Monday, August 19, 2013

Is What We Are Teaching Our New Firefighters Contradictory?

What makes a good probationary firefighter? You might answer any of a number of things. Words like diligent, considerate, quiet, and obedient come to mind. Certainly, these are some desirable attributes for a new firefighter, but it begs the question. Are the traits that we romanticize in the ideal probationary firefighter stifling critical thinking and stunting the development of the individual and, in turn, the growth of the organization? Are these the traits of a survivor?
New firefighters must be provided with psychological safety to exercise their ability to think for themselves and solve problems. If they are allowed this individual sanctuary from sharpshooters, they will become stronger contributors to the company, the organization, and the fire service as a whole.


Cultural mores in the fire service often dictate that new firefighters follow orders and established traditions without question. The (flawed) theory is that the new firefighter lacks any experience base to draw from and is totally reliant on the officer and other crew members to achieve the goal-whatever it may be.
Do we sometimes teach our new firefighters to be irrationally acquiescent? The parochial nature of our profession sometimes passes on toxic traditions.
A distinct problem potentially arises in the fire service when firefighters experience a lack of psychological safety and a marked fear of authority. This fear of authority can manifest itself from the formal leader, the officer, or the informal leader-the station bully.
"Stand still and look pretty." Have you heard this before? How about this one: "You've got two ears and one mouth so you can listen twice as much as you talk." Almost anyone would describe a good new firefighter as one who is seen and not heard, who obediently follows orders, and who doesn't ask a lot of questions. Everybody loves the new firefighters who perform their duties without question. They're easy to deal with.
Are these firefighters always your strongest fireground performers? Are they innovators? Are there times when it is appropriate to question how and why things are done?
Everyone is a safety officer, right? Irreverent statements such as "Probies should be seen and not heard" are completely contrary to telling everyone to be a safety officer. If you see something important, speak up. Followed soon after by, "Don't speak your mind until you've been here at least 10 years." In other words, "If I want your opinion, I'll give it to you."
Hmmm. What to do? If new firefighters are constantly told that their opinion is not valued at any time, they will be less likely to speak up at a critical moment on the fireground.
Research in the airline industry has shown that new copilots have failed to take assertive action when the pilot became incapacitated in simulations or during in-flight emergencies. These copilots failed to act because on some level they feared that they would upset their boss by speaking up or attempting to take control of a situation.
Dysfunctional deference, as it is sometimes called, can have catastrophic results. In 1979, a commuter jet crashed in whole or in part because the copilot (still on probation) failed to take over for the captain (known for his abrasive style) who became incapacitated.
Who's calling the Mayday when the middle-aged (and grossly overweight) captain has a heart attack 100 feet in on the hoseline? It could be the nozzle firefighter, perhaps a probie at his first fire. He had better be up to the task and know when to speak up. We need to teach our new people to be part of a team and to be self-assured, inquisitive, and free-thinking problem solvers.


It is interesting that one fire service textbook identifies the traits that differentiate managers from leaders. In short, managers maintain while leaders push the envelope. Here are some examples:
  • Managers ask how and when; leaders ask what and why.
  • Managers accept the status quo; leaders challenge the status quo.
  • Managers are classic good soldiers; leaders are their own people.
Replace the word "manager" with "firefighter," and take a moment to consider how new firefighters are sometimes treated. We often tell our firefighters to accept the status quo, to be good soldiers, to be drones. "That's how it is done here. We've always done it that way." In so many words, "Don't challenge the establishment. Everything is fine the way it is."
Now go back and look at the traits of a leader. If you have firefighters who ask a lot of questions, challenge accepted practice by bringing in fresh ideas, stand out from the crowd, and are their own persons, what label are they given? Remember, these are considered leadership traits. Would you call them noisy complainers (a euphemism for a big pain in the neck)?
I'll bet in most organizations anywhere in the world the answer is yes; they are considered huge pains. Once again, fire service literature and traditions are a study in contradiction. As a whole, we encourage new people to maintain, not innovate.
Psychological safety for these individuals who exhibit critical thinking is crucial in cultivating self-reliance in new firefighters. Firefighters who are noisy complainers and are considered trouble makers are often those who inspire the greatest learning. They are those who talk about their mistakes and the mistakes of others in the interest of furthering knowledge. They constantly question what and why to seek better solutions than what is simply accepted practice. These types of questioners sometimes annoy managers and their peers, but they are welcomed by those who seek to lead the fire service forward.
We must not crush an individual's will to learn and innovate. The ability to trust in the leader to allow for mistakes, and even failure, in training situations is central to cultivating the spirit of learning and innovation.


Creating a safe work environment where people have the confidence to act without fear of reprimand or mockery is key to building trust, the central element in getting the most out of people. A safe work environment involves the following:
  • Suspending judgment.
  • Aiming high.
  • Avoiding cynicism.
  • Encouraging others.
Firefighters are especially vulnerable to making mistakes when things appear to be progressing according to routine. When we don't notice things are amiss, we mindlessly apply standard operating guidelines and go along with the program, possibly missing menacing warning signs from the environment.
To guard against complacency, we must constantly ask, "What's up?" We must be wary of success and suspicious of quiet periods. We must teach and encourage firefighters to act with anticipation, to guard against complacency. Teach firefighters to ask questions and plan for potential problems no matter how normal things might appear.
When a nuisance fire alarm is received in a building you have been to a number of times without incident, you must be doubly careful. (See "Tragedy in a Residential High-Rise, Memphis, Tennessee," Fire Engineering, March 1995.)
Remember, pride makes us all fake; being humble makes us real. We must maintain a beginner's mind to keep learning and maintain awareness. Beginners question everything. They should. In doing so, their minds remain open to new information. As soon as we think we have figured out the situation, it changes. Be humble enough to say you don't know exactly what is going on, pay attention to the cues the fireground is sending you, and formulate a plan of action based on a true reading of the environment.
If we have our minds made up that there is only one right way to do something, new information will not be able to dislodge that notion. We must allow new information to reshape our mental models. Hence, maintaining an open mind has us constantly curious about our circumstances, so we continually reassess our situation.
We must allow new firefighters to ask questions. Some of our best ideas and plans come from listening to others. Take advantage of all the training available to you, and ask a lot of questions of the veterans. They are an abundant source of knowledge. All you have to do is ask.


Cooperation is central to the function of a team. We must cooperate with our coworkers on all levels. If you want to be heard as a boss, you have to listen. We must be interested in finding the best way of delivering service. The best way might not always be the leader's way.
It is all too easy to crush a new person's spirit. Nothing takes away initiative like not being heard. To continually engage those you work with, listen to what they have to say. It takes courage for young people to stand up and speak. Likewise, it takes courage to listen to your subordinates.
Times have changed immeasurably in recent years. The fire service can no longer afford to have all ideas come from a central point at the top of the organization. We must regain the spirit of innovation that has propelled the fire service forward in days past and buoyed it in difficult times.
Don't be so quick to silence those who raise questions. Are they really trouble makers? Don't be so sure. Good listeners are not only popular everywhere, but eventually they learn something. The next great idea could come from your firehouse. It might be trapped inside of the timid new firefighter who has been told to keep his mouth shut and mop the floor. Think about it.


Alyn, Dr. Kimberly, Rising to Real Leadership, 2011,
IFSTA Company Officer, 5th Edition.
Sutton, Robert I., Good Boss, Bad Boss: How to be the Best … and Learn from the Worst. New York City: Business Plus, 2010.
● MARK vonAPPEN is a captain with the Palo Alto (CA) Fire Department. He is a committee member for California State Fire Training and has contributed to the development of the Firefighter Survival and Rapid Intervention curriculums. He is an instructor for the Santa Clara County (CA) Joint Fire Academy and the South Bay Regional Fire Academy, a recruit instructor for Palo Alto Fire, a Fire Engineering blogger, and a contributor to Fire Service Warrior.

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