The sun made a fleeting appearance during a mostly gloomy and frigid weekend of Fire Service Warrior Fundamentals, bringing the Winter air in Chicago to a balmy 33 degrees as Chuck Olson dragged me from CrossFit Beverley to start ladder school. I squinted against the sun’s refraction off the ground as I stood over the 24′ extension ladder that was to be my dancing partner for the next hour or so. As the sunlight drilled the bricks of the building and the asphalt of the parking lot, steam rose from the walls and water began to trickle down the side of the building, streaming beneath my bunker boots.
Chuck, who hails from Wisconsin, comes from a family of fishermen. Tall and stoic (he doesn’t say much), with sharp features of the Nordic people that settled in the bay regions of Wisconsin to continue their way of life as in the old country, a hard life made from fishing the enormous in-land seas. Chuck guided me through ladder basics, pointing out various ladder components, different carries, and methods for placing the ladder in service. I’m pretty confident in my abilities with ladders, having spent a lot of time with them since my days as a fire cadet in 1994, through probation when my captain made me throw ladders for two hours a day.
A Californian, I was eager for the challenge of getting a ladder up on icy, wet ground. The snow crunched and creaked beneath my feet as I slung the ladder against the building utilizing multiple throws – high shoulder, low shoulder, ladder clean and flip – you know the drill. From each ladder stick discussions blossomed, and the conversation got deep when Gary Lane, a skateboarding Californian transplanted to Kent, Ohio, where he is now a firefighter, tromped into the mix. Gary has a Henry Rollins intensity to him and he skulks in the shadows, listening in on conversations to see if they are going in the right direction. When they aren’t, he quickly intervenes. To know Gary is to love him, and I was about understand him a little better.
As I slammed the 24′ against the building for the last time and tied the halyard, Chuck and I began discussing the merits of placing the ladder for rescue when throwing to a window. Gary circled like a shark. With one uneasy eye on Gary and the other on Chuck I said, “I like to throw the ladder to the sill so it is set up for anything; VES (vent, enter, search), rescue, and escape. If we need to escape, we just hook 2, slide 4, and we’re out.”
“How the hell do you expect anybody to remember all of that junk when they’re on fire and all they can think about is jumping out the window?”
Gary abruptly stopped his arc and moved menacingly straight for us. He snapped, “What did you say? HOOK 2, SLIDE 4? WHAT IS THAT CRAP?”
Chuck shot me a knowing look and smirked.
This is awkward.
“Explain that to me. Hook 2, slide…what?” Gary barked.
I calmly explained that when we teach the ladder escape drill (ladder bail), we tell the students to first, find the tips of the ladder at the sill. Second, slide their hands down the beams of the ladder. Third, hook the number 2 rung with their right (or dominant) arm. Fourth, slide their left arm down to the fourth rung and grasp it in the center. Fifth, they throw themselves head-first out the window pivoting on their left arm, and slide feet-first down the beams to the ground.
I shrugged, wondering what Gary’s problem was, “We call it hook 2, slide 4.”
Gary looked incredulous. “How the hell do you expect anybody to remember all of that junk when they’re on fire and all they can think about is jumping out the window? I’m sorry man, I’m all about keeping it simple.” I put aside the verbal assault I was enduring, it was simply Gary’s passion for the job coming out as mine does sometimes, and I began to think about what Gary was gruffly articulating.
Our minds cannot process very much information when we are subjected to extreme stress. Working memory can only support 5 to 7 things, plus or minus 2 (remember span of control?), and when emotions get involved, the drive to survive is an emotion, that number drops, varying from individual to individual, to 1 or 2 things. Complicated processes (hook 2, slide 4 is a 5-6 step process) are lost almost entirely when the catecholamine release has us reduced to clumsy, stupid, raging animals who will do completely irrational things in an attempt to survive.
We have to learn complex skills to the point that we forget that we are even doing them. Complex skills that must be executed when stress has stripped us of all but the bare bones of who we are must be simple and vetted, so that the most important components of a skill are etched in the firefighters mind and can be performed when an emergency occurs.
Facilitating Quality Training
Tell them what to expect: Let participants, especially instructors, know exactly what the desired result is of each drill session. There is never enough time to accomplish all that we hope to accomplish in practice. Wasted time is most often a result of a lack of purpose and a defined area of focus. Time on the training ground is precious and cannot be wasted.
Make sure that all involved know their roles (tactical objectives, schemes, vital concepts), especially those who are to introduce new subject matter. Students can see directly through someone who is not prepared to teach. If you don’t have clearly defined goals and objectives in training you’re just playing grab-ass. Have a plan and communicate your vision. Make it count every time.
Training sessions in the fire service often mirror the nature of our business, short bursts of intense activity followed by protracted periods of discussion on how to change the world, or at least improve somebody else’s performance. Emphasis must be placed on large amounts of high repetition hands-on training and less on hyperbole. In order to maintain the flow of training, keep the post evolution commentary to a minimum.
One cannot dispute the importance of being situationally aware, identifying critical fireground factors, and reading the environment. These factors are vital in order to ensure we make it out alive, but we have to move at a pace that is germane to the scenarios we will encounter in the real world. We have to move with urgency and purpose especially in the controlled environment of the drill grounds. Awareness of external factors is increased as we perform our craft at the conscious competence level. We cannot get there without a lot of sweat equity and simple, calculated, high-energy training sessions.
In order to maintain interest in training we must keep people engaged. The occasional surprise drill has value but should include a situation that has been trained for previously to allow for some degree of success. Don’t just throw your people at a skill, coach them up on the skill, teach them to walk before they run (and that running, at times, is okay too). Gradually increase the tempo of drills until performance speed is reached. Alternate between a slow pace in which no mistakes are made and training at performance speed to get the best results.
I was reminded of a quote by Bruce Lee regarding performing at the unconscious competence level, “Learn it until you forget it.”
Gary said to me, “The main thing we tell our people is to hook any rung they can except the first one. If they grab the first rung they’ll break their arm against the building and get stuck. We tell them to throw themselves out the window and bear-hug the ladder. We’re teaching the same thing you are, but we keep it really simple. When this type of thing goes down, you can’t over-think things because you’ve lost your mind.”
We packed up the 24′ and put it away. Gary and I worked it out. In reality, we were saying roughly the same thing about the same skill, I just took a longer path to get there. Great teachers and coaches have a knack for separating out the nonsense and communicating what is most important.
My old man, a football coach by trade for almost 40 years, used to say, “The main thing is to keep the main thing the main thing.”
Note to self: Keep it simple.