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

It is with a great deal of concern that I come to you with the thoughts in this commentary.  It is my opinion that there is a serious problem brewing in our beloved fire service.  It has taken me quite some time to put my thoughts together. My goal here is not to anger anyone, but to inform and share what I see happening around me.  

It seems like people are sadly starting to see people of a certain age as possessing an absence of wisdom rather than a treasure trove of knowledge to be shared and celebrated.  As a matter of fact I am seeing it in far too many instances and places.  People who should be pivotal members of an organization's knowledge base are be kicked to the curb by younger people who claim to know "it all". They do not see the value of tacit knowledge which is the learned experiences which each of us gathers as we move through our careers. 

As I sat on my porch puffing on one of my favorite cigars, a thought came to me in the midst of my cloud of smoke. I decided to share that thought and so I put out a tweet on my thoughts about teaching and training the next generation.  My tweet was simple indeed.  "We cannot expect our younger members to suddenly know what they need to know. We must share what we have learned over the years with them."

It then dawned on me that, because of the limitations imposed by Twitter, I had not fully expressed my thoughts. With this in mind I sent out a second tweet which stated that, "…when I say share I mean just that. Share, don't dictate, demand or force feed. Find out what they do know and build upon that".

The responses to my two comments came flying in. They seemed to split into a couple of different schools of thought. There were those who said that the problem was being caused by the younger generation. Then there were those who blamed the whole situation on the older members of our fire departments who have refused to embrace the younger members of their organization and welcome them into a leadership role within their departments.

Since I have seen glaring examples of both, I suggest that there has to be a middle ground for which we all should strive. One of life's lessons for me is that when one side wins a knockdown, drag-out battle, the other side loses.  This is never a good situation.  Some hard feelings go on for generations. I know of a couple of fire departments which are still fighting the battles of the year 1915 when someone urinated on someone's Cream of Wheat and a number of people stomped off and started their own fire company. 

Let me suggest that it is hard for some people to realize that their time in a leadership role within an organization must come to an end. They hang on angering people to the left and to the right until the local undertaker carts them off to their final resting place. That is not how I want my life to be remembered.  

My life has been a series of adventures where I rose up through an organization, led that group, and then stepped aside for my successor. I am at an age when I now consider that I may have stepped up to the plate once too often. It is time for me to cheer on the next generation and share my wisdom with them when appropriate. There are those people among us who cannot do this.  

These people never share what they know. As long as the hoard the wisdom, they use it as a club to beat the younger people into submission. They refuse to step aside and let the next generation step up and take charge. I have seen some really fine organizations go off of the deep end because of an unwillingness by the older members to welcome, nurture, and growth their new members into productive members of the group. 

One of two things will happen.  People will get tired of being treated like crap and vote with their feet.  This is the normal course of events. People will not stay where they feel unwanted by their peers.  

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.

I had a basic set of skills, but that was not all I needed. I want you to know that my skills improved over time via the continued operation of the apparatus under the guidance of more senior personnel who rounded off the rough edges of my performance as they saw me at work.  I hesitate to use the words trial and error because those words fail to describe the interaction between the senior people and me.

However, let me assure you that the advice they gave to me allowed me to develop as a better pump operator and crash truck driver/operator.  The same held true when I was made a driver in the Adelphia, Rahway and Newark fire departments.  It was also my privilege and great good fortune to have as my best friend in the whole world the late Jack Peltier who one of the greatest pump operation teachers in the history of the world.  He shared his decades of experience with me.  He mentored me and made me a better pump operator.  He also taught me a great deal about the importance of common sense and its use in the fire service.  

Now for the eerie part of this story.  It was as though Jack was looking down from heaven the other day, offering advice to me on how to operate our Adelphia pumper at a serious fire in our fire district.  At the height of the blaze I was feeding two 1-3/4" hand lines, a 2-1/2" hand line with a solid bore tip, and a 5" LDH feed to the tower ladder operating on our side of the fire.  I was continually monitoring the pump pressure, gating down, or opening up the lines as the situation dictated.  It really came to the fore when I noted that the 5" line feeding me from the hydrant was beginning to collapse.  As you know, you can't draft off a hydrant.  I believe that it was Jack who was whispering to me, gate them down, but give them all some water.  

On a sunny day in June of 2014, the collective wisdom of 47 years of driving, pump operations, drills, classroom session, mentoring, and advice were brought to bear on the situation which faced us at that fire.  No one was injured.  No one lost water. And the fire was extinguished.  I am here to offer this story to you as an example of the need for our fire departments to share our tacit knowledge through a program of mentoring and support.  

There is no room in the 21st Century for the people I love to call the 'we've always done it that way' warriors.  The ways we always did things may have been the wrong way.  We need to be honest with ourselves.  We need to continually review our operational procedures to insure that we are operating in accordance with the latest research in our field.  Thanks to the wealth of research now being provided to us, you and I are being offered a whole new range of ways in which to operate.  We would be fools to ignore it. 

Let me close with a couple of suggestions to you all:

  • To the all you old-timers out there - You aren't going to live forever.  The time to select and train your replacement is now. Share what you have learned as your hair has grown grey and fallen out.  
  • To all of you young folks out there - Grey hair does not equate with ignorance.  Listen to the veterans.
  • To you younger troops - With any luck you will get to be old someday and there will be young guys chomping on your butt. 
  • To both sides - Learn to play well together

The future is right out there in the next tomorrow you will face.  The future of the fire service, and your fire department as well, depends on your ability to share and learn as a team.  I would urge each of you to push your fire department to create a mentoring program.  Partner each new member with a veteran who wants to mentor a new member.  If your department agrees, fine.  If not do not that let that stop you from reaching out to a senior member for their help and assistance.  And for you senior members, find that young person who needs your help and give it to them.

Please. Our future is at stake here. Please play your part in creating a better future for the fire service.