Several factors have influenced the competency of the workforce. We still overwhelmingly use old training methodologies that haven’t changed in generations. Firefighters have traditionally been hands on programmed: Tell me what it is, show me how to do it, and let me practice it until I have it. Not everyone learns in the same way, and the increase in material has brought with it hours on hours of death by PowerPoint®. Many in our newest generations come to us without mechanical skills, so our training has to change to develop those skills.
At the same time, we sometimes self-impose and accept outdated deployment models that fail to take into account technological advances, real-time data, and emerging management strategies, just to maintain our old “Class” rating. This, compounded by a change in employment culture, brings us an employee base that is mobile with their transportable 401(k)s. Newer employees will up and leave in a matter of a few years for a better deal across the county line (good for them, bad for organizational sustainability). As a result, management needs everyone to be able to do everything. We need you to staff the ambulance one day, the ladder the next, the engine the next, and possibly fill in on the technical rescue truck after that.
This plug-and-play mentality was born out of treating an organizational symptom, not the disease. It is chic and hip to think you have such well-trained members that they can function like this and your organization will not lose any operational efficiency. Talk about a normalization of deviance, here is one for the management books. You do lose operational efficiency, but your overtime numbers are tolerable because you have a warm body in the seat.
Let’s throw in on the fire side that the number of fires continues to decrease for most departments, EMS calls are on the rise to the point of burnout, special operations calls remain high risk/low frequency, and then we add on all the other modalities of expectation. Let’s throw in the culture of frequently reassigning or rotating officers and commanders to different areas within organizations. This well-intended philosophy has a horrible cost in the need for expertise and perpetuates the generalist movement. When does anyone have the time and experience to gain expertise?
Malcolm Gladwell laid out the model for expertise, stating that it takes 10,000 hours of practice in a given skill to gain expert status. Expertise leads to better decision making and more efficient and SAFE operations. It also provides knowledge to the organization that can help develop others and sustain the expertise. There is a noticeable decline in expertise in a fire service that can no longer just be considered the “fire” service. The fire service is an all-hazards response agency that responds to and is expected to manage everything that is not a crime (and with many violent crimes, the fire service is there to handle the outcome).
With a handful of exceptions in some very operationally focused organizations, the elevator person, the hydraulics person, the EMS guru, the truck spec person, the hose and nozzle person, the ladder person, the saw person, the forcible entry person, the chemistry person, and the command person have all retired. There might be a presentation or two left and people assigned to deliver the lecture, but they are often without expertise themselves. THIS IS A PROBLEM, FOLKS!
We need specialization, and it is impossible to think that we can each specialize in everything. The International Association of Fire Chiefs published many years of firefighter near miss reports stating that a lack of situational awareness and decision making led to the majority of close calls. The fire service began treating the symptom by teaching situational awareness classes or by simply telling us that we need to make sure we have it. Really? You don’t gain situational awareness from a class on situational awareness (although it is beneficial to help you understand what it is, not as a stand-alone solution), and you don’t gain it by being told to have it. You gain it through developing expertise and advancing your knowledge in the area in which you are required to work. You gain it by studying the subject, practicing, getting feedback, participating in simulations, and actually doing the work on real incidents.
Good News: We Can Rebound
The good news is that training researchers now believe that the 10,000-hour rule lacks merit. Many believe that meta-learning is the first step toward shortening the time to expertise. Meta-learning is considered to be learning about learning. In other words, it examines how your brain works and what methods are most effective for you to learn a particular skill. It tightly focuses your training in the area of deliberate practice, meaning focusing very deliberately on the subskills that make up an overall skill. So, practice, practice, practice.
Another way to work toward expertise is becoming a teacher. How many instructors have you heard say they learn more each class? This is because they see different approaches to the same problems, and they have witnessed success and failures that have provided them with more expertise, more slides in the tray from which to pull. We must be careful not to fall into perceived success through a sterile environment of training expertise. There has to be real on-scene experience mixed in to maintain the appropriate context.
Fire service decision making is suffering from a reactive push to create a cadre of generalists with the expectation of expert decision making. Can’t happen! Please start a movement, make a plan, reward and encourage specialization, and purposely grow and cultivate expertise in every skillset for which your organization is responsible. Take note of your own decisions. I bet you wouldn’t want your family doctor (a medical generalist) operating on your knee, heart, or brain. You would insist on seeing a what? Yes, a specialist (someone with specific expertise in an area). Our companies and units should be developed more like a football team, with everyone having a position to play instead of a temporary service labor pool. Now understand as the leader that this means that individuals are going to gain knowledge and know a lot more about certain things than you do (though they may not be able to work on any unit anywhere at any time). But understand that this makes you a stronger leader and builds true world-class teams that in turn lead to world-class organizations.
Shadowing the Trades
Many departments are at the point now where, with generations of expertise lost, we must turn to the trades. There need to be shadowing programs that allow members to rotate a week at a time (or longer), shadowing the real private sector elevator repair person. Shadow the glass companies installing and removing windows in office buildings. Shadow the fuel truck driver, iron workers, crane operators, subway or railroad maintenance, tree cutters, locksmiths, power company line people, gas company emergency response personnel, water department construction workers, and so forth. Not every individual would ever be able to rotate through all of these different areas, but if you pick the right ones for each, they can come back and build the training programs to teach others. But, the shadowing programs should be created or continued. It can’t be a once and done operation. These must be ongoing training programs - forever.
Reciprocate the programs and let the trades come and learn what we are faced with on incidents or invite them to participate in training. Cultivate relationships with these groups of experts. This information sharing promotes learning and sets a path toward expertise. If you are already doing this or you haven’t lost your go-to persons internally for these tasks, then awesome job and way to stay focused on operations. If you never had or lost this expertise, don’t settle for a bunch of generalists just to keep your overtime low. It’s like rolling the dice every day hoping that “that call” won’t come in - but eventually it will. As fire service leaders, we have a moral obligation to make sure the members we assign to units are trained to function on those units whether the unit’s function is moving water, searching and forcible entry, medical, technical rescue, or hazmat, and make sure there are numerous specialists working in the right areas for good decision making. Remember, luck is not a strategy!