• Marc Aloan

Cause For Confusion

Updated: Apr 5, 2018

The more time I have on the job, the more I learn, and the more I experience, I can’t help but allow my mind to wander beyond the problems and difficulties most of us encounter to the bigger picture of their origin. If knowledge is power, then knowing why something is happening is just as, if not more important than, knowing what is happening. We frequently allow ourselves to become so smothered by the issue itself, we fail to identify our role in causing or contributing to it. We also have a bad habit of allowing misconceptions and assumptions to prevent us from coming to rational resolutions for very simple problems.

(Photo: Brass Tacks and Hard Facts)

As my years on the job add up, my desire to not only identify, but also solve many of our ongoing problems increases. Talking to people from across the country, with various backgrounds, from different size departments has led me to know two things for certain; 1) We all experience similar problems in different ways and 2) We seem to be inept at solving these problems as they continue to plague us generation after generation. These realizations have caused to not ask what is going on to whyis it happening? This approach has led me to the idea that perhaps many of the conflicts we face within the walls of our firehouses, and even during incidents to a degree, are based on our current mentality towards the fire service rather than an actual topic, opinion, or event. What I mean is, could the way we react to our disputes be more about our psyche than the actual impact of what is causing our disputes to begin with?

I have a premise that our careers are divided into three very distinct, repetitive segments: 1) We blindly follow the information presented to us because we are naïve, ignorant, or content. 2) We challenge EVERYTHING we know, see, and learn because our experience and education causes conflict between theory and reality. 3) We make educated decisions on our beliefs and focus on not only perfecting them, but also sharing them with others in an effort to unify our members as well as establish standards that will result in increased skill, performance, and efficiency.

(Photo: Behind the Badge OC)

At face value, your mind has likely classified these 3 distinct segments into decades we are on the job, ranks or milestones, or some other similar measure of time, however I don’t think it is that simple. For the most part we all assume that our careers occur on a linear path. We start as a probie and learn the basics of the job. From there we add a little time, experience, and maybe even some specialties to our resume as we take on a little responsibility, maybe even becoming a driver/operator or other special designation. Finally, we graduate to becoming a senior man, company officer, or chief. While this is undeniably the typical path of professional progression, the problem is that while the promotional ladder is straight, defined, and generally with very few deviations from what we know and expect, the thought process that defines our growth and maturation during these career benchmarks can be anything but. Therefore, our strategic and tactical beliefs are not necessarily in line with our pay grade or position, but instead it is how our minds interchange between the three segments which makes subtle changes in our views throughout our careers, resulting in swaying  in our opinions or tactics quite regularly.

(Photo: Fire Engineering)

Our training and curriculum fail us by diminishing the importance of constant growth and neglecting the reality that each step in our career comes with a new set of “probationary” criterion associated with each position. It also implants the assumption that our mental growth, skill level, and tactics are parallel to our position. In other words, as we move up in rank or responsibility, our thoughts, opinions, and ideology will grow at the same rate causing us to believe that our knowledge base is not only as rigid as the rank structure, but that our thought processes are directly proportional to where we fall in that structure. Learning to be a driver/operator, company officer, or Chief is really no different than learning to become a firefighter except the amount of time and effort we put into development and education at each step seems to decrease. Therefore, much of our disappointment and conflict is caused by assumptions that lead us to believe that knowledge, information, and competence is equal to rank when in reality this is often very incorrect.

What if I proposed that our professional growth was actually an inverse relationship to our rank structure? Considering we have new responsibilities at each step, it is fair to say the higher we go the more we don't know and need to learn. What if I suggested that our thoughts and opinions resembled a serpentine more than a straight line? If experience and knowledge allow us to analyze our approaches, obviously we will constantly refine and adjust our theories and tactics as our knowledge bank increases. This results in learning new skills or trying new approaches causing us to jump back and forth between student and teacher, even though our position within the department generally is a one-way path. What if were to surmise that our careers were in a constant state of movement from one segment to the next, but not following any particular method or specific order. Would you agree that we can be sure of ourselves one minute, questioning everything we have ever known the next, and then eager to share our reaffirmed beliefs only to fall back to questioning everything immediately after?  What if I told you there is no guarantee that each person will experience the three segments I have discussed?  Some people never learn to think for themselves or find it necessary to ask why.  Some people never make it to teaching because they get stuck challenging things but never arrive at an answer.

New events and results can put us through a roller coaster of confidence and doubt as we continually seek to improve our understanding of the job and performance of the mission objectives. Probation isn’t the only time we will blindly follow just as making officer isn’t the only time we are qualified to teach others. If we really sit down and analyze how our theories and convictions change over the years based on practical knowledge, education, and experience rather than rank or position, we will find that we are constantly changing even if we pretend otherwise.

(Firefighting In Canada)

There is no magical formula that equates a certain title or position to a specific level of competence just as there is no skill set or tactic that is saved exclusively for those of a certain rank. As our roles change in our departments, so does our perspective. It is that perspective combined with what we have gone through that forms our opinions. Most of us come on the job with the assumption and expectation that those entrusted with leading and developing us will always have the answers and our best interests at hand. Some of us experience this while others are paired with a senior man or officer who doesn’t deserve such a title. This may cause one firefighter to quickly transition to questioning things while another goes on for many years before encountering that phase. The number of runs we go on, their severity, our successes, and our failures all have bearing on how quickly or often we transition from following what we are told to challenging our former beliefs. These challenges sometimes find us new answers we believe in and want to share, while other times they help us conclude the strategies we are currently using are accurate and worth continuing.

Just when we think we have arrived at our convictions and reached the point in our careers where it is time to share what we think is “the way”, we may be confronted with a run, transfer, or promotion that once again forces us to question our thought process. This is the very reason those who know the job the best will tell you the day you stop learning is the day to hang it up. However, what we have left out of the equation is the fact that our views and principles are constantly evolving and can result in some serious internal struggles and frustrations.

(Photo: Fire Engineering)

If we consider the three segments of our careers as following, questioning, and teaching and agree that we transition between the three based on our situations and perspectives, rather than our time or position, we can now see why we spend so much time arguing with each other over what but fail to consider why. As we pool our ideas and concepts together, we are faced with people who are at different ends of the spectrum as well as experiencing different segments of their careers. Maybe a 30-year Chief who is focused on teaching becomes frustrated with a 5-year man who is questioning rather than following. He doesn’t account for the fact that what he is so sold on as the right way just caused that 5-year man to miss a victim or get burned on his last fire. His experience tells him different, however maybe this Chief believes our paths are linear and disregards the feedback because he thinks knowledge is based only on position. Perhaps that same 5-year man becomes frustrated because he is in a segment of his career where he feels that following those above him is the best course of action, yet he is getting conflicting advice from two company officers, one of which is in a questioning phase with a particular concept, while the other is in a teaching phase about same idea. You can see from these two examples that our personal evolution as firefighters may be more cause for conflict than the actual ideas we are debating.

(Photo: FDTN)

The list of possible scenarios is infinite, but what remains constant is the fact that if we fail not only to ask, but also UNDERSTAND, why those we are debating with feel or support a certain way, then we will forever be griping with each other. We must accept that our views and beliefs will constantly change and evolve throughout our careers, often at rates that are not in line with those who surround us. Our conclusions are shaped by not only time, rank, and corresponding responsibilities, but also experience, education, analysis, practice, data, and the influences of others who are undergoing the same process. We need to focus more on listening, conversing, and discussing issues rather than arguing or fighting about them. There is no perfect set path or unbending rise in knowledge or stature. The best at what we do reached that point because they understood and allowed themselves to grow with the job and realized that each step on that organizational ladder was not a guarantee of expertise, but rather a fresh opportunity to challenge and confirm our way of thinking from a fresh perspective or unique viewpoint.

Due to the diversity of departments, response areas, equipment, manpower, strategies, and tactics used in our profession, it is highly unlikely we will ever come to a concrete consensus that will work for every department. The sooner we acknowledge this fact and replace the erroneous concept of linear development with one which accounts for the many twists and turns we encounter as we continually transform of our stance on how to best accomplish the mission, the sooner we can quit griping and start focusing on supporting each other rather than sabotaging each other.