Surprise and the Fireground

Ignorance is bold- knowledge is reserved.
-Thucydides
We participate in an endeavor that is at times high stress, high risk, and for some of our brothers and sisters, inevitably lethal. It is how we prepare ourselves for the possibility of these combat situations that leads to a greater possibility of success. Some of our brothers and sisters are going to die, and they’re going to do it on a fairly regular schedule. When they do, we owe it to their memory to study in detail each action or lack of action that led to tragedy. There is a big difference between going forth boldly, and going forth blindly. Our dilemma is to strike a balance between dedication to the mission and initiating action with informed caution.
Panic and confusion should be reserved for the citizens who call us on the worst day of their lives. Our job is to bring order to disorder- it starts by understanding what our response will be under extreme stress. Without understanding of how we will react to “unexpected” stressors we will be unable to function effectively when high RPM events occur.
Surprise! Now you’re scared out of your mind.
There is a saying in military aviation, “You lose half your IQ when you walk across the tarmac to your aircraft.” The same can be said of firefighters when we’re kicked out on a working fire. Our heart- rate soars into the 140’s or 150’s and we experience a physiological reaction to stress. Our forebrain- the part that makes us human- shuts down and yields to the midbrain- the part of our brain that is impossible to differentiate from that of an animal.
Our vision narrows (tunnel vision) to focus on threat, and our hearing becomes selective (auditory exclusion) as we channel our attention on danger. This physiological reaction is compounded when we are faced with truly dire circumstances. We are literally scared to the point where we are incapable of rational thought. We must know what our emotional reaction will be in response to strain because sometimes, no matter what we do, bad things just happen- we cannot be surprised by our natural reaction.
We must have a firm bail out plan once external stressors attack our ability to think logically.
Correct experiences in training= correct reaction when it counts
Experience is knowledge or skill acquired over time either through training or by practical application of learned skills in the real world.
But…
Experienced sometimes means that someone has gotten away with doing the wrong thing more often than you have.
Right?
Taking short cuts on the fire ground over time will catch up with us. Short cuts bite an unfortunately high number of our bothers and sisters every year- causing injury, death and an untold number of near hits. Pride often leads us to sequester close call incidents- all but ensuring that a similar misstep will befall another brother or sister somewhere, sometime in the future. NIOSH is kind enough to publish the findings of their investigations so we can learn from the dead.

Ultra-dangerous + seldom experienced circumstances = a greater need for quality training!

There are four poisons of the mind according some martial arts practitioners. In the art of Kendo these poisons said to be: surprise, fear, confusion, and hesitation. The panacea for these poisons is correct experiences prior to a hostile event. Only through repeated stressful training, or experience in advance of these ambushes can we stand a chance of making the right decision.
The difference between the average soldier and elite special- forces teams in the military is how well they perform the basics. “Operators” as they are known in Delta Force, perform the basics of their intense training well all the time on their own. This sets them apart as elite military performers.
Training to the point of muscle memory- or auto pilot- should be our goal for vital survival skills.
The keys to avoiding the poisons of the mind are to train, plan, to know your stuff, commune with the dead, and remain humble.
Train
Is anyone else tired of hearing us say, “The more you sweat in training, the less you bleed in battle?’
I am. But it’s true…
Its simple- train hard, stay abreast of current industrial trends and you’re better suited for the dynamic nature of the profession- truer words have never been said. Controlling surprise, fear, confusion, and hesitation are directly related to how well our training prepares us for adverse situations.
Believe it or not, if you put on a drill that is thought provoking, and challenging, but not ridiculous, people will be inspired and want to show up.
I was once told that not every drill has to be a great drill. I would argue vociferously to the contrary. Every drill must have a purpose. If students can’t figure out the reasoning behind a drill, explain the relevance to them. They might not agree with the reasoning or methodology but at the very least they will know why they are doing it.
Perfunctory training does not inspire people. There is value in performing rote skills to the point of wanting to scream. Basic skills must be practiced until they become as common as speaking. We don’t have to think about speaking, we just do it. Be certain those you train learn the value of drilling on the basics. It isn’t fun but it is necessary. We are afforded precious little training time. Make sure students are engaged in the short time they are on the drill grounds. Make it fun. Do it right. Make sure that everyone present participates and walks away having learned something useful.
If you don’t have time to deliver quality training to your people the first time, when will you find time to do it over?
RECEO/ VS for the classroom and drill grounds:
R= Respect the learning environment
E= Engage all present
C= Communicate the desired behavior
E= Educate tirelessly until the student understands the concept
O= Observe the results- Are we reaching the student?
V= Vital – make it realistic, interesting, and fun
S= Satisfy the training needs of the organization and individual
Realistic, stressful, scenario-based training is a must to establish the emotional bookmarks necessary for complete buy in from personnel.
Plan
Your plan for survival is formulated by a lifetime and career of experiences that either prepare you to survive or be crushed by the situations you are faced with. John Dryden said, “No one can possibly know what is about to happen; it is happening each time for the first time and the last time.” The inherent dangers of the fire environment cannot be fully calculated away.
Start by believing the worst.
Information flow on the fire ground is extremely fast and makes for an incredibly stressful environment. This rush of information envelops us in a very short period of time and results in sensory overload. During extremely stressful situations, sensory overload can cause us to become fixated on a particular aspect of the incident resulting in “tactical fixation”.
Firefighters who experience this type of fixation have very vivid memories of the task they were involved in during a hostile event. Fixation is due to “perceptual narrowing” where the senses collapse into a central point of focus as stress ramps up. This can lead to a situation where only visual cues are processed and important and sometimes powerful cues from the environment go unprocessed by our brains.
If a leader does not have a firm foundation that includes a plan for how things should progress then the entire system breaks down. The old adage applies, “As the first line goes, so goes the fire.”
It is important that fire ground leaders have the ability to supervise- to carry out the plan- and not be intimately involved at the tactical level. The more fixated we become with a task, the less we are able to maintain the global awareness necessary to maintain safety.
Strategies and expectations must be communicated in advance of an emergency for success to be possible. We are in the fix- it- now- fix- it- right business. We are often afforded only one chance to get it right. We should know better than to make it up when we get there.
General George S. Patton said this about planning:
“A good plan executed now is far better than a perfect plan executed too late.”
Plan for the event and then execute the plan. Don’t fall in love with the plan though, be open to an ever- changing environment, let go of the plan when necessary and be ready to adapt. As the environment and the plan undergo their changes- they always do- you’ll be ready to do the next correct thing.
Know your stuff
Knowing your stuff involves having intimate knowledge of policy and procedure, your equipment, and yourself. Having depth of knowledge in these areas affords a certain amount of emotional security. If we posses this meta- knowledge we have fall- back procedures in the index of our mind when things aren’t going as we imagined. Being highly trained under stress in certain areas allows us to function with greater effectiveness when subjected to stressors in other areas.
Forces of nature are more powerful and can progress with a swiftness that our minds cannot comprehend- this is true of any outdoor endeavor, white water rafting, mountain climbing, or hiking.
The fire ground is no different. Our training practices cannot replicate the speed at which fire progresses. National standards limit how far we can go when setting fires in training. NFPA (1403) standards for live fire training are no doubt instrumental in restraining the occasional over zealous or ignorant ignition officer. These rules keep us safe but we are only getting a small piece of the picture when we observe fire behavior in this manner.
When was the last time you entered a structure fire where the fire load in the building was made up entirely of hay and palettes?
Never?
Me neither.
We must be able to blend the linear- standard operating guidelines- with the non linear- the chaos of the fire ground, our emotions, our knowledge skills and abilities- in order to affect the best possible outcome.

Fewer fires means we need to put more hose on the ground. It is counter-intuitive to say we don’t fight fire that often any more, therefore we should train less.

Following the accomplishment of putting a fire out, we are especially vulnerable. We experience an explosive burst of activity and an accompanying emotional rush. After this rush we experience an emotional dump (parasympathetic backlash) where our guard drops – this is because we cannot maintain these high emotional output levels for prolonged periods – the body must recover. We are emotionally and physically depleted, leaving us inattentive and accident- prone.
Survival situations are a ticking clock. You only have so much energy and air, every time you exert yourself you are using them up. Know your physical limits and the performance standards of your gear.
Now might be a good time to do that air consumption rate test you’ve been avoiding.
Know thyself.
Commune with the dead
Many things can influence what are often construed as errors in judgement. Errors in judgement can be influenced by both internal (emotional) and external (distractions) factors. With the benefit of hindsight, it is easy to slice up the actions of others who came before and form an opinion, deciding on a better solution to the puzzle. It is even easier when you have the test group to learn from.
We must always bear in mind that fire ground decision- making happens in seconds and entails processing incredibly high information flow with limitless variables. Add fear to the equation- shutting down our fore brain- and you can see how the error chain gets started. Removing just one link in the chain may get us out of a situation safely.
LODD reports are definitive learning tools; we are foolish if we do not examine them. The message that our fallen comrades are sending us through the reports is, “Don’t do what we did. Learn from our sacrifice, don’t do it again.”
It’s been said that it is unfortunate that we only get to die once, for there are so many lessons to be learned in death. Voyeurism such as that afforded by LODD reports is invaluable.
We must respectfully Monday morning quarterback LODDs- using what we know about our ability to process information when under extreme stress can aid us in reviewing LODD reports objectively. We can look at them from the outside with cool detachment because we are not emotionally involved. As always, learning from the past, training, and repetition are the keys to avoiding errors in judgement.
Be humble
We know fire as a thing alive- if you turn your back on it for even a moment it will seize the opportunity and consume you. Fire punishes those who underestimate its might with swiftness only those who are taken by it can comprehend. The ill- fated few that witness its energy and velocity up close usually do not survive to tell anyone about it.
We need to appreciate the power of the forces we are up against.

Paul Combs.

Hubristic statements such as, “We don’t go to fires that often any more so why do we need to train?” always make me bristle. If you’ve ever read anything I’ve written before you know I have to practice like a fiend in order to get a skill right.

So, let me make sure I’ve got this right. We rarely see it, it’s really dangerous, and we’re not going to train you adequately to perform your job when you get shot at? How do you think the military would respond to that line of thinking?
Ultra-dangerous + seldom experienced circumstances = a greater need for quality training!
Fewer fires means we need to put more hose on the ground. It is counter-intuitive to say we don’t fight fire that often any more therefore we should train less.
Remain humble- pride makes us a fake- being humble makes us real. We must maintain a beginner’s mind in order to keep learning and maintain awareness. As soon as we think we have figured out the situation it changes. Be humble enough to say you don’t know exactly what is going on, pay attention to the cues the fire ground is sending you and formulate a plan of action based upon a true reading of the environment.
If we have our minds made up that there is only one right way to do something, new information will not be able to dislodge the notion. We must allow new information to reshape out mental models. Hence, maintaining an open mind has us constantly curious about our circumstances so we continually reassess our situation.
Remember that some of our best ideas and plans come from listening to others. Take advantage of all the training available to you.
Peter Leschak, the author of “Ghosts of the Fire Ground” says this about the fire ground and his connection to it.
“There is a core of mystery and faith that has guided not only my career but also, my life. To me, the fire ground is a sacred locale, a place of power that is rich not only in tradition and history, but also in sources of emotion, and meditations that I can only describe in terms of reverence and awe.”
Sit down and listen to a veteran tell you a story about their most memorable fire. Be humble and listen more than you talk. The old guys have a lot to pass on – and they’ll do it happily – all you have to do is ask.

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