Out of My Mind: They Don’t Know What They Don’t Know

By Rich Marinucci

During some recent discussions about the fire service, the question of how much policy makers and the general public really know about today’s fire service was discussed. There seems to be a disconnect, yet in some cases, that works in the fire service’s favor. It has generated great support for maintaining the status quo and also is helpful when requesting additional funding through ballot proposals. In many cases, this is reflected in the huge support received for votes to address fire department issues. But, these situations don’t always get to the grass roots supporters as others weigh in on the need for increases and minimum standards that should be met. This would be based on the belief that the vast majority of those who control the fire service resources and the folks who call for service don’t know what good service or bad service is. They are just happy that someone responds. As such, they give really good marks when asked about their local department. Since they believe they are getting a level of service that meets their perceived needs, they are reluctant to increase spending to improve the operation. So, under-resourced organizations—whether personnel, training, apparatus, or equipment—have a difficult time getting increases because they either don’t get a chance to ask their end users, or when they do, they are asked “why” if they already think they have great service. Certainly, a double-edged sword.

This discussion leads into the concept that people don’t know what they don’t know until they know it!! That sure sounds confusing as I write it. But what it means is that if you don’t have a benchmark, you really can’t tell how you are doing. It is all based on your frame of reference, and if this is small, you can’t compare to “state-of-the-art” performance. I have seen this in understaffed departments that talk about how they are “able to put out a lot of fire” with their one- or two-person companies. I hear it from on-call departments that have lengthy response times on occasion or very limited personnel at certain times of the day. I also hear it from some bigger departments that seem to think that they can continue as they always have without updating their procedures, training, and general approach. I wonder what would happen if we had a legitimate way to measure competence. I know there are measures in use now, but I don’t think they address actual performance. We do get a chance to evaluate ourselves when we get a video of our work. When you do, how many times do you find that you could have done better, be it with better staffing, quality training, sets and reps, or the appropriate equipment? In our line of work, we must continue to strive to get to perfection even if that ultimate goal is not attainable. Continuous improvement must be the objective.

On occasion, I hear of an issue that I really hadn’t considered or given much thought. Recently I received a call from a member of the fire service asking me if I had heard much about people driving over fire hose and causing damage. I admit I haven’t thought about it too much. But, I was told that there are places where this happens too frequently and not only damages equipment but could put firefighters in danger if they lose their water supply. I do remember carrying equipment to bridge the hose if someone really needed to drive through a fire scene. I don’t remember ever deploying the tool. But considering how much the general public is in a hurry and inconsiderate of others’ emergencies, it doesn’t surprise me that people would not be patient and either wait or find another route. In the overall scope of things, this may not seem like a huge issue but if it happens to you, it could have significant consequences. There are probably some simple things to try like placing scene tape in accordance with the NFPA standards which may deter some of the actions. Let me know if you have heard of cases and if you have some suggestions regarding potential solutions.

RICHARD MARINUCCI is the executive director of the Fire Department Safety Officers Association (FDSOA). He retired as chief of the Farmington Hills (MI) Fire Department in 2008, a position he had held since 1984. He is a Fire Apparatus & Emergency Equipment and Fire Engineering Editorial Advisory Board member, a past president of the International Association of Fire Chiefs (IAFC), and past chairman of the Commission on Chief Fire Officer Designation. In 1999, he served as acting chief operating officer of the U.S. Fire Administration for seven months. He has a master’s degree and three bachelor’s degrees in fire science and administration and has taught extensively.

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