Books, Smarts

Craig Rose photo

By Mark vonAppen

Increased value is being placed on education in the fire service these days. Without question, education is important, but it is the ability to blend academics with the physical, emotional, and mental aspects of our craft that enables us to be effective.  Time and again we see it, books don’t translate directly to smarts.

I know plenty of people with a trail of paper behind them a mile long that can’t process information in a rapid fire fashion, which leads to poor decision making under pressure.  When you get them out of the classroom, they fall flat on their face.  I also know plenty of people who have an equally long paper trail who think extremely well on their feet.

We all know them. 

On the flip side, I know people who barely made it out of high school who are some of the smartest, and most functionally intelligent people I know.  It is the ability to have both street smarts and a solid base of education in applicable subject matter that makes the great ones great. 

It’s the ability to take what we learn and practically apply it to the correct situation that turns books into smarts.   

In terms of education, we have to stay abreast of the latest scientific studies.  Perhaps equally important, we must know, in no uncertain terms, what we are personally capable of in all situations. Without the ability to apply it to the correct situation it is just as well left in the book it was found in.  We must continually function at a high level in an area where discretionary time does not exist.  It’s a tremendous challenge.  

The answer is relentless training and contingency planning that involve stressful situations which are germane to those we will face outside of the cool, calm, confines of the classroom or simulator (I call it the “pretendulator”).  The great ones “what if” things to death, and never stop preparing.

It takes a lot of work.

Do I want smart people on my crew?  Of course, but they have to be able to walk and chew gum at the same time while crossing the street during rush hour traffic.  We don’t operate in black and white.  We operate almost entirely in the grey.  Those who look only to books or procedure for all of  their answers are rigid, inflexible, and at times, dangerous.

Complacency is the enemy, and success never comes easily.  Education by itself doesn’t mean a whole lot to me.  Books can’t be judged by their covers.  We must judge people by the size of their hearts and on their ability to perform.  

It’s the ability to take what we learn and practically apply it to the correct situation that turns books into smarts.

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Get Smart

Craig Rose photo

By Mark vonAppen

There is an ongoing devaluing of the fire problem from within our industry which leads to a lack of education among firefighters.  We seek the easy fix, the next distraction, or the short answer because we don’t have the attention span to sit and read (I’ll keep this short, I promise), watch a video, or get out and train. We are losing the ability to walk and chew gum at the same time.

We have to take enormously complicated tasks and reduce them to simple concepts, apply them to the correct circumstance and do it all without forgetting the what and why.  All of this has to occur in a condensed time frame while our body fights our mind’s (I know they’re connected) ability to process information.  It’s a complex balancing act in an immediately unforgiving environment.  It’s a knife fight in a phone booth.  The timid and uneducated will fail there without question.

It’s a knife fight in a phone booth.  Get smart. Get tough. There is no place to hide.


Until we place a premium on education and create functionally intelligent (physically and mentally) firefighters and promote functionally intelligent chief officers who have a firm grasp of the technical and tactical aspects of the job we are doomed to continue to dumb down the importance and the danger of what we do.  Education makes you respect the job.  Ignorance breeds bravado.  Fatigue and ignorance make cowards of us all.

The target does move.  The game has changed.  We try to do more with less even though we know we can’t.  The more we try to do with fewer people, the better and smarter we all need to be.

Get smart.  Get tough.  There is no place to hide.

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