Carter: Something You Can't Read About in a Book

It seems like people are sadly starting to see people of a certain age in the fire service as possessing an absence of wisdom rather than a treasure trove of knowledge to be shared and celebrated.

There is also another way that this scenario could play out.  The younger members might bide their time until enough new people have come onboard to create a solid voting block among the youth group. The younger members then begin to treat the older members like crap in an effort to return the favor to them and run them off.  Neither of these two ways of operating is god for the health of an organization. 

In far too many instances it has been my misfortune to witness a number of younger members of the fire service ignore the wisdom of a veteran member of their department just because they were not part of the youth movement. It seems to me that these younger folks see their trip through the fire academy's firefighter I course supplemented by a visit to a fire officer training course as the be all and end all of their trip through the world of fire service knowledge.  I am here to tell you that it just isn't so.  I should know because it has been my privilege to have read untold scores of books over the course of my career. Oh, and by the way, I have written a few too. 

To begin my discussion of this potentially devastating problem I need to define the terms to which I make reference.  There is a distinct difference between Explicit Knowledge and Tacit Knowledge.  Unfortunately this is a distinction not often made in our fire service training programs. I have seen instructors who stuck to the book and tested their troops to the book.  Let me assure you that I have never extinguished a fire by tossing a book or some knowledge at the flames.  Knowledge is necessary, but so is experience.  These two must be blended for the best results to occur.  

After a review of the appropriate professional literature I have identified that explicit knowledge is knowledge which has been gathered, articulated, codified, and stored in certain media. It can be readily transmitted to others. The information contained in course handouts, encyclopedias, and textbooks are good examples of explicit knowledge. Many among us see that people for who explicit knowledge is the be all and end all of their exposure to knowledge.  These sorts of folks place no value on the experience of people who have been performing a particular series of tasks for an extended period of time.

My research indicates that tacit knowledge (as opposed to formal, codified or explicit knowledge) is the kind of knowledge that is difficult to transfer to another person by means of writing it down or verbalizing it. For example, stating to someone that London is in the United Kingdom is a piece of explicit knowledge that can be written down, transmitted, and understood by a recipient.

However, the ability to speak a language, use algebra, or design and use complex equipment requires all sorts of knowledge that is not always known explicitly, even by expert practitioners, and which is difficult or impossible to explicitly transfer to other users. While tacit knowledge appears to be quite simple, it has far reaching consequences and is not widely understood. Far too many people disregard it since it is often not written down.  

How then do we pass along this hard-won knowledge which lies solely within the heads of the people who have learned it?  The answer is simple.  The answer is not so simple.  Let me suggest that its ease of implementation depends on the willingness of a fire department to recognize the need to establish an official, department-sponsored mentoring program.  

I must stress to you that all knowledge is not in the book and it is not all in the classroom or the drill ground.  A great deal of the necessary knowledge which must be shared with our next generation is located within the brains of those veteran members of your fire department who have lived it and learned.  Let me take some time to explain the difference to you. 

Over the years I have served as a fire apparatus driver in a number of different fire departments.  I completed the driver's training program at Eielson Air Force Base near Fairbanks, Alaska back in 1967.  It covered the basics of how to drive and operate all of the air crash and structural apparatus which were in use at the time.  The books which I read, and the lectures I attended provided me with the basic skills I needed to drive and operate the equipment.