Thursday, January 30, 2014

Training to Fail (Part 1)

Training to Fail 

If you’ve read any of my other pieces you’ve undoubtedly heard me on my soapbox, I’ve repeated myself over and over again: “Train more!” I’ve said this so many times it's become my mantra, and pretty much everything I’ve ever written on here follows that simple theme, but there’s more to training than just checking boxes and going through the motions. I've preached about the benefits of training and the dangers of failing to train, but training to fail can be just as disastrous.

Training to fail is a complex topic, but it can be grossly simplified to mean any training that isn’t clear in its message, delivery or receipt. Because training to fail is ubiquitous, it's one of the biggest obstacles that the fire service faces. Even though it's not overtly listed in the NIOSH 5, if you read between the lines, you can see that it permeates all of them. Training to fail can cause numerous problems, including: apathy, scarring, creating confusion, perpetuating misinformation, reinforcing bad habits or improper techniques, and inspiring false confidence...which on the fireground will translate  to limited situational awareness, poor performance, inappropriate decision-making…and ultimately, increased risks to shareholders and firefighters. 

What the hell was that? It looks stupid and we can laugh when it's others doing this, but we do it every day, in a million different ways, and we don't think twice about it. Seriously, wedo this too…a lot! Although in our defense, we don't realize it...but that's the problem, and that's why this happens daily in nearly every department. I know what you’re thinking…BS, we’ve never done that here. Alright, humor me for a minute, let’s see if this sounds familiar to anyone: was anyone taught the “what” and “how” of ventilation, but left confused as to the “when”, “where” and “why” of ventilation? If you don't believe me, spend five minutes on YouTube. 

Not convinced, what if I told you that most of us are only required to study fire behavior for three hours…throughout our entire career! That’s setting us up for failure. Instead we spend our limited training time watching OSHA videos or refreshing ourselves on HR's flavor of the day. Learning fire behavior is vital to the fire service. Literally. It’s the fire service equivalent of studying our enemy. To paraphrase the great Tom Brennan, you can never learn enough about something that can kill you. I guarantee Peyton Manning has spent more than three hours dissecting the Seahawks defense!…today!...before noon!...and he’s not done yet!...and that’s for a football game! 

I think the most obvious example of training to fail is 1403 burns. Calm down; hear me out. 1403 burns can be great training, but too often they aren’t. 1403 fires are fuel-limited and therefore limited in their scope (something that we repeatedly fail to adequately explain to the class). They’re unrealistic and a poor substitute for us, but the reality is that as of now, that’s what we’ve got. The limitations of 1403 burns are lengthy and well documented, and beyond the scope of this piece. Aaron Fields sums it up well, “we go into training burns for the fire, but on the fireground we go in for the people.” That last sentence may seem benign, but it is deeply telling of how pervasive this problem is. Hell, the reason that 1403 is written the way it is today, is because of our long history of training to fail. Meaning that it’s so restrictive because we've messed up too many times, and injured, and even killed brothers due to poor training.  

“A little knowledge, in the wrong hands, is a dangerous thing!” – T. Brennan 

There are infinite other examples of training to fail, but I’ll just list a handful that have been eating away at me lately:  

Have you sat through the exact same class over, and over, and over again for more than a dozen years? Ever fallen asleep in class? Have you ever heard an instructor spout misinformation or demonstrate improper technique? Have you left a class and had a completely different take-away than the rest of your crew? Ever asked “why” in a class and gotten the response back, “’cause that’s how we do it here” or “because I said so”? Have you ever taught a subject that you weren’t comfortable or qualified to teach? I could go on, but I think you get the point.

I already know the answers to the above questions. But why are so many of us answering these questions the same? Again, there are numerous reasons why, so I'll just hit the Cliffs Notes of why we habitually train to fail:

·       Time Constraints/Mismanagement
·        Perceived “Safety” 
·       Poor Instructors
·       Money 
·       Logistical Concerns
·       Laziness

The sad truth is that almost all training can lead to misunderstanding and misapplication. So how then can we best prepare our members to excel? For that answer, stay tuned for Training to Fail, Part 2. Now let's go get sweaty.

Thursday, January 9, 2014

Contaminate Your Crew

CDC Current Intelligence Bulletin 67: Fire Service Epidemic
        There's an epidemic in the American fire service, and terrifyingly little is known about it. Some estimate that as many as 1% of your brothers and sisters might already be infected, while others claim that number is as high as 10%, although evidence is clearly showing that the incidence rate is rising. If you're reading this, there's a good chance that you're already infected; and since this disease is highly contagious, there's also a good chance that you've unknowingly infected numerous others.

        The hallmarks of this disease include: an insatiable appetite for knowledge and constant focus on your craft. Other symptoms include relentless drilling, training, reading, sweating and questioning, leading to increased proficiency on the fireground. The CDC has developed a quick, three question diagnostic test (highly reliable and valid) that one can use to determine if they're infected.
                        1.  Can we push fire with a hoseline?
                        2.  Is your pimp hand loose?
                        3.  When out with your significant other, do you often find yourself sizing-up doors and buildings?
                       -  If you answered No, Yes and Always, respectively...then you're most likely contaminated.
        The etiology of this disease is unknown, but there is a strong causal link between great mentors and infected individuals. Many claim that this disease has been around for generations, while others claim centuries. There are numerous accusations (although scientifically unfounded) reporting Franklin, Layman or Fredericks as the fire service's "Typhoid Mary"; although no one knows whom the original host was. An unnamed source even went as far as stating that he has evidence that FDIC is an orgy of infestation, and that The Godfather (Chief Halton) is not only aware of this, but that he has been proactively working to make this a global pandemic. Recently, cases of this disease have even been found as far away as England, Sweden, India and Chile.
        Predictably, like seemingly everything else about this disease, the route of transmission is not fully understood, but anecdotal evidence suggests that it's spread through copious amounts of sweat. At this time, the long-term prognosis for this disease is unknown. There is no known cure, and the CDC is advising palliative care and symptom management, to include: reading articles and books, training, going to conferences and going to working fires.

        If you, or someone you know may be infected, contact the CDC and your PCP immediately.

Firefighter Rennaissance

        We are living in an incredible time in the fire service; the fact that our knowledge of the fireground is evolving at an unparalleled rate, combined with the fact that at no other point in history has information been shared as fast and freely as it is today, this truly is the Firefighter Renaissance. Twenty years ago (pre-digital big bang and infinite internet), I remember searching for hours, even days for the answer to a given question. I would first look in a dictionary, then ask my friends/parents/brothers/teachers and then I'd go to the library before either finding the answer I was looking for, or giving up, annoyed and unsatisfied. How ridiculous does that last sentence look to you today? With so much information, literally at our fingertips, one needs to only take seconds to find accurate, relevant material on any fire service topic. This free trade of information, in a lot of respects makes our job easier than ever before...but it also means that there is now no excuse for ignorance.
        I know that I'm preaching to the choir here, but with the importance of competence in our profession (a mistake could directly mean the loss of a life: a civilian's, a crew member's or even your own), coupled with the fact that we are living in the information revolution, in 2013 each company should now have a zero tolerance policy on ignorance. The purpose of this article is to highlight the greatest training tool the fire service has ever seen...the computer.

        I know this is heresy to many, so let me just clarify the above thought. Reading an article or watching a video on fire attack will obviously not lead to mastery of that skill (our bills are still paid in sweat equity), but it's a start. And I hope this goes without saying, but you must make sure that what you see and hear online is credible and works for your crew, your staffing, your equipment, your community, etc, etc. Now that I have offered my disclaimer, let's examine the near infinite number of opportunities one has for learning in 2013 and beyond.
        First and foremost, as I alluded to in my last post ("The Holy Grail of Fire Attack") the scientific study of the fireground that has, and is, being done by UL, NIST, ISFSI, NYU-POLY, KTF and numerous other acronyms and initialisms is changing how we attack fire and affect rescues of unprotected civilians. Not only is the information that we are learning changing how we operate, but they are digitally spoon-feeding it to us (online, interactive learning modules)...and it's delicious.
        Secondly, let's not forget about the true opiate of the masses: Facebook. I'm willing to bet that almost every one of you reading this has already been on Facebook today, and that's not necessarily a bad thing. Facebook is an extremely powerful tool and is the easiest way to communicate with, and ask questions of brothers from around the globe. I have had hundreds of conversations with firefighters much smarter and much more experienced than myself. So now, if I have a question about fire attack, instead of waiting until the game is over to ask the senior guy on my crew, I can ask Chief John Salka, Lt. Brian Brush or Aaron Fields...and I don't even have to wait until the game is over.

        Next up, YouTube. Many of us, including myself, respond to less than a dozen working fires a year. How then are we supposed to get our reps and sets at reading smoke, giving arrival reports, practicing our continual size-ups, etc? YouTube. We can watch 5-10 fires an hour...from the POV of the IC, the pipeman or the OVM...any time of the day...anywhere you get a signal...even in your "office". Could this be any more convenient? Hell, later today I will probably be watching one of you working a job that hasn't even happened yet.
        Lastly, in 2013, apps are ubiquitous. They are designed to make our lives easier and they can pretty much do anything. Want to listen to your district's radio while you're at home...check; need help figuring out friction loss...done; wish you could get help with your upcoming promotional interview...yep: drug calculations, knots, ERG...I think you know the answer. 
        I think I've made my point, but here are a couple more great resources to explore:
        * Podcasts - new show nearly every night on Fire Engineering Blog Talk Radio
        * Webcasts - can listen to the best of the best present...even while you're at home in your underwear
        * Simulations - great way to make sure your crew is all on the same page
        * Fire modeling - if you haven't before, you need to check this out
        * NIOSH LODD reports - RFB...honor them by learning from them
        * National Fire Fighter Near-Miss Reporting System - let's not make the same mistakes twice
        * Blogs - there are some amazing firefighters and writers out there
        Some resources that are a little more low-tech, but have stood the test of time:
        * Books, magazines and DVDs to fill your library
        * Conferences and classes are everywhere if you know where to look
        In the past twenty years of so, education and the fireground have made an huge evolutionary leap forward. To truly be students of the fire service we must embrace technology in the age of the information revolution. Information is everywhere, to not look is to be blind. So the next time that you're having trouble trying to figure out what to do for drill later on, just turn on your computer/tablet/phone and something is sure to spark your interest...then go get sweaty.
     I know that there are a ton of other resources that I left let's hear them; comment below with your favorite tools, programs, sites, etc.

The Holy Grail of Fire Attack?

        With all the recent fire studies conducted by UL, NIST, ISFSI, etc. the fire service is undergoing a renaissance...or at least that's what I thought. The aforementioned organizations have pumped out volumes of empirical data that we can consume and digest to make our profession smarter, more effective and most importantly, safer. Although over the past couple of months I have heard too many people spout misinformation regarding the findings of these studies. Specifically, I have had conversations with more than a couple firefighters that feel that there is now no need to ho interior anymore; that in all circumstances we should fight fire from the exterior. What these ill-informed firefighters spout as law is that we can't push 'fire', and exterior streams cool the entire box, regardless of stream origin (front yard, down the hall, fire room, etc.) so they then fill in the blanks of their logic (this is much easier than thinking) to conclude that we should always fight from outside the box. They have found the Holy Grail of fire attack.

Let's be very clear here...if you have been paying attention to these studies, you have undoubtedly heard these organizations (the Mythbusters of the fire service) make it a point to clarify that exterior fire attack is not right for every situation, nor every fire...simply they are proving that it is an effective tactic that has advantages in certain situations. With that being said, some of us aren't really listening.

        These studies (specifically UL's Horizontal VentilationUL's Vertical Ventilation and UL/NIST/FDNY's Governor's Island) and their findings are meant to give us more information and to make us better at our craft, not to be dumbed-down into blanket statements and sweeping SOGs that don't have our shareholders best interest in mind. The truth is that the fireground is not black and white, so critical thinking is still a necessity in our profession. These studies have validated exterior fire attack (aka transitional attack, softening the target, OEO, hitting it hard from the yard, giving it 10 seconds for safety, etc, etc.) as a crucial, effective tactic for the fireground, although some of the methodolgies of these studies have left room for interpretaion. So let's look at these studies with a more critical eye. 

        No one can deny that the scientific study of the modern fireground is inherently great for the fire service; as GI Joe always said "Knowing is half the battle!". With scientific studies comes the obligation to follow the scientific method, which, like everything else in the world has its pros and cons. The most obvious intrinsic con of following the scientific method is that for each test one does, only one variable can be manipulated; and since building houses and buying various equipment/cameras/probes/etc. for the sole purpose of then burning everything isn't cheap, this leads to small sample sizes with a resultant small number of variables studies. The next most obvious 'con' to conducting a fire study in the litigious 21st century, is that we are severly limited with regards to putting our fellow brothers and sisters in any real harms ways, so interior operations are accordingly limited. Therefore, to no fault of these organizations, some of the limitations of the methodologies were: small sample size, no or delayed interior operations (no search, no rescue, no or delayed interior attack, etc.), they do not measure humidity (we don't fully understant the affects of wet vs. dry heat on the human respiratory tract), they don't fully address pushing cooled products of combustion (only reading O2, CO and CO2), nearly all of the fires were contents fires, limited interior floor plans were studied and most of the studies (Horizontal and Vertical Ventilation) were done in a "sterile" environment lacking wind and rain.

        Now that we understand some of the context and limitations of these studies and realize that nothing on the fireground is black or white, we must then agree that we haven't found the Grand Unified Theory of firefighting...and that it probably doesn't exist. It seems as though many of us are trying to, as Chief Anthony (Andoni) Kastros so eloquently puts it: "safety ourselves out of a job." This can be a very slippery slope for firefighters as it can lead to complacency. Our job is inherently dangerous, period; and if one believes that there is now only one fireground tactic necessary for all fires, chances are they they will only drill and train on pulling a line to the front yard and applying water from outside. What happens to this firefighter when they arrive at a fire where the seat if out of the reach of an exterior stream? More importantly, what happens to the family trapped inside? Chances are that it won't go as smoothly as it could you see how hubris can lead to a slippery, dangerous slope?

        To be good at our job, we must be tacticians. Make sure that you recognize that exterior fire attack is a valid tactic in many circumstances, understand it's proper use, its limitations, drill on it and add it to your repertoire...but realize that you took an oath to protect the unprotected, and that means that you must also be prepared to go interior.

        Now let's go get sweaty.

The Most Important Man on the Job

        This phrase has been used countless times in the fire service to describe nearly as many positions: from the chief, the company officer, the senior firefighter, to the guys riding the backstep; although in my experience the most important man on the job is the training officer.

        Being a firefighter today is not an easy job; our shareholders (the citizens we serve) expect us to be experts at everything from haz-mat mitigation, to wildland firefighting, to paramedicine, to vehicle extrication, to technical rescue, to structural firefighting, etc, etc. We owe it to our shareholders, and our brothers and sisters, to become skilled at all of our sworn duties. None of us come out of probie school being proficient in any one of these disciplines, so how then do we become experts? It starts with the training officer (TO).

        Throughout my career I've had the pleasure to know and learn from some great, knowledgeable and passionate TOs. TOs are tasked with a seemingly impossible responsibility - making sure that every firefighter is good at their job, and constantly getting better. In this digital age and current firefighting renaissance, finding great training tools, resources and instructors isn't a problem. The problem is getting the crews to lust after that information. What makes a good TO is one that inspires those around them to WANT to improve and continue to learn, thereby creating competent, and thusly confident firefighters. Competence and confidence are a catalyst for passion, and passion in the antithesis of our most feared enemy...complacency. TOs can combat complacency by being into the job, making training fun and promoting the importance of learning and education.

        A good TO cares about the job; and it's immediately evident upon walking into the firehouse and meeting the enthusiastic brothers and sisters. In my experience, I can usually tell within the first couple of minutes upon entering a new firehouse whether the TO is worth their salt. It's as easy as looking at their rigs, having a brief conversation about the job or talking to them about their department's morale. If the rigs are clean, the lines are pretty and all of the equipment is serviced and in it's place...chances are that the TO gets it. If the members are intelligent and in agreement on different tasks, tactics and strategies for different scenarios...then the TO cares. If the crews love their department and their jobs...then the TO does too.

        More than any other position on a department, the TO has a direct impact on everyone at an emergency scene, from the probie catching a plug, to the chief running command and control. When something goes well on scene (or if it goes poorly), it can usually be traced back to the TO. Hopefully most TOs realize how much of an impact their actions have on the members around them and take this responsibility seriously. A TO should strive to leave the department, and their brethren, better than when they entered.

        That being said, I've also had the obligation to work and learn from some less than ideal TOs. Knowledge and passion are contagious...but so too are incompetence and complacency. If you follow my above premise, then it follows that a bad TO can lead to low morale, poor performance and possibly even LODDs. I believe that it's a universal truth that all firefighters want to be good at their job, and this can only happen through relevant, repeated and realistic trainings. A poor TO will find any excuse (time, weather, misinformation, not wanting to look stupid, etc, etc.) to change, debase or even cancel drill/training. An inadequate TO will not do their due diligence making sure the information being taught in class is accurate and current. An awful TO will stiffle and strangle the spirit of the few remaining enthusiastic firefighters around them. At the very least this is complacency, and at the worst this can be criminal. There is no faster way to reduce the morale and expertise of a department than to decrease the level of training.

        Now that we understand the importance of the TO, how can we help them succeed? Try starting with these few simple steps. First of all, they need to know how important their role is, and how much you, the other firefighters and the citizens appreciate and depend on their hard work. You might be surprised how simple conversations and encouragement can open someone's eyes. Second, share some of the responsibility. This could be as easy as offering to instruct a new class/drill or sending new information along to the TO. Third, open and honest feedback about prior trainings can help improve future classes. Lastly, if your TO is great at their job...tell them "thank you"; if they aren' them.

        Now go get sweaty.