The White Elephant in the Smoke-Filled Room

Video bites, Facebook morsels continually shape our education

By Dave LeBlanc

Originally published 22 March 2013.

As we look at the evolution of training in the fire service, we must realize that we are at a time like never before experienced. Today there is the availability of information at a moment’s notice. Fires occur and are on YouTube before the companies finish making up. There are training companies springing up by the minute and Facebook pages by the second.

Social media has had a tremendous impact on our training and knowledge, yet that impact is not always positive. We now place the onus on the individual fireman as to the quality of the information received. And in many cases that fireman does not yet posses the experience level necessary to determine the good from the bad.

In this day of Facebook ‘likes’, the quality of our training and information is often based on a popularity like system versus a bonafide vetting process. Furthermore many feel that this social media learning is a suitable replacement for actual hands on training, giving them that ‘jake’ like status with a fraction of the work.

Today you can be a KIC (Keyboard Incident Commander) and post your decisive size-up points to someone else’s fire from the safety of your living room. You can shred them for safety violations you observe during a two minute snapshot of a four hour incident, applying your years of experience watching other YouTube videos and reading the comments of other anonymous ‘firemen’.

While all this is going on from your bedroom command post, where the latest ‘I fight what you fear’ poster hangs on the wall, the gap between training and experience continues to grow. This is not to say that there isn’t quality information available at your fingertips. In fact, today, there is more quality information available to the average fireman than ever before. Today you can read about the biggest fire to occur in the history of ‘XYZ” Fire Department in real time, you can chat with fireman from all over, you can watch training videos of the latest techniques; techniques that many years ago you had to read about in next month’s issue of whichever magazine you preferred.

There is a huge disconnect between what is needed in that smoke filled room and what people decide to learn and train on. The information is out there, and there are hundreds of quality, dedicated firemen that spend hour upon hour providing you with the information you need. Unfortunately, what many miss is that these firemen are just regular brothers. As comfortable with a beer in their hands, talking about family, as they are teaching you the much needed skills you should posses to do this job. Instead they are often giving “star like” status, while their hard earned message falls by the wayside.

There is no regulatory agency for the ‘new’ training environment. No one is sitting in the back row, deciding if the class or the instructor has what it takes. Instead anyone with a computer and a keyboard can become an instant expert. And the more they are liked on Facebook, the more credibility they get. Even if they are still 6 months off probation, still trying to figure out if they should put a Bronx Bend in the leather helmet.

Then there is the social media spin. If I were to believe everything that was posted on Facebook today, I would believe “that artificial sweeteners were safe, WMDs were in Iraq and Anna Nicole married for love.” (1) With social media there is often a rush to judgment, because everyone want sot be the first one to share information. Couple that with some inaccurate information and then throw in posts by Captain Anonymous, and before you know it the ‘good’ information you are reading isn’t any better than what is written in the Enquirer.

In some ways social media has also created a “window shopping” method to fire service training, where you can read and article or watch a video and then quickly move on to the next thing, feeling satisfied that you have actually accomplished something. When in fact nothing could be further from the truth, while you can certainly learn ideas and concepts from reading articles and watching video, there is hard work to be done. Hard work if you want to get better.

This is not to say that everyone has to be from the busiest or biggest fire department to have “street cred”. However, there are some steps you should follow with everything you learn, to make sure the information you are getting is valid and then to make sure you use it to improve yourself and your crew.

1) Before you take what anyone writes at Facebook value, take some time and educate yourself. Make sure that there is some validity to what is being said. Read the magazines, yes the paper ones. Talk with some other fireman.
2) Once you read about it…DO IT! No matter what, the art of firefighting will always require equal parts doing and thinking. You can analyze the daylights out of any fire, but until you actually do something, it will never go it.
3) All your training should be RELEVANT, REALISTIC and REPETITIVE. So once you do #2, do it again, and again. Don’t do it until you get it right, do it until you can’t get it wrong. Do it until it becomes part of your fiber. Do it until you can process what is going on around you while you are doing it.
4) Two eyes, Two ears, One Mouth. No matter what math you use, you should be watching or listening twice as much and you speak. It is easy to watch a video and develop an instant opinion as to how screwed up the Department is in the video. Remember you are only seeing part of the picture and for a brief moment in time. You don’t have all the facts, and therefore you can’t possibly offer an educated opinion. Keep your comments constructive, and learn from what you see. Captain Paddy Brown once said, “You can do everything right on this job and still get killed.” You can also do everything right on this job and still look like a screw up on YouTube.

Some final thoughts:

You can do everything right on this job, and still look like a screw up on Youtube.

The problem with Facebook Firefighters is that you can only take them at Facebook value.

1. Shooter (2007) Mark Wahlberg – Quote from Mr. Rate.

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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