Telling

By: Mark vonAppen


I don’t care much for fictional accounts so whenever I sit  through an after action review it is interesting to me to hear what happened according to the stories that are told.  Most don’t sound anything like any fire I have ever gone to, yet all of them sound exactly the same.  I get angry at the thought about having my time wasted as people indulge in half-truths, out and out lies, and hyperbole.  These outstanding learning opportunities are often lost to fear and ignorance.  I usually withdraw mentally and emotionally as lie piles on top of lie.  I retreat into my own reality I think, “Being honest makes you the biggest jerk in the room.”  

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?  Are our stories so divergent because our minds can only process a limited amount of information due to strain, or is it easier to explain than that?  Do we lie about our experiences?

“It is very difficult to uncoil the roots of what we are led to believe.  They can grow into tumors knitted into the fabric of who we are.”

What is the cost of knowing the truth about our past?  Damaged egos and wounded pride?  A tarnished department image?  We have to 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.
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.  We engage in circle jerks that create a false-positive feedback loop in which poor performance and decision making is reinforced by a hearty slap on the back and a firm hand shake.  
Lies have an echo chamber effect in our culture, we are parochial by nature and we have our own belief system that is confirmed by our personal biases and ideology.  The fire service has institutional memory.  We learn by telling and retelling stories.  We learn something new and as a group we change.  We have to tell the truth, otherwise lies become our truth.  Honest dialogue, surrounding topics on which we disagree,  and telling the true accounts of what really happened can help us guard against nightmare feedback loops.  
How many brothers and sisters would be with us this day if we all shared the real 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.  

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 cannot be honest in revealing the facts surrounding accidents and  line of duty deaths then we might as well not talk about them at all.

I’m not particularly religious, but I hear that lying is a sin.  So is killing.  The more we lie, the more we contribute to future accidents, injuries, and death.  The lies that we pimp as truth today, either in print or through oral history, are the seeds of tomorrow’s disaster.  The more we cultivate them by perpetuating falsehoods the deeper the roots go.  It is very difficult to uncoil the roots of what we are led to believe.  They can grow into tumors knitted into the fabric of who we are.  The truth is in the telling and as a culture sometimes we encourage lying.  If you don’t believe that you’re lying to yourself.
  

  

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5 Comments

  1. Powerful piece and I agree with your thoughts, there are I believe two layers of truth telling. One at the top where career paths are at greater risk any time the truth gets told and when it does get told it is behind closed doors.

    The other truth may be exactly the same as the other, but this truth is told in the fire house, it is told only after a quick glance around makes sure only the right people will hear it. This truth is shared between the men and women who will actually be in harms way the next time. They won't have the comfort of an SUV to protect them.

    I also believe that the fire house truth is the most important as the lessons learned at this level will save lives, while the truth at the other level will preserve careers.

    Nothing demonstrates the glaring cross purposes inside the fire service. At the administrative level the goal is to protect careers and reputations at the level of the firefighters the goal is to save lives and property and because both are looking at different horizons I don't believe the two goals will ever be joined.

    So our oral history can still save lives as long real firefighters share the truth quietly and out of the range of anyone wearing gold. I also believe it is getting worse and not better as economic security for all employees deteriorates saving your ass is now the goal, not saving lives. What a shame.

  2. As someone who wears a gold badge (three bugles worth), I have to disagree with what Tim posted. There are those with the "divide and conquer" mentality who forget where they came from, and those who seek to make the job better than it was when they first arrived.

    Some of the rank and file can't handle the truth, either… and pass the buck when the excremental matter hits the rotating oscillating air movement device. There are those who look at someone who is newly promoted as one of "them" and do everything in their power to push the buttons and see just how far the envelope will stretch, then look and act surprised when it rips apart. When it comes time to "man up" they hide behind the thin red wall and implore their brothers to cover for them instead of manning up and admitting they screwed up.

  3. Tim,

    I get what you are saying, but I don't think that there can be 2 paths to the truth. It infuriates me to sit through after actions and listen to firefighters or chiefs tell stories that implode through contradictions, omissions, and mystical unexplained phenomenon. Things would be more explainable, less mystical, and thus understandable if we just told the truth about what happened.

    We cannot share the truth quietly. It has to be shared so that our fire service world gets smaller through sharing the correct information.

    Stay hungry,
    Mark

  4. Ron,

    There cannot be an "us versus them" culture in the fire service between the line and staff. You are correct, lot of us cannot handle the truth. We are a funny bunch, we are willing to risk injury or worse in doing our jobs, but we have a tough time looking in the mirror and honestly assessing our performance.

    Safety improvements are paid for in blood and it is a shame to see blood spilled and nothing realized through another's sacrifice. That red wall you refer to is a wall of blood. If we hide behind that wall we all have blood on our hands.

    Stay hungry,
    Mark