The Minimum Standard

Most people don’t wake up and decide they want to suck

By Dave LeBlanc

Originally published 27 January 2020.

The Fire Service is a unique profession, or trade.  There are standards that we are supposed to meet to become a firefighter.  In addition, there are thousands of hours of training throughout the course of a career that are attended.  Yet despite all this training, and these standards, what is the true measure of our success on the fireground?  And who is doing the measuring?

When the standard is “the fire went out and no one got hurt” the bar is low. Sure, both are important goals, but they are really the minimum standard. All fires will eventually go out, with or without our help. And if we do more damage, allow more damage to occur or fail at rescuing people, is that acceptable? Do we really want to reward ourselves for meeting the minimum standard?

So, the question becomes, by what metric are we measuring success?  Are we looking at the incident in total, or are we breaking it down to the company level tasks, and fire fighter level skills that are performed?

As experience drops, training must replace it to develop skills.  There is no other answer.  And once skills have been developed, they must be maintained.  In the absence of work, training again is the only option. 

The other issue is that, even if we are well trained we can have a bad moment.  We can perform below our own standard, or our plan can go sideways when it meets reality.  Hopefully these moments don’t define the outcome of an incident or set our standards are. But if we don’t acknowledge them, look at them, understand why they happened, that is what they will do.  And if your acceptable standard for success is “the fire went out and no one got hurt” that that is exactly what will happen.

“I’m not sure of any case in life where lowering standards has been beneficial, certainly not in the fire service.”

Deputy Chief Kevin Burns

“If you set the bar low enough it becomes a trip hazard for everyone who follows.”

Firefighter Chris Tobin

Really this issue boils down to an integrity issue.  Integrity, doing the right thing even when no one is watching, allows us to judge ourselves and hold ourselves accountable.  On the fireground, we are ultimately our own reviewers.  Very few people, ok except a couple million firefighters on social media, will look at our performance with any level of understanding.  For Sirus Q Public, the fire going out is a measure of success.  But good old Sirus Q isn’t looking at efficient or effective, he is just looking at the end result.  And yes, there have been countless fires where Sirus and his family and friends have criticized the fire departments efforts, and because of his level of knowledge about fireground operations, those criticisms are usually wrong too.

Most people don’t wake up and decide they want to suck on any given day. It’s a gradual eroding of competence and skills. The same holds true for fire departments.  No department consciously decides that the minimum standard is going to be their standard, it’s a gradual shift over time, and then the acceptance that the new level is ok.

“Rarely is it the desire to improve that’s missing, as much as the direction and drive to follow through.”

Firefighter Jonathan Montgomery

Jonathan’s quote applies to both individuals and organizations.  So often as people we fail ourselves because we don’t have the direction or drive to reach our goals.  Self-motivation isn’t easy and as Jonathan will say, it’s less about will power and more about a plan.

These same factors also effect organizations.  Why?  Because organizations are run by people.  Many well-intentioned people have been able to identify their organization needs to improve, that they need to raise the standard, but have been unable to because of a lack of direction or follow through.  Of course, on an organizational level, not only are you fighting yourself, but all the others that may not share your views on performance.

In order to improve, we first have to identify there is a need for improvement.  This may often be the most difficult step.  Very few are willing to look in the mirror and decide they need to improve.  Getting buy in, at an organizational level can be even more difficult.  This step is our why?  In order to effect change, you have to know you why and you have to be able to make others see it as well.

Why does the fire department exist?  For the purposes of this article, to protect lives, extinguish fire and minimize damage.  Pretty simple, huh?

How do we accomplish that?  A bunch of firefighters show up and all kinds of trucks and break down doors and smash windows and spray water and leave.  Ok maybe that’s not exactly true but remember earlier we talked about the public as our judge, that’s probably a pretty accurate description of what they see.

Until we have a clear vision of what our purpose is, we can never expect to be successful.  Unless our standard is as simple as “the fire went out, and no one got hurt.”  Knowing what we have to do, and then developing a path toward accomplishing that mission as effectively and efficiently as possible, should be the goal of every department administration. 

Training, tools, policies all must be focused on putting our best foot forward.  Every advantage we can give ourselves before we hit the fireground will improve our chance of success and limit our chance of injury.  Never have we had access to more information, data and knowledge.  Applying all of that to your situation is what needs to happen.   As Bill Carey often says, “you do you.”  Adopting another department’s operational standards, which your manpower can’t support, doesn’t work.  Blindly adopting a new tactic, without evaluating its impact on your operations, doesn’t work.

But in the end, none of this will matter if we don’t hold ourselves accountable to meeting our own standard and providing the service to the community we all swore we would.

“We tend to judge others by their behavior and ourselves by our intentions”

Mirror mirror

“Do well by doing good”

Mark Cuban

Photograph courtesy of pixabay.

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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