By Author(s): Kevin Milan 
Published Wednesday, February 1, 2012
| From the February 2012  Issue of FireRescue 
Writing under the heading “Emerging Leaders” is an honor, and also a bit intimidating. I won’t pretend to know more about officership than John Norman. Dave McGrail has high-rise ops covered, and the Seattle guys are the foremost experts on the Rules of Air Management. Rick Lasky’s got Pride & Ownership, and Dave Dodson reading smoke. So what do I have to offer? Why should FireRescue and the IAFC ask for my insight on the future of our profession?
It could be they value another perspective. I’ve enjoyed success and endured failure. I’ve assumed leadership roles inside and outside of my department. Each event contributes to who I am as an officer and a person. But like you, I’m a firefighter first and foremost. My career job is with a metropolitan fire department, and I answer the tone at 0300 hrs from my home when my volunteer pager sounds. I’m a student of the profession, and I owe everything to my mentors. Call me an emerging leader if you wish, but please, call me at the station. That’s where I do my best work!
The Need for Perspective
When preparing for a recent presentation at the National Fire Academy’s Executive Fire Officer Symposium, I sought guidance from a trusted friend. He put everything in perspective: “If this presentation ended with your final breath, what would you tell them? What, more than anything else, would you share? What is the most important lesson you’ve learned?” I think that advice applies here as well.
During my first community college strategy and tactics class in 1995, McGrail taught me to be a student of the job. He also taught me that complacency kills. In this article, I offer you the evolution of these lessons today—put simply, a new perspective for our profession. The perspective I offer is not as a tactician, nor do I offer a new fireground strategy. As stated earlier, we already have incredible experts in nearly every avenue of emergency response.
What we don’t have is a contextual perspective of our profession. As an industry, we’re so infatuated with 5% of what we do—fighting fire—that we forget the other 95%. Note: I’m not taking anything away from passing down our collective oral history; I’m guilty of this too. If you and I spend an evening together, we’ll talk fire. We may throw in a technical rescue or swiftwater close call, but we’ll discuss action. We’re firefighters and we love nothing more than sharing experiences. There is no harm in this; in fact, a great deal of good comes from it.
The danger: We’re so caught up in the moment that our profession is losing equal footing. In general, emergency managers, city managers and law enforcement view us as adrenalin junkies, as thrill-seekers—less than competent to make cognitive decisions or manage risk. They tolerate our presence because there just aren’t a lot of people who will do what we do. Of course, it’s not like this in every city and town, but as a rule, we’re not taken seriously.
When it comes time to dole out resources, we tolerate being at the back of the line. We lack the data to support our requests. We’re so busy preparing for the next call—or rehashing the last one—that we don’t make time to gather or analyze data. When confronted with the question of what we do 95% of the time, we’re at a loss for answers.
When we do put forth data, we settle for simple summaries: the number of responses, types of call or hours spent at various training events. While the police chief discusses the inverse relationships between patrol staffing and crime rates, we joke about the merits of red apparatus. We lack the contextual perspective to share with our community leaders the most recent National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) statistical analysis of the effect of staffing on fireground performance.
This must change.
Let’s Get Specific
To this point, I’ve spoken in generalizations. The reality is, plenty of progressive departments seek accreditation and aggressively investigate, analyze and quantify their operations. The Center for Public Safety Excellence (CPSE) is a bright light in our world, driving professionalism in the fire service. The problem: CPSE typically preaches to the choir. We must drive the professionalism and education into the trenches, rather than focusing solely on the top performers. We need to establish mentoring and guidance for the rest of the fire service.
Programs such as the IAFC’s Company Officer Leadership Symposium (COLS) have the potential to transform the job into a profession—but only if we support them by sending our new and up-and-coming officers to attend them. The COLS program and the Officer Development Handbook, like accreditation, are guiding beacons for developing the profession. Like accreditation, however, they reach far too small an audience. As an industry, we can do more. We must pursue periodicals, professional organizations, blogs and social media. As Dorothy reminds us on her journey through Oz, “We’re not in Kansas anymore.”
Something Wrong, Something Right
Just as complacency kills on the fireground, it’s killing our profession. We are content reporting summary statistics when we should be mining our data for cause-and-effect relationships.
Example: Figure 1 (p. 48) is an excerpt from an analysis of my department’s bi-annual skills assessment. We’ve completed this “Field Day” for dozens of years. The 2010 data was, for the first time, aggressively analyzed. In Figure 1, the total time referenced in the graph is the aggregate time it takes an engine company to complete three tasks: pull a pre-connect, set up a ground monitor and establish a drafting operation. The x axis is years of experience.
What does Figure 1 say to you? To me, it says something is very wrong and something is very right in my department.
First, what’s wrong: The graph shows that as firefighter average experience levels increase, performance on basic tasks deteriorates. How can this be? I suspect it has little to do with age. It could be that senior members regard these assessments as mindless drills. Rookies strive to perform well, but after years of completing the same task, firefighters realize it just doesn’t matter. Nothing was ever done with the data—until this year. By sharing this with the line, today we’re seeing increased interest in Field Day.
What is right at my department is represented by the red line. Officer experience improves performance, plain and simple. Even with an aging crew and apathy toward the assessment, the number one indicator for improved performance is the experience level of the officer. This speaks volumes to the ongoing officer development program and our professional approach to training and credentialing officers.
What Matters Most?
Back to the “dying breath” part of the article: What matters is that we look inward. There may be a dozen reasons why crew performance is decreasing over time. Similarly, there may be a hundred reasons officer experience positively affects performance. Our task now is to find those reasons. If we’re paying attention, we will revamp Field Day to mirror the NIST studies. We can then add to the overall knowledge base … which sounds a lot like professionalism. We need to stand on equal ground with other professions.
And yet, we must never forget fire and emergency response. We look to the Dodsons, Normans and McGrails to guide our actions. We must broaden our lenses to see everything we do—the 5% and the 95%. We need to then turn the lens inward as a microscope and view ourselves. Professionalism and contextual perspective are key elements in the progressive evolution of the fire service.
Comment Now: Post Your Thoughts & Comments on This Story