By: Mark vonAppen
Expect the unexpected. History repeats itself. These confounding statements are constant tormentors in our lives and careers. So, if history repeats itself and the unexpected forever surprises us, it seems as though we are powerless to learn from experience.
If it is true that history repeats and we are helpless to learn from experience, what is the value of sharing our experiences? Is our experience, our recollection, really the truth? Or is it more to the point that we are we incapable of telling the truth?
What is the cost of knowing the truth about our past?
Damaged egos and wounded pride?
We must subscribe to the school of thought that in our world of the fire service, there are no mistakes made in the moment; there are only decisions. Those who hesitate out of fear or out of a sense of inferiority are the ones who lose because they have forever lost an opportunity to learn, see, and grow. We must also subscribe to the sticks-and-stones school of thought that names cannot hurt us. We must speak the truth, and share our debacles, close calls, and every lesson we have ever learned with anyone who will listen. Call me anything you want, but I believe that keeping lessons learned, even painful ones, inside is the ultimate act of selfishness, and cowardice.
It takes a considerable amount of arrogance to think you can do something a couple of times a year, for a few minutes at a time, and consider yourself an expert. Likewise, it takes an equal amount of pride to think you wrote the book on something that has existed in one form or another for thousands of years.
In order to grow as students of the craft we must be humble enough to admit that we don’t know everything. Remember the beginner’s mind thing? Beginners are open to any and all ideas because they are aware of their incompetence.
Cast off pride and stop asking, “How many fires have you been to?” Look at our practices and ask, “Is what we’re doing really the safest and most effective way to do business? What can we learn from this?”
Do we dare to tell the truth? Do pride and tradition impede progress? Do we operate in a profession where the anecdotal passes for truth? If we’re honest we might not like the answer.
A distinct problem exists in the fire service because of its insular nature. We teach what should be rather than what is, which serves to impede learning. We raise members in the service to live up to a what should be that has never existed—existing only in the imagination of certain members of the profession, with no facts to validate how it should be. It’s why when accidents happen there is a rush to blame, to cast the first stone, to rationalize, and gain distance from it.
Honest dialogue, surrounding topics on which we disagree, can help us guard against arrogance and duplicity. Pride and vainglorious traditions continue to kill and injure American firefighters at a higher rate than in any other first-world nation. In the absence of practical experience we must supplement our lack of real-world repetition with a vigorous pursuit of knowledge. Knowledge is fostered when we are honest about our experiences and share them with one another.
We must take our knowledge beyond the surface-scratching, anecdotal world that many of us operate in. Experience is something personally encountered, undergone, or lived through. Experienced often refers to someone who has gotten away with doing the wrong thing more often than you have. Are we experienced or are we educated? We should strive to be both.
Sometimes in order to progress we must unlearn what we have learned. Progress is impossible without change. Those who are too prideful to change their minds are incapable of forward movement. It is painful to admit when we are wrong, but the sooner we face reality, and the more we seek to reshape our reality, the farther we will go.
What is the cost of not knowing the truth about our past? We know the answer; we can read about it over and over again in Line of Duty Death Reports, dust off our dress blues, listen to a forlorn refrain of bagpipes carried by the wind at the cemetery, and raise a glass to the dead, wondering if we can cheat Death by hook or by crook, or by chance. We can try to fool ourselves into believing that we are really better, smarter, and faster than the souls who paid the ultimate price.
As we progress through our lives and careers our feeling of invincibility recedes into a feeling of marked vulnerability that can only be assuaged through a relentless pursuit of knowledge and training. We go from, “It can’t happen to me,” to, “It can happen to me,” and ultimately, “It is going to happen to me and I have got to find a way to control my destiny.”
We never stop trying to control it.
Our professional learning curve is steep and the environment unforgiving. We are guardians of the community who solve problems by taking action, not through diplomacy and indecision. Not many among us in society possess the courage and moxie to make the push down a hot, dark hallway to protect their neighbors.
In order to successfully navigate the perils of a career in the fire service we must be at once bold and informed. Until we stop being the champions of mediocrity as a culture and work towards a true meritocracy, where the truth has value, we are doomed forever to repeat history and be ambushed by the unexpected.
How many brothers and sisters would be with us this day if we all shared our stories, every one of them, no matter how painful? Somewhere in the world right now someone is making the same decision you made last week, last month, last year. We will continue to die in the same ways over, and over, and over until we learn to set ego aside and tell each other the truth.
Lies are easier for everyone to hear, but they don’t stop anyone from knowing that the truth is out there. The truth of all of this is that it is difficult for us to be honest. When we are honest, nobody will listen because they don’t want to believe the truth—that even the best among us are fallible—and that our number could come up at any time despite taking every precaution. Damn your ego and damn your pride. Let go of your fear of knowing the truth.
Maybe history wouldn’t repeat as often and we wouldn’t be so easily surprised if we were accepting of telling and hearing the truth. Mistakes are windows into learning and discovery. Everyone makes mistakes; the smart ones among us learn from them and share the knowledge gleaned from experience with others. It is how we develop and evolve as a collective.
What is the cost of not knowing the truth about our past? That cost is ignorance; and in our business ignorance is the most dangerous foe we will ever face. We must see things through the same eyes.
If we don’t start telling each other the truth, the next time could be our last time.
If we are not advancing knowledge, we are fostering ignorance.