Developing and maintaining the “growth mindset”
is easier said than done
By Christopher L. Rymut
“If you want a man to keep his head when the crisis comes, you must first give him some training before it comes.”
Seneca, ca. 50 A.D./2004
The development of firefighters falls squarely on the company officers; it is their job to ensure that the members of the company are trained and prepared to accomplish their assigned jobs. The goal of a training program is to ensure that company officers have the resources needed to coordinate company level training sessions, regardless of whether those occur on the weekly drill night or during daily shift training. All levels of the company must be proficient in the basics of firefighting and emergency medic services (EMS) for the company to be successful in the greater picture. While the multi-company evolutions and actual incidents garner the lion’s share of attention, individual and company level training that happens during the day-to-day routine creates the solid foundation of skills that success of multi-company operations depends on. (Malone, 1983). Company success, which leads to departmental success, begins, grows, or dies with the company officer.
Culture of the Company
It has been said a fire department is made up of several individual fire departments all following their own agendas. Groups are different; some are naturally cohesive, focused on a common goal from the beginning. Others need more work. One of the first priorities for a company officer to bring a group together is to find the common ground and develop that to form a synergistic team. The company officer is the foundation for determining whether a fire company becomes a positive, high-output unit, one that just meets standards, or one that becomes toxic and inevitably fails. The mindset of the company officer will greatly influence the overall culture of the group.
In her book Mindset, The New Psychology of Success, Dr. Carol Dweck describes a “fixed” and “growth” mindset. Those who possess a fixed mindset believe that intelligence and talent are established from the onset of any endeavor–a person is either good at something or isn’t. Also, if you possess a talent for something, there is no real need for practice or to try to improve because of your natural abilities, and if you aren’t skilled at a task, no amount of practice will improve your capability. Alternatively, those with a growth mindset believe that they can develop new skills; they can develop others; and by praising effort instead of merely results, people can grow and expand knowledge and skills (Dweck, 2016). If the company officer is perceived as a “fixed mindset,” only caring about results, it will quickly discourage members who cannot immediately live up to this standard, and they will disengage. Conversely, if the company officer has incorporated a “growth mindset,” the standard may be the same; however, the path to reaching the goal is much more achievable, and it will encourage growth at all levels.
As a brand-new firefighter, I wanted to charge into fires for no other reason than I thought it was thrilling. I had the typical naiveté that comes with youth, that we were there to fight the fire at any cost and that’s all that mattered. The only thing I needed to buy into was the thrill of the fight. After I was married and had children, my perspective began to change. I didn’t know how to express the change until I sat in on a seminar by Battalion Chief Shannon Stone from the Ft. Walton Beach (FL) Fire Department; then I visualized my new perspective. In his seminar “Nuggets from the Right Seat,” Stone spoke of a method to motivate himself and others to commit to excellence in our field. He began by asking the audience to close their eyes and envision their family and children or someone else they could not imagine their life without. He then went on to create this picture: You have just arrived for your duty day, you are given a piece of paper stating that at 3:15 this afternoon you will be dispatched to a fire in your home with nothing you can do to alter this fact, and your loved one will be trapped on the second floor and won’t survive unless you can get a ladder to that windowsill. Stone then asked the audience what they would spend the next several hours leading up to 3:15 doing? The audience unanimously said they would spend every minute practicing throwing that ladder until they could do it without thought, perfectly. (Stone, 2018) Unfortunately, we are never handed a piece of paper with the time and place when we will have to go to work, but the scenario does create a strong motivation to be highly proficient at your trade and rehearse for when you do not have time to think.
Setting Priorities and Examples
To be successful, a company officer must clearly define the priorities for the company, the expectations, and the standards the members including the company officer will be held to. Failing to do so quickly creates confusion, and confusion is a key symptom of discontent. If the company officer has the “fixed mindset” described by Dr. Dweck, chances are very high discontent will spread to each member of the company. Each organization has a full spectrum of personalities and firefighters interested and engaged; conflicting with those who are not quickly becomes evident. Maintaining that positive “growth mindset” during company evolutions can be challenging, especially when surrounded by “fixed mindsets,” but this allows time for the “why” questions and answers. This time investment by a company officer will fully quell confusion and enhance firefighter and company buy-in. A good method to encourage participation is to have the members of the company act at instructors for topics they are comfortable. Not only does this provide an opportunity for every member of the company to contribute and expand their own knowledge of the topic, it creates trust, and a sense that their knowledge and ideas are valued.
Developing Individual and Team Skills
Hose loads and attack lines. An engine company’s bread and butter are hose. Firefighters assigned to an engine company must be familiar with each hose load’s various lengths, nozzles, flows, how to deploy, and common challenges deploying as well as how to overcome them. It is also imperative when practicing to consider a realistic estimation of the number of personnel on scene. Practicing moving a hoseline with 10 people when the company has four is doing a disservice to everyone. By doing this, you will know what staffing is essential to accomplish the initial tasks to get the line in operation. Additionally, consideration must be given to forcible entry and possible rescue scenarios.
Recently, several members of my department attended “The Nozzle Forward” course developed by Aaron Fields from the Seattle (WA) Fire Department and brought back several new methods for operating and movement of hoselines that led to the redevelopment of our skid loads based on what was learned. After several weeks of development and trials, the new skid load was placed in service and our Training Department oversaw department level training. Individual training led to personal proficiency, which then led to proficiency of the team, which led to a team effort to develop a better way to deploy and operate the attack lines for our entire organization. It also laid the foundation for company officers to build on during company level training.
Building construction and district familiarization. As the fire service is evolving, we are drawing more and more new personnel from places other than the trades. The loss of the hands-on knowledge and experience of electricians, carpenters, plumbers, and mechanics is very real. Company officers should look to capitalize on any knowledge from the trades or others who have that type of expertise and have those members mentor those who did not add twofold success to any company. This works both ways: The newer, more technology savvy generation can in turn educate the previous generation and help integrate the use of current technologies to improve response and capabilities.
My first-due response area covers half of the downtown area consisting of light industrial, several large nursing homes, commercial storefronts, and single and multi-family homes. These structures all differ in building construction and date from the early 1900s to present day. When possible, I will take my company to one of these areas and simply walk around and discuss/review different buildings, the characteristics of different eras of construction, and the problems they present. By learning various methods of construction from the time period buildings were built, firefighters build a good foundation for sizing up buildings as well as anticipating what problems maybe encountered. (Mittendorf & Dodson, 2015) Not only does this provide an up-close view of the buildings and the quirks of the neighborhood, but it is a chance to interact with shop owners and residents. After EMS calls, false alarms, or simply on the way back from the grocery store, look at the buildings in your first-due district and, if time allows, stop in front of one and have each person in the vehicle give a size-up. Little details you pick up may save your life later. This concept paid off when one of the buildings we walked though extensively, which was an old Type III multi-story taxpayer with very tight stairwells, security bars, and open exposed wood porches, had a working apartment fire. During one of our walks, the company discussed the different potential of fires, the best entry, where the utilities were, and the hazards to tenants on the first floor. The day of the apartment fire, the fire was on the second floor of this building with multiple rescues. This company drill reinforced Chief Stone’s drill: The company knew the building layout, the potential hazards, and how to achieve the goal of saving lives.
Tool assignments and planning. Dwight D. Eisenhower said, “In preparing for battle, I have found that plans are useless, but planning is indispensable.” (Nixon, 1962, p. 263) Planning is everything. If we, as firefighters, are solely reactive, the chances of failure when it matters most increase exponentially. Every sports team practices for game day, football teams practice routes, and baseball teams rehearse base-running scenarios where each person has a specific task needed to be successful. The fire service is no different. Each individual firefighter has a task to accomplish to ensure the company achieves their goals. By pre-assigning these tools and tasks to each of the riding positions in the station, it takes the guesswork out of what will be expected when the company arrives on the scene. Posting these in each seat position so they can be quickly reviewed is also beneficial, especially if a firefighter is detailed in from another station or in volunteer departments where firefighters respond in apparatus in order of their arrival at the station. Pre-assigning tasks and tools reduces the amount of decisions in an already stressful environment and simultaneously increases firefighter accountability. A set of assigned duties ensures the company officer knows what the company is doing and where the firefighters are if something goes wrong. (Norman, 2012) No amount of planning can address every possible response type; however, for the major incidents, it is much easier to slightly alter a plan than it is to create one. Whatever the organization’s policy, the company officer must be thinking about tools and tasks ahead of time to prevent multiple firefighters with the same tool showing up to the front door asking what to do!
Bringing it all together: the five-minute drill. Individual training and competency are important but being able to bring both together at a critical moment to operate in sync is the goal. The first five minutes of a working fire determine how the next hour will go. Going out to the drill ground or in the neighborhood practicing these evolutions will build muscle memory and confidence in your firefighters. First, talk through the evolutions, review each position, tools they will bring, and responsibilities for each. Once the expectations are clear, then walk through the evolutions, creating muscle memory. As skill levels increase, incorporate dry hose deployments, then full evolutions in real time, in as realistic an environment as possible. Once proficient, additional challenges can be added, further developing critical thinking, rapid decision-making skills, while maintain core competencies. This becomes a great opportunity for aspiring engineers and company officers to function in the roles giving them opportunities to make the critical decisions, a view from a new perspective, and to make and learn from mistakes when there are no consequences for wrong decisions.
Maintain Core Skills
In the current environment of reductions in budgets, staffing, and the number of fires, it is crucial to maintain core skills. Continuing to train for high-risk/low-frequency events will ensure these perishable skills are maintained and critical decision-making skills are enhanced. Developing and maintaining the “growth mindset” is easier said than done, but identifying the opportunity in every incident, in every drill, and every day will ultimately make every firefighter more proficient in job functions; more comfortable with each other; and, most importantly, safe.
Dweck, C. S. (2016). Mindset, The New Psychology of Success. New York, NY: Ballantine Books.
Malone, D. M. (1983). Small Unit Leadership A Commonsense Approach. New York: Presidio Press.
Mittendorf, J., & Dodson, D. (2015). The Art of Reading Buildings. Tulsa: PennWell Corp.
Nixon, R. M. (1962). Six Crises. New York: Pocket Books.
Norman, J. (2012). Fire Officer’s Handbook of Tactics (4th ed.). Tulsa: Pennwell Corp.
Seneca. (1969). Seneca, Letters from a Stoic. London: Pengiun Classics.
Stone, S (2018, Nov 8) Nuggets from the Right Seat. Seminar presented at the Carol Stream Fire Protection District, Carol Stream IL.
Christopher Rymut is an 18-year veteran of the fire service and a lieutenant with the Arlington Heights (IL) Fire Department, assigned to Engine 3. He has a bachelor of science degree from Southern Illinois University and an MBA from Benedictine University.