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."


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.