Photo by Tony Greco
“How did we get to a place where when things go wrong—and they will—you are damned if you do and you’re damned if you don’t?” Chief Bobby Halton, education director, FDIC/editor in chief of Fire Engineering, posed this question to the audience at today’s General Session. He explained: “If we follow all the rules and things go wrong on the fireground, the elite among us will cry and those with no skin in the game will bemoan that we failed to innovate, deviate, and improvise. If we innovate, deviate, and improvise and things go wrong on the fireground, the elite among us will cry and those with no skin in the game will bemoan we didn’t follow the rules.” He labeled the situation “a zero-sum game.”
“It our fire service,” Halton declared, “and if we want to keep it, we must continue to make the rules, locally. We cannot allow some self-appointed genius with no skin in the game, some enlightened progressive bureaucrat who idolizes systems, or some politician who has never had the guts to bunker up and lay it on the line dictate to us, those with skin in the game, how to fight fires.”
All it takes to be a firefighter, Halton noted, “are thousands of hours of drill; thousands of hours of training; thousands of hours of study; thousands of hours of PT; thousands of hours of evaluating every call; thousands of hours of getting certified, qualified, and cleared so you can learn something new every day. Then, someday if you are lucky–after years of hard work and dedication and years of sweat, blood, sore muscles, bruises, bumps, and fractures–if you are like the men and women in this room, you might be worthy to be called a firefighter, a craftsman, and be recognized by your peers as a highly skilled master of the most complex craft in history.”
Halton cited conditions today that are working to interfere with firefighters exercising their skills as craftsmen. Standards are encouraged for everything, he said. “They gave rise to centralized control incident commanders, specialization, division of labor, and systems of compliance that are useful to a point. They have made us obsessed with records, data, reports, policies, and procedures. All of this is beneficial and useful to a point; then it becomes tyrannical.” He noted also “the misguided belief in the perfection of man through behavioral control.”
“Standardization, compliant ways of doing work, is very good for working with the risks and accounts for much of what we do, but it falls short in novel, diverse, and complex incidents, which we also do a lot,” Halton explained. “It gets messy where we deal with uncertainty, risks we don’t know or aren’t aware of, and when we deal with what we think we know or, worse, ‘what we know that ain’t so.’
“Our fire service has reverence for complexity, randomness, and the unpredictability of where we do our work. Fires spot, winds change,
floors fail, ceilings collapse—some things are unpredictable. As such, we accept and respect the critical necessity to complete the mission in standard ways when possible or alternative ways when possible, but surrendering or doing nothing, is never an option.
“We firefighters appreciate that the complexity of our mission requires that we take a broad view, are modest in our assessments, are
respectful of uncertainty, and that we understand the difference between the times we should follow the rules and the times we should throw the rules out,” Halton continued.
Halton said that the rise of collectivism prevalent in our society has begotten a legacy of “authoritarian modernism, the belief that no one will get hurt if we follow the rules and stay to the procedures.” The elitists and those not affected by the rules they promote and enforce have been indoctrinated that “all accidents are caused by humans who are bad actors, macho cowboys, immoral, reckless, aggressive deviants and that deviation from any prescribed method, any form of noncompliance, is failure or the root cause of failure.
“This view does not appreciate the complexity of the fireground or the necessity of the craftsperson—the experienced firefighter who can innovate, adapt, and adjust when conditions dictate,” Halton stated. “Technology and science are relevant and are used “to assess our engagements, develop our procedures, systems, and rules. This is good and necessary. But these rules, procedures, and systems can never account for everything or anticipate everything. That is why we must celebrate and promote craftsmanship–not compliant rule following.”
He urged the audience to “celebrate and promote the dignity of our work and celebrate and promote humanity’s genius, not the misguided belief in the infallibility of systems. Neither algorithms nor systems can measure the intentions, the understanding, and the drive of the dedicated firefighter, the craftsman, to complete the mission. As such, standards, algorithms, compliant methods of doing our work are insufficient as measures when the outcome is less than ideal.”
Yes, we firefighters wrap ourselves in the cloak of armor provided by science, Halton acknowledged, but our profession is fundamentally an apprenticeship-based profession and is grounded in experience, not just in research and theories. We understand that it is important for the student firefighter to follow the rules. We understand the journeyman firefighter must work to a standard, but firefighters relentlessly strive to be craftsmen. Our work produces benchmarks, creates legends, and develops character. This craftsmanship is necessary for our culture, our nation, and our humanity. Halton berated a zero-defect mentality as a slaughterer of initiative and creativity that inspires hesitation and inhibits necessary aggressiveness. Moreover, he said, “Zero defect ignores our obligations, our covenants with our fellow citizens and one another. It fouls our honor. It promotes the continuation of self-deception and mediocracy, and the assurance of future repetition. It is the refuge of cowards.”
Halton presented the perspective of the fire service relative to the “tyranny of the collective” and the “indomitable strength of the individual.” Firefighters are grateful for science and technology to formulate best practices and standards of care to guide our decisions–and it is well that we do so–but standards do not reflect excellence, nor do they endorse minimalism. They reflect consensus (defined by Thatcher as “the process of abandoning all beliefs, principles, values”); they reflect current understanding. Our industry was not set forth to promote firefighting consensus … We encourage challenges to compliance, especially to arbitrary rules constructed by bureaucrats or elitists who lack even a basic understanding of what is expected of a firefighter and what we are going through. We have tremendous respect for our SOPs, our guidelines, our standards of care, formulated by our experienced predecessors. But the true firefighter understands when engaged firefighters in the moment make a call, drop a move, skip a step, it’s because they believe it will work. We honor their intention regardless of the outcome. We always honor the firefighters’ on-the-scene judgments in the moment more that we trust the standards applied retrospectively.