When asked what they think is the fire service’s greatest challenge today, many firefighters will say “the retirement of experience.” As an industry, we’re obsessed, and rightly so, with gathering as much knowledge as we can from our senior members before they retire. We know that we must honor their service and sacrifice, and it would be a tragedy if their lessons learned never reached the next generation. The problem: We can’t travel back in time so we can share those close calls or major fires with these members. We share stories; however, fishermen and firefighters have a lot in common when painting a picture of the past.
I asked one senior member in my department what he thought was the greatest challenge facing the next generation of firefighters. His response: “A dependence on technology is crippling today’s recruits. They don’t have mechanical aptitude, and they’d rather watch YouTube than crack a book or train.” He makes valid points—I’m not the next generation, but I search YouTube often. Sometimes I look for “how-to” guidance on the latest extrication techniques.
Similarly, I’m directed by a link from any number of fire service websites to view the most recent news stories about potentially dangerous fire events. I don’t see this as a crippling disease or a crutch, but I do understand the importance of mechanical aptitude. Hopefully, we can strike a balance between tradition and technology.
When I posed the same question to our recruit class, I got the flip side of the coin. Our youngest see the refusal of the “dinosaurs of the fire service” to embrace technology as the greatest challenge our profession faces. The room then became filled with stories of smartphones outpacing mobile data terminals (MDTs) for mapping, the speed of an online emergency response guide (ERG) and the app for paramedic dosage calculations. Obviously, we have a disconnect between generations in the firehouse, which extends into the training room.
The YouTube Proposal
I propose YouTube, when used appropriately, can serve as a training tool that can bridge the generational gap. Like all tools, YouTube has limitations, but it also has boundless possibilities. In the coming months, I’ll share what I’ve seen, what works and what doesn’t work in my experience. I’ll propose a few guidelines that can help transition the act of watching YouTube videos from entertainment to learning. I’ll supply guides on how to use YouTube in formal and informal training settings. For example, the training bureau can send links to YouTube videos to company officers, asking them to give on-scene arrival reports for such incidents per the department’s SOPs. Similarly, firefighters can critique fire stream application or the effectiveness of a transitional fire attack.
Informally, a company officer can ask their crew for a “go/no-go” decision based on a video. The officer can ask which rules of engagement were followed or violated. These questions can spawn a full shift’s worth of discussion. An agile and intelligent company officer can direct the conversation toward recognition-primed decision-making (RPDM) and crew resource management (CRM). Using these terms will push the entire generational spectrum into research mode.
I’ll also incorporate the views and experiences of FireRescue’s readers currently using YouTube as a training tool. I will reach out with survey instruments and follow up on interesting and innovative uses of YouTube. Note: For this exploration, I use the term “YouTube” generically to encompass any number of online video engines.
Why Use Video?
The act of reading smoke can come to life with a video rather than a photo. The discussions on volume, velocity, density and color are supported through moving images on screen. So is it possible that our next generation of leaders will have more, not less “experience” due to their vicarious practice?
Of course, I fully understand that nothing replaces crawling down a smoky hallway to make a learning experience real. But it is possible for a senior member viewing a YouTube video to point out the lessons they learned the hard way. By engaging all generations of firefighters in the activity of viewing and critiquing what they see on YouTube, fire videos build bridges.
Conversations sparked by this activity often send the new guy to the books and the old guy to Google. As with all things in our world, there are thousands of shades of grey, not the pure black and white we often paint on generational differences.
How to Watch
The key is to watch YouTube with a purpose. Don’t just watch a video—ask the hard questions. Look for the clues that foreshadow flashover or collapse. Take the time to ask everyone in the firehouse if they’ve “been there, done that.” Use YouTube as a springboard for discussion. Let the techno-geek explain the thermal layering through a NIST simulation. Ask the senior member to find an example of thermal balance, or more appropriately, the disastrous effects of disrupting this balance, by searching YouTube. These simple exercises can do more to bridge generational differences than any Human Resources training.
Take a Fresh Look
I ask you to look at YouTube with a new insight. Ask yourself what you can learn, and what you can teach, from any YouTube fire video. Push the limits of your comfort zone and question everything. When watching a video, ask why the firefighter behaved in a certain manner, who is in charge on the scene, and what blinders are in place.
Through a multi-generational look at YouTube, we all benefit. This tool draws us closer together as a fire service and just may help with the retirement of so much experience from the job each day.