Science for Dummies Like Me, Part 5

In parts 1-5 of this series, I tried to bring about a street level look at what I have learned from fire research that has caused me to rethink some things that I was taught, and that I taught others, and how it has given me a new perspective on the importance of understanding fire behavior to be a good firefighter, officer, and incident commander. In Part 5, the final in this series, I want to send a strong message about the importance of blending science and experience.

Science for Dummies Like Me, Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3 | Part 4


In any industry, experience should be invaluable to an organization but also recognized that it is not infallible. Experience and understanding create learning at the highest level and lead us to making better decisions. Experience with no understanding can be dangerous, especially when you are successful despite doing something wrong. This leads to a normalization of deviance that can often end with tragedy and leaves everyone scratching their head thinking, “What went wrong? We have done it that way 100 times and it’s always worked.” Just as “no one getting hurt” should never be the sole indicator of a good operation, neither should we assume that any positive outcome was without problems or that someone getting injured is necessarily an indication of a bad decision or operation. We constantly operate and make decisions in situations with only partial information and understanding of our environment. We should thoroughly analyze to understand and appreciate those moments in which we do things wrong and get lucky with a positive outcome. We should discuss them openly and honestly without fear of retribution or punitive discipline.

Our goal should be to gain a year of understanding vs. just gaining a year of experience with each trip around the sun that has exposed us to incidents, training, and critiques. We don’t want to be the person with one year of experience 30 times over or be the poster child for insanity.


Science used to conduct fire research is done to provide us with understanding, not instructions. I think this is sometimes lost in the quest of finding “the answer” and perceived instant expertise gained through understanding with no experience or context. We have all known that person who, when you ask what time it is, explains to you how to build a watch. Or that person who scored number one on the written test but can’t make water come out of the end of the hose. In the firefighting world, it is my belief that knowledge without experience or experience without knowledge is equally limiting.

Science provides us with the all-important answers to “why” things do what they do - why this happens or doesn’t happen. Understanding and teaching the “why” are often foregone in today’s training for two reasons: First, maybe the instructor doesn’t know the why so he can’t offer it up. Second may be the attachment to the early industrial age training methods that only teach “how.” There are still instructors telling recruits, “We did not hire you to think, we hired you for your back … your job is to do what you are told to do!”

Generation Instant Expert

With the instant access and flow of information on any subject that you can imagine, there is an inner desire or expectation of many younger members for instant expertise. This is evident all over the Internet, in our magazines, in pop-up training companies, and so forth. Because information is so readily available, it can be digested by anyone very quickly and regurgitated in a variety of formats. This is not altogether bad - it just needs to be kept in perspective. These members should be encouraged by those with experience because they are the future of our service. As a Southerner, you can taste the difference between instant grits (1 minute in the microwave - nasty), quick grits (10 minutes on the stove - not bad), and regular grits (30 minutes on the stove - delicious!) They are all grits and will fill you up, but the experience is very different. We can’t just criticize those who jump from rookie to national speaker on all things fire in their first three years, but we should help guide them toward gaining experience to put their knowledge in context.

One of the hardest things to approach with our younger aspiring experts is the understanding that there is no checklist or playbook with all the answers to every situation. Many don’t want to take the time to understand the “why”; they just want you to tell them what you should do when. We must realize that there is a big difference between a mechanic and a parts changer. The mechanic can diagnose the problem and understand the relationship of all the working parts. The parts changer hears the brakes squeaking and changes the brake pads with no consideration of the other components that make the wheels work and stop the car.

Fire Behavior and Dynamics

The Swedes spend a tremendous amount of time educating their firefighters on fire behavior and dynamics (about two years as a minimum). This baseline knowledge is then applied within the context of live fire training and incident experience. We spend about four hours on fire behavior in our recruit schools, and most of the information we share is extremely basic and outdated. Our enemy is fire, and our battleground is the structure. We must improve our early career education to include entire courses vs. lessons on fire behavior, fire dynamics, and building construction to establish a strong foundation of knowledge that can be valuable along the way of gaining experience.

For those who have been around for a while, we need a reverse process. We may have the experience, but we need the gaps filled in with some additional understanding so the lightbulb will go off and we will have our “aha” moments. This is not a bad way to learn, because as we get into the subject we have tons of context to relate. We have our stories and our scares, and we will be a faster study than those young, inexperienced whippersnappers.

Art vs. Science

All the technological and scientific discoveries in the world will never take the application of firefighting away, which is as much art as it is science. It is scientific research when it is undertaken in a controlled and planned experiment. In the streets, however, our firefighters are faced with more unknowns than knowns, and the delicate balance of recognition primed decision making, understanding the environment, and putting into context the actions of all the other companies on the scene will forever be an art. I think this is why so many are so emotional about fire research and the perception (real or not) that these scientists are trying to tell us how we should do things. We consider ourselves artist, and those with years of experience have a tough time being told how to paint our masterpiece. The younger guys love it because they want to paint like the experienced guys, and that means painting by the numbers. Whenever you see the number one, paint that part red.

I hope if you are skeptical about fire research and prefer to get all your knowledge from guys with huge mustaches, battle scars, and great war stories that you at least take interest in learning more about fire behavior and fire dynamics from other sources. If you are 100 percent behind the science (or a perceived view of the science), I hope you will open your mind to those guys with big mustaches, battle scars, and great war stories because you can’t duplicate their experience. Being able to combine the street level experience with a deeper understanding of why will take advantage of the invaluable lessons that both have to offer and will make you a much better operator, decision maker, and instructor.

Tips for Instructors, Scientists, and Dummies Like Me

If you are an instructor and you are spending time in your classes bashing fire research, you are feeding your own ego out of fear that maybe you and your teaching are becoming irrelevant. THEY’RE NOT! Your experience is invaluable, but understand that all our experience is not infallible. We owe it to our audience to understand all the information out there and present any disagreements with the issues rather than attacking the researchers or the research organizations.

If you are a researcher and you are spending time in your classes discounting the experience of others, telling us that we have been doing it wrong or you have a personal mission to be the one to provide the fire service with the paint by numbers picture, you are feeding your own ego and turning people off who might benefit from hearing about the research. Spend more class time explaining why thing happen and less time on how we should do things. Tell us what happens when we do certain things and why this happens but never how to do our jobs.

If you find yourself torn between what you have always been taught, enjoy the lessons from the old-school instructors who at least partially validate your philosophy, and are somewhat intrigued but confused with some of the science, then you too are a “dummy like me.” Your skepticism is natural and healthy. You are a product of the past 50 years of the American fire service. Find, read, watch, and experiment with to catch your understanding of fire behavior and dynamics up with your experience. Know you don’t know and find out, but don’t sell yourself short - you might be a dummy, but you weren’t born yesterday. Don’t jump on a trendy bandwagon without proper vetting and placing the message into context. Never forget why you joined the department, and understand that there is a big difference in managing risk and avoiding risk.

The combination of experience and science can produce the tough-smart firefighter that we all want to produce and inspire creativity and adaptability in the next generation of artists while giving them the best chance to save lives and property and survive the best job in the world.

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