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Letting Go of Ego and Learning From Failure

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Almost five years ago I had the opportunity to attend the life-changing training experience offered by the Nozzle Forward Cadre. In addition to meeting and finding many new brothers that I still keep in touch with, it also gave me the opportunity stretch and advance hoselines in freezing conditions with some of the best guys in my department. There was also a feeling in the air, a certain right of passage about having a 1/2 inch of snow on the lid of my helmet, steps to the burn building frozen over, and still over 100 guys and girls doing good work, striving to perfect their craft. It’s one of the best memories of my career so far.


So I was excited when the temperatures dropped last week, and our recruit academy had its second day of live fire exercises. I wanted these guys to face the same challenge, and ultimately a sense of pride from doing work in less than ideal conditions. I also knew the weather could introduce some potential challenges for them to work through, and boy did it deliver. With the temperature struggling to break 30 degrees, and despite our best efforts to prevent it, both crosslays ended up frozen during the first scenario when they got charged. I’m talking a solid ten feet of ice in each hoseline, as if Elsa from Disney’s Frozen had touched them. ​


As a result, seasoned incumbent burn team members and instructors quickly jumped in and rallied around the students to problem-solve the situation. Eventually, a third handline was placed in-service and the fire went out. Are you curious as to what happened? So were we! Our department largely chooses as a best practice to keep our pumps wet and in-gear during cold-weather operations. The lines were pulled fresh from the crosslays for fire attack, so there wasn’t a long period where the line sat charged not flowing water. The engine however, had been sitting outside for over an hour waiting for the scenario to start. Our best guess is that the residual water leftover in the hose from when it was previously used froze and then was pushed to the front collecting at the nozzle when charged.


It’s worth mentioning that the thickness of the ice was the entire diameter of the hose, so it’s unlikely even a smooth bore nozzle would have succeeded in passing the obstacle.

It was by all accounts one of the most challenging scenarios I’ve ever witnessed played out in a training scenario—and I couldn’t be prouder of my instructors, recruits, and for having the opportunity to have taken part in it. Why? Because afterward there were at least a dozen conversations all geared towards figuring out what happened, so we could better prevent it from occurring again. On this particular very cold morning we really struggled, almost failing. But as a result of the struggle, similar to lifting a heavy weight, we all grew a little stronger. These types of events challenge our ego, and remind us…


"The ego is the biggest single obstruction to the achievement of anything"

--Richard Rose


It's not a failure until you refuse to learn from it

Have you ever found yourself or someone else struggling with a scenario, and you start to overhear complaining i.e. this isn’t realistic….they just gave us this scenario to mess with us…we would never have to do something like this in real life….if I had this on the fire ground I would simply do (insert random brave firefighter action here). That’s your ego attempting to satisfy what your butt is feeling—hurt. Ego doesn’t value truth, only whatever justification it can quickly find and reinforce to shift blame and preserve it’s sense of importance and self-worth. It is often accomplished by attacking the performance of others, or even tearing down the importance of training, making mistakes, and learning something new. You can probably picture the guy who critiques from the back of the group, clearly intimidated and afraid to make a mistake. I’ve worked with plenty of guys who refused to participate in a training exercise until he or she had an opportunity to watch others go.



As threatening to our ego as failure is, the truth remains that in its experience, lies the importance of humility, and opportunity to grow stronger—in addition to some of the best learning one could ever hope to have. Success is a result oftentimes obtained by chance or luck. Any idiot can get get lucky, and bask in the glow of success. As a result, the fire service accumulates a lot of bad habits and knowledge because reality just hasn’t had a chance to call our bluff yet. But failure is different.


“Failure both reinforces the why, while also teaching you the why not. As such, you would be foolish to allow your fire service career to be deprived of events and training that push your abilities and creativity. Experience and knowledge, which are what we all brag about and strive for at the end of the day, are much stronger and relevant when framed with both your successes and failures.”


Author Bio: Benjamin Martin has over sixteen years in public safety and currently serves as a Captain with a large metro fire department in Virginia. He is an international speaker on Leadership, including his entertaining and unique takes on emotional intelligence and organizational culture. 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.

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