Defining Expertise

What determines good and bad?
Does quantity determine good or bad?

By Bill Carey

Originally published 16 May 2011

Q&A with Charles Bailey on his article “Manufactured Expertise.”

“Can we even say that defining the expert and expertise is near impossible, when the range relied on (years of an individual’s service and number of fires) is also nearly undefinable?”


“I think that it is easier than I pretend. Certainly there is this point, some argue 10,000 hours, where you become an expert at what you do and it is not as intractable a problem for most things. Either the drummer can drum or he can’t or the pianist-either he can play the overture or he butcher’s it and we all know that he- if he even is a pianist- is not an expert one. But for the tank commander, or the policeman in the dark alley or the fireman, things are different. They are different because while there is no one way to play the overture there is this knowable range of options…a limit to the variations. For those making the critical decisions about life and death on short notice its harder, its harder to know if I got it right all these times before because I got it right or because I was lucky. Did my skill at ducking keep that bullet out of my head, did my skill at ventilation keep me out of that flow path, or was it that the wind stopped blowing just before I made entry and that’s luck. The idea is that you can be an expert in fighting fires stupidly and that’s valid until you get burned or someone dies and then you are not an expert anymore, then you are an idiot. And that’s a fine line, the one between being an idiot and being an expert. I think you find similar things anytime you start talking about complex systems, but the effect is heightened once you have humans with competing wills-police men and soldiers- their problem is different. Fires are complicated and they are simple but they are chemical and physical processes, the fire won’t go out of its way to get you like a bomber or a gang-banger-to die in a fire requires you to go to it on its turf and on its terms…and so the decisions have to be different. Expertise is often mistaken for prophecy in the fire department. They think- I have been to 30 fires just like this one and this is what I did last time- except this time it doesn’t work…instant idiocy…so it goes….”

Charles Bailey

Photo courtesy of Unsplash

Published by Data Not Drama

Data Not Drama is writings that provide a point of critical thought about firefighter fatality data and education, line of duty deaths, and risk. The main focus is to encourage less risk aversion and better knowledge on the subject of firefighter fatalities in firefighters, fire departments, and fire service organizations.

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