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  • Marc Aloan

That's The Way We've Never Done It


(Photo: Facebook/West Columbia FD)

I had a proud officer moment last tour. My probie, who is about 3 tours away from testing out of his orange front, came up to me and said “Hey Cap, you in?” I replied kind of confused, “Sure…, in for what?”. That’s right, I didn’t really care per say, I will always be in for them, I was more curious as to what I had just submitted myself to… Anyways, he proceeded to explain to me he wanted to do some PPE drills but instead of the traditional (and unrealistic) assembly line on the floor method of most fire academies, he wanted to practice donning our equipment as we stage it on the rig, getting in the rig, donning SCBA (and mask for the backseat members) from the seat, and then coming off ready to work. YES!!!! Well I didn’t scream that, although I wanted to, but that is what I thought in my head.


So, I finish up a couple things in the office and head out to the bay and we get ready to go. Realism was the main thing. No boots unzipped, phones unclipped, or standing over your gear. Nope, we casually hung out near our riding positions until he said go and then it was on. Acceptable was the standard two minutes we are all accustomed to, with one minute 30 seconds being the goal. Not really sure if those metrics are applicable for the drill when done this way, but it gave us something to shoot for. We repeated the drill three or four times, busting chops and getting upset at ourselves for getting hung up in the seat or being slow getting gloves on. One of the highlights was a station boot that somehow ended up a good stall away from the engine and managed to land upright. That my friends takes some skill! We had a good time, did fireman stuff, and got a little better in the process. This was “that” drill we often discuss that proves what we do is about quality, not how long we did it. And for such a “simple” drill, I actually took quite a bit out of it…


It is easy to get used to overcoming certain things when they do not occur in rapid succession. Until we are put to some sort of test, the weaknesses of our routine are usually shored up by its strengths. I pride myself on being able to get dressed quickly before we turnout and maintaining that sense of urgency regardless of the run type. However, as we went through the reps of donning and doffing, I was able to catch some of my own weaknesses in the process. As we approached the last evolution, I decided it was time to try something new.


The first thing I realized was the place I had been draping my SCBA release on my seat was actually a horrible location. Come to think of it, I had actually noticed this in the past, but it never really sank in because with all the things running through my head on my way to an alarm, I just instinctively overcame it without so much as a thought of why is this so hard. And even with the struggle to pull the cord fresh in my mind, I must would just put it back where I found it because let’s be honest, all of us have something we do because “that’s the way we have always done it.” Despite my previous oversights, I took advantage of the frustration and re-positioned my release to a more accessible area where it is less likely to get stuck in my shoulder strap, and much less awkward (and less painful) than trying to reach overhead behind me. Now I am wondering why the heck I did this for so long and how it even made sense to begin with!


Next, I realized I had always hung my hood and radio strap “backwards” (i.e. to put straight on), but for some reason I had always hung my coat with the liner facing in. As I would unhook my coat and swing it around my back, I felt like I was losing time and even in some cases missed getting my arm in on the first try. Something that seemed so basic and easy was actually requiring me to think about what I was doing much more than it should have. So, on the last evolution I flipped it around and hung it with the liner out which allows me to get my first arm in while I am taking my coat down. Small change? Yes. Big difference? Probably not. Improvement? Absolutely!


The point of sharing all this is that we constantly hear “that’s the way we have always done it” when in reality we need to be considering all of the ways we have NEVER done it. If we never try things we haven’t, we won't find the innovations that make us better. Although there are plenty of things that will not, and should not change, there are many methods that could be improved by just being brave enough to try something that has never been tried. Being engaged and open with junior members its critical to opening our minds to just that. While they may not have the “experience” we seem to hold so dearly, if we are humble and open enough we will realize sometimes their lack of experience is worth its weight in gold when it comes to innovation. Without the handicap of comfort, routine, or ego, they are able to focus more on finding the best way to do something rather than perpetuating “the way” of doing something. Even better, just think of what it does for their confidence to have the very people they look up to for advice and guidance willing to give their ideas a shot or follow their lead now and again…


(Photo: Wexford VFC)

The best part of this story is that I absolutely love when our newest members are hungry for the job and commit to doing something to get better without being told or prodded to do so. The transformation that takes place in development when our members start to come out of their shell and put a little skin in the game is probably my favorite. Times like this where there is an organic desire to improve and the little flicker of confidence that begins the process of making decisions has always been my indicator for when it is time to transition from probie to peer. I am glad to see his training and orientation has taught him not only to strive to be the best, but that he feels comfortable enough to come up with not only a training evolution, but challenge his crew as well. I like to think all of our members who have been involved with his probation have had a little part of that process, but it is more of a testament to his inherent love for the profession than anything we have possibly done through his formal training. If anything, the mentoring we have provided and the process our department uses have shown him that it is very much normal to love what we do, something so many seem to be robbed of these days.


While I think it is difficult to teach motivation, I do feel it is our responsibility to get the most out of the motivation that exists in our members. The boundaries of rank should exist for formal functions and game time decisions, not to apply some sort of one-way dialogue in all aspects of the job. The best way to spot an unconfident officer is to find one that is scared to let other take the reins now and then or deviate from the status quo. Stop holding yourself and your people back by refusing to try something new or assuming there is nothing left for you to change. Even if we KNOW something another member wants to try will fail, allow them to try anyways. Experience is just as much about learning what doesn’t work as it is what does. We can all learn something in any evolution, regardless of outcome. Utilize the experience, knowledge, and drive of your crew to challenge everyone to test their beliefs and habits. Remember, sometimes the way we have never done it will be far superior to any of the ways we have…

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