You Must Become a Student of Firefighting

Being a company fire 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."


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.

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