen and watch room.

I can still recall the days which I spent wandering around the bunkroom memorizing the fireground size-up methods from the leading authors of that day. As I read the fine firefighting strategy and tactics text written by my friend John Norman, I can recall the thoughts of such people as Layman, Fried, McAniff, and O'Hagan. All of these fine men have gone on to their well-earned reward. I have done my best to perpetuate their thoughts and translate them in the 21st Century. To this very day, I can still recite the fifteen components of Fried's fireground size-up found within the pages of his Fireground Tactics text.

It has often been my thought that those of us who did a great deal of reading in those days gained an advantage which went far beyond the artificial realm of civil service testing. We gathered great quantities of knowledge within our mind's eye which was available for use when we needed it on the fireground. Think of this process as a sort of internal PowerPoint program installed in your brain. Let me share a thought for my more senior readers. I once used the analogy of these thoughts as overlays like the old Brady series, however, they are now only to be found in museums and the minds of old duffers like me.

How can you use this story knowledge to assist you in performing your duties? It is really quite simple. As you and your crew roll into an emergency scenario, you can begin to compare the scene in front of your eyes with the PowerPoint images in your onboard thinking computer. Your ability to have a wide range of PowerPoint images available for instantaneous review will improve your chances of success and reduce the potential for serious mistakes which could result in injuries, or worse. Unfortunately, my plan for using stored knowledge will not work for those who have failed to become students of our field. No knowledge equals no images in the memory bank.

Are you aware of just how quickly things are changing? If you learned about building construction before 1999, you will need to return to the books and reboot your database.   Buildings are being built that can fall on you during a moderate windstorm. Forget fire damage, it is a marvel that more of these buildings are not simply collapsing under the weight of a heavy rain. If you are still thinking the old way, you are a danger to your team.

If your knowledge of smoke and its dangers predates the first term of George W. Bush, you had best remove your head from that smelly protective spot used by far too many among us to hide from reality. The latest studies are truly eye-opening. Let me suggest to you that the impact of the effects of cancer and lung damage on you and your team are truly staggering.

Let me also point out to the newer right-front-seat leaders amongst us that you were not born with a built-in knowledge of fire and emergency service operations. What you have managed to learn during your recruit training period and your periodic fire department drills just begins to scratch the surface of what you need to know. You need to select a relevant array of fire service leadership and operational texts to begin building your personal library. You can supplement these sources with a selection of the fire service trade publications which are available for your use. You must then attend classes and conferences to see what is going on in the here and now.

My friends, you also have something available to you which did not exist during most of my fire service career. You have the Internet. You need to search the available literature to see what you can learn. However, let me suggest that you must have a baseline of information available from fire service texts which have been published by the major players in the fire protection publishing field.

Am I a student of the fire service? I think so. Otherwise, I would not feel justified to suggest that you join me in my search for knowledge. On the book shelves of my office I have literally hundreds of books and thousands of magazine articles. Between my office, attic, and garage, I have literally hundreds of copies of fire service magazine dating back into the 1920's.

As part of my collection I also have all six editions of the Fire Chief's Handbook and both original editions of Fire Service Hydraulics. There are also a great many non-fire service books. Ii is important for me to study the world around us and then weave the knowledge gained in this manner into the tapestry of my new writings. Ah, but I might be an extreme case.

Let me suggest that I also do my part for the new officers in my fire company. I try to share copies of my texts with them. That is part of my plan for the decade of my 60's. Decades of my career have been spent learning the lessons of my career. It would be a real shame if I failed in my attempt to pay forward all of the debts I owe t people who taught me what I know, but who are no longer around to receive my thanks. I am now a proud graduate of the "School of Hard Knocks' having studied at the U.S. Air Force, Rahway, Newark and Adelphia campuses of this tough, old school.

When you have been given the awesome responsibility for taking care of your crew, you owe it to them to learn as much as possible about how to get the job done safely. Riding the right-front seat carries within it a truly great responsibility. Convincing you of that fact is the purpose of this visit with you. Hopefully I have been able to impress upon you the need to become a student of the fire protection world. Other did it for me and for that I am eternally grateful.