Artificial Experience: Shortcutting Today's Fire Service
Updated: Jul 25
“What happens when you can’t just Google the answer?”
I remember very vividly the Mayday! Firefighter Down portion of my recruit academy. It was taught over three days including a thorough review of LODD case studies and drills, which recreated many of the same conditions that have previously either injured or killed a firefighter in the line of duty. One such scenario was the Denver Drill, created after 16-year veteran Mark Langvardt of the Denver Fire Department became separated from his crew during a three-alarm fire. He found himself trapped in a small and crowded storage room. The rescue from the second-story window proved challenging, and due to intense heat and smoke Mark ultimately succumbed to his injuries.
Faced with a similar scenario, we were unsuccessful again and again at getting the firefighter out. Eventually, the instructors had to throw us a bone and offered up a couple of different solutions for us to try. Ultimately, we found success, and the lessons were ingrained in our minds and hearts, cemented by the emotion of how it felt to fail.
Fast forward over a decade and I find myself having the opportunity to help teach this same drill to our new recruits. A few years ago I noticed that the recruits are increasingly faster at figuring out how to rescue the firefighter—sometimes making the grab on the very first attempt. Out of curiosity, I asked one particular group how they were able to figure it out so quickly, guessing that someone had taken the class before. Their answer was simple: "We just Googled how to do it."
I can’t speak for anyone but myself, but the strongest lessons in both my personal life and fire service career have come from some of my most colossal screw-ups. A mistake is often incredibly uncomfortable to go through, but it’s in these moments that we often achieve our highest levels of authentic motivation, striving to figure out how to prevent it from happening again. These types of moments also teach us the lessons we need to navigate the grey area that is the fire service—not the black and white world that inexperience paints it as. When you know for a fact what won’t work, it starts to frame a much more credible and reliable judgment to get the next challenge right.
“Good Judgement is the result of experience and experience is the result of bad judgment”.
I’ve noticed that when people avoid failure, either by easily referencing answers using the internet or by altogether avoiding scenarios that risk challenging them, it facilitates the creation of an artificial sense of experience. This can lead to very seriously flawed decision-making, especially when faced with a challenge that doesn’t fit one of the few cookie-cutter scenarios they previously learned. Let me be clear: We all hit a phase early in our careers where we thought we knew more than we did. Hopefully, we were humbled and we moved past it, choosing to be a lifelong student of the fire service. Artificial experience is similar but differs in the fact that it typically lasts much longer, and the member experiencing it is increasingly difficult to approach with feedback. It is also accompanied at times by a ridiculous sense of bravado, entitlement, and ego. If you look around your agency and see members with just two or three years of experience suddenly presenting themselves as subject matter experts then you’ve seen an example of the overinflated sense of ability that can come as a result of artificial experience.
It use to be if you wanted to know the answer then you had to pull out a book and read to find it, or put in time shadowing the senior firefighter hoping to learn. Unfortunately working through people to find an answer can easily be circumvented by resorting to the internet such as FaceBook or YouTube. Instead of reading the whole article, they just read a snippet to find what they think are looking for. This is extremely evident in today’s conversation about the fire service on topics such as nozzles, tactics, and fire behavior. There are way too many people armed with just a few golden nuggets of information and a social media presence who are drowning out much more knowledgeable people on the subject. Artificial experience is dangerous and progresses a culture of ignorance in the fire service. It is paramount that leaders establish a culture of humility and learning that seeks to root out such behavior. So how exactly does a leader do that?
1. Challenge it, but don’t kill it.
We want people excited to talk about the fire service, especially when it comes to learning. But we’ve all seen the scenario when someone shows up excited at the firehouse to try something new and the shift either chastises, mocks, or downright kills their enthusiasm. What a travesty and disservice to the fire service this is. When a member of your team shows up excited to try a new technique they learned at another station, watching a video, or attending a training event as the leader, it's important to model a positive attitude and give it a shot.
2. Sweat it out.
When something new pops up on our team, we sweat it out—meaning we put it through its paces to see if it works. We also do our homework on it, we see if others have any experience with it, but most importantly we roll up our sleeves and put in the time to experience the failures and successes that it takes to actually determine that the new thing is good enough to make it into our toolbox. Being a professional firefighter means being willing to take the time to either add a new tool to the toolbox or clean out an old one if it no longer works.
3. Prove it.
I don’t blindly accept or refuse anything that’s brought forth by our team. Everything you read or hear should experience a proof phase. This job is simply too dangerous to allow anything into our toolbox without us first understanding exactly what advantage or disadvantage it offers us. There are plenty of times that luck reinforces a terrible fireground habit but via the kitchen table, it isn’t long before it becomes the latest fad in the end someone gets hurt. Whether it’s said or read, firefighters must spend time constantly proofing to themselves what still works and what doesn’t.
4. Celebrate the "why".
I hear from time to time people complaining about members who ask the question “why” too much. Personally, I love hearing why because it's the first sign that they care. It can be tough for leaders to address the negative reaction that can pop up when they don’t have an answer to a why question--especially when they provide an explanation that the employee doesn’t agree with. But engaging their why is really important. As I mentioned before, we operate in a gray world not black and white. Google can never give complete answers to how to successfully operate both in the firehouse and on the fireground—only time, experience, and you can offer them that! If they are asking why it illustrates that they lack the perspective that was used to justify or explain a decision. Spending, even a few minutes with them can be a game-changer and help keep their behavior and attitudes aligned with the organization, even in the face of diverging beliefs on an issue. Oftentimes they are closer to buying-in than we give them credit for. This is where leaders get in the trenches and win battles for the organization.
5. Don't rely on titles.
You don’t need a formal leadership position as a prerequisite to pull weeds in the garden of ignorance. Some of the most effective and career-changing conversations are held at the peer level—firefighter to firefighter. Be active on your shift, engaged in creating a positive culture, and FOLLOW! This includes formal supervisors too. If you don’t model accepting tough pills on decisions or feedback about you that you don’t agree with neither will your team. Followership is an extremely important yet neglected facet of leadership.
Author Bio: Benjamin Martin blends his 18 years of public safety experience with his ongoing Ph.D. study of human behavior and motivation to provide an entertaining and unfiltered view on a variety of leadership topics such as communication, command and control strategies, conflict management, and emotional intelligence.
He currently serves as a Captain with a large metro fire department in Virginia. His presentations explore the science and health of leadership tactics in order to allow departments to operate more efficiently, with higher morale and personnel buy-in.
His leadership articles have appeared in publications including Fire Engineering, FireRescue, Fire Department Training Network (FDTN), International Society of Fire Service Instructors (ISFSI), FirefighterToolbox, and FirefighterWife. He is the founder of EmbraceTheResistance.com which features leadership training for existing and aspiring leaders. You can email him at BMartin@EmbraceTheResistance.com.