• Marc Aloan

Knowledge Is Power

We have all heard the saying knowledge is power.  It refers to increasing your ability to control situations by having as much knowledge as possible.  This includes knowledge gained from formal education as well as that which is gained from experience. Obviously formal knowledge coupled with experience is the best scenario for creating well rounded individuals who excel at problem solving.  A well educated, experienced firefighter is one that is able to rapidly make critical decisions.  While knowledge is an overwhelmingly positive attribute I have also noticed over the years that knowledge seems to be used as weapon as well.

All of us had different levels of knowledge when we entered the fire service.  Some of us were hands on learners, some were book learners, and some excelled at both.  Those who enter our ranks come from all walks of life, different jobs, and various levels of education.  Regardless, when it came to our craft we all had a lot to learn.  This learning is where I am noticing a large generational disconnect in our occupation.  The older generation seems to think the younger generation doesn’t know anything, while the younger generation seems to think the older generation doesn’t want to teach them.   Both sides have a valid argument as I have discussed before but for the purpose of this article I will discuss how withholding information is being used as a control mechanism.

Everyone wants to be the go to person for something.  It is a source of pride and accomplishment to be an expert on a topic and rightfully so.  However, this can be accomplished without locking your knowledge away in your own personal vault.  Firefighting is a team sport.  I highly doubt the New York Giants put the offense on the field and only give the quarterback the playbook.  If you don’t share your knowledge with the rest of your department, that’s exactly what you are doing.  While there are situations, mainly with administrative functions, where information cannot be shared most information should flow freely with your peers.  Sharing knowledge makes the whole team stronger.  You may be surprised what you can learn from someone else as well!

We have all heard the accounts of first year guys who don’t know how to start a chainsaw, mop a floor, or cut the grass.  For the majority of my generation and those that came before me these skills were learned at a young age.  It can be difficult to comprehend that kids are simply not taught “life skills” anymore.  Blame the schools, blame the parents, or blame society but it will not change the outcome.  You can also blame the fire service because I have heard multiple accounts of senior guys or officers who refuse to teach these skills.  Instead they ridicule these poor kids for not knowing but then push them away when they ask for instruction.  You can’t hold people accountable for things they were never taught.

Think about how information is shared in your agency.  Do people readily share information or do you frequently find things out after the fact?  Unfortunately, many agencies seem to withhold information until something goes wrong or pressure is applied to divulge it.  I don’t see the value of not sending relevant information down the chain to the guys in the street.  Your officers need to know when a new target hazard comes to their area.  Your engineers need to know about road closures before the day they happen.  Your firefighters need to know how to deploy a new hose load before it is put on the rig.  How on earth does not passing along this information help anyone?

I get extremely perturbed when someone answers a question by saying it is none of your business, you don’t have to worry about that, that’s above your paygrade, etc.  I become even more enraged when someone of rank or seniority selects this type of response.  It appears to me that some are a little insecure about sharing their knowledge because they think they will no longer be useful.  If this is the case, you probably weren’t all that useful to begin with.   I think this perception is based on those with time on who STOP learning and then get passed over because they became stagnant.  Sharing knowledge didn’t cause this, ceasing to acquire new knowledge did.  Refusing to share what you know with the next generation will probably not help you move through the ranks either.

I have also seen people try to be the only one who knows something in an effort to move up in the organization.  What is it about knowledge that makes people think it can be used as a bargaining chip when it comes time for a better assignment or promotion?  If the only time you show what you know is in a promotional board, you won’t likely make the cut anyways.  I am unable to grasp how someone of time and/or rank could think that passing along what they know would cause them to be passed over for promotion.  When is the last time a firefighter was step promoted because someone shared information with him? When is the last time you heard of a Captain who was reduced back to firefighter because he shared his knowledge?  I bet you never have.  On a side note, if your department is taking away rank and giving it to subordinates who knowledge was shared with let me know.  I would love to do a case study and then write a book about it because you are probably the only department on earth using this practice!

You could be withholding without knowing it as well.  Do you have an apartment complex that requires a specific hose layout?  Do you have a piece of equipment that requires a specific procedure to operate?  Do you know how to use a computer program others don’t?  Did you learn a new tactic at a conference or class?  Do you have knowledge of an area or complex others don’t?  If you answered yes to any of these questions, have you shared this information?  If not, you are abusing the power of your knowledge.  I don’t care how monumental that new forcible entry technique is, if you aren’t teaching others how to do it as well then you are holding us back. 

(Photo: Paul Combs)

The next time you learn something new see if your crew knows what you do.  Share it with your second and third due companies, the other shifts, and anyone you think has the potential to benefit from your knowledge.  You don’t need 20 years on the job to teach someone something new!  Ask questions often and soak up as much knowledge as you can.  Force those with more time than you to share they knowledge they have acquired over their career because they won’t be here forever.  Remember, once you hang up your gear for the final time, the opportunity to pass on your knowledge has expired.    The only person who looks bad when you withhold information is you. 

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