A Waste of Time?

Have you ever been on a fire that went really bad? I’m sure you have, if you’ve been in the fire service for more than five minutes. So after this fire that didn’t go as well as it could have, was there a critique of some kind? And during this critique, was everyone 100 percent honest about their actions or the actions of their crews? If you answered no, you’re not alone.

Why do we have a problem being truthful during post-incident critiques? I have my reasons: I don’t want to be embarrassed or embarrass anyone else; I want to appear disciplined rather than incompetent; I don’t want to be the poster boy for a new standard operating procedure; and I don’t want my crew, boss and fellow officers to think I’m an idiot-just to name a few. Why don’t you speak up? Do you have similar reasons for withholding the truth, or do you have your own list?

To be honest, I don’t know why we waste our time with critiques when no one provides honest information about their performance on the fireground. I’ve worked professionally for three different departments and I haven’t noticed a huge difference within the fire service after participating in formal and informal critiques because no one tells the truth, and, therefore, no one learns anything.

Just so we’re all on the same page, let’s review typical informal and formal critiques.

Informal Critiques
The informal or “tailboard” critique is the most widely used and probably most effective type of critique in the fire service because it takes place immediately after the incident, when everything is fresh in our minds and all the brain trusts can meet at center of the universe (aka the battalion chief’s rig).

Just prior to the critique, I think of all the less-than-intelligent things I did during the incident and quickly start to justify my stupidity in my own mind. I generally work it out before the critique so that my defense sounds natural.

The battalion chief starts off by asking everyone how the incident went. The chief officers rely on us to tell the truth about what happened because they usually have their heads buried in the back of their Suburbans trying to listen to three radios while the incident takes place. So as long as you didn’t blow your cover and say something crazy on the radio during the incident, you can look as bitchin’ as you want in front of your peers. You can tell shades of the truth or leave out entire sections of your crew’s performance if you so desire. Generally, we all sit around slapping ourselves on the back and try to get the hell out of the critique as soon as possible, before someone says something truthful. It’s like when you were 17 and came home from a date with Luscious Lips Lucy. The second you walk through the door, Pops asks what you did on your date. You already have your script perfected; you know exactly what you’re going to tell him.

Generally speaking, chiefs are like dads-they only want to know the basics and don’t want to delve too deep into the incident. Why, you ask? Because if they ask too many questions and find a problem, it could be uncomfortable for everyone involved and may force us to actually address the problem, and nobody wants that. Call it the “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy.

Formal Critiques
The formal critique isn’t used as much because it’s a little more challenging to organize. They’re usually held after a significant event, such as a close call, or something out of the ordinary, but gathering together the people who were involved in the incident a few days after the call can be difficult.

As far as I know, the whole purpose of a critique is to learn, but I’ve been to several post-incident critiques and haven’t noticed a tremendous amount of learning going on. Formal critiques tend to be less about learning and more about political correctness. Everyone knows what happened and who did or didn’t do what, but when it’s time to come clean, almost everyone clams up.

As a training captain, I was asked to sit in on a formal critique of a fairly significant fire where a few people almost got killed. (Some psychologists would call that a life-altering event.) I wasn’t on the actual call, so all the information I received about the incident came from people who were actually at the fire. I spoke to several firefighters who were on the interior attack, the rapid intervention crew and the truck company; all of them had their own perspective and concerns.

The fire took place early in the morning at a vacant feed store. Initially, it wasn’t large and had only light smoke showing, but it grew larger, with fire shooting through the roof after about 20-25 minutes. Luckily, the truck company had exited a valley on the saw-tooth roof moments before the building flashed, which would have cut off their escape route.

Admittedly, people made several tactical and judgmental errors on the fire, and although the critique afterward seemed to skirt some really good close-call learning opportunities, we never broke them down and got into the meat and potatoes of the problems. I didn’t add anything to the discussion or ask too many questions because I wasn’t at the incident, but I did realize that we are missing the boat when these critiques come up. By not being honest and accepting some criticism, we aren’t learning from our actions.

No Poo in the Jumpy!
So why do we continue to waste these learning opportunities in the fire service? I would argue that it has to do with the culture within your own department. If your department is open, honest and able to accept criticism gracefully, then it’s no big deal when people engage in truthful dialogue.

On the other hand, if patting each other on the back and stroking egos is the cultural norm in your department, then stand by for some uncomfortable moments when some “maniac” criticizes someone else’s performance. I love it when this happens; the uncomfortable silence is priceless as everyone looks at the poor sucker who just took one in the breadbasket.

The larger the group involved in a critique, the less learning seems to take place because people are less willing to bring up controversial topics in a larger setting. In a large group, firefighters would rather shut up, listen and make a few smart-ass comments under their breath than deal with an uncomfortable situation like embarrassing a friend, opening themselves up to questions or admitting/identifying a weakness. Besides, nobody likes the person who spoils the party by doing something outside the norm, which reminds me of the time my son decided to climb into a giant inflatable jumpy during a birthday party. There were no less than 20 kids in the blow-up babysitter when Junior had an accident in his wet diaper but continued jumping, not bothered by the warm brown sensation running down his legs. When all the kids realized the brown-tinged water coming from his diaper wasn’t chocolate milk, a hush fell over the crowd just before the chaos ensued-let’s just say the one exit in the jumpy wasn’t enough. Have you ever been to a critique that was going well until someone crapped in the jumpy? (It’s usually much funnier to watch than it is to be directly involved in it.)

Company officers address mistakes and identify concerns much quicker in the privacy of their own stations. The problem with that is others don’t get an opportunity to learn from your actions, good or bad.

Critiquing Correctly
Improving how we learn from incidents and training starts with the chief and company officers. If we can find a way to let our guard down enough to truly discuss incidents without taking things personally, we’ll begin to get something out of the critique. Allowing yourself to accept criticism is not easy and takes some practice. (If you want to learn the art of accepting criticism, become a training captain for a while; you’ll get a crash course.)

Here are a few other things you can do right now to get the most out of post-incident critiques:

– When you bring up a concern or a problem, do it with some tact, and suggest ways to improve or discuss an alternate method for completing a task. When you tell someone they screwed up and they in turn ask how you would have done it, “I don’t know” isn’t the best response.

– If someone did something that you simply don’t understand, ask them why they did it. This allows the person to explain their rationale, which often clears up misunderstandings and opens the door for learning. And clearing the air is much better than running your mouth back at the station about something when you don’t have all the facts. Nothing is more embarrassing or humbling than when you talk smack about someone when you didn’t take the time to find out the facts and later learn what really transpired. The damage is done, big mouth. Don’t you feel like an idiot? I know I always do.

– Do your part to change the culture of your department. When you’re given the chance to speak up, take it. Start off by critiquing your own performance before critiquing others. In other words, don’t worry about removing the speck in your neighbor’s eye when you haven’t removed the log in yours. I’ve found when people are willing to criticize their own actions, others tend to follow suit and the real issues can be discussed openly without fear or embarrassment.

– Every incident is filled with good and bad decisions, strategies and tactics, so critiques shouldn’t bring up only the bad things that occurred on the incident; we should find out what people did correctly, as well. So don’t be afraid to discuss the positive things that happened at the scene. Whether you were directly involved or witnessed another crew doing something well, bring these things to the table because nobody sees everything that occurs on the fireground. You don’t need to nominate someone for a Congressional Medal of Honor for doing their job, but let someone know when they did well and point out what we can learn from their actions. Whether you believe it or not, people want to hear about different ways of accomplishing tasks. I’m sure we’ve all been taught to “discipline in private and praise in public.” Well, here’s a perfect opportunity to praise your crew in public and maybe add a tool to someone else’s toolkit.

Changing the culture of a department isn’t easy; change takes time to accept. If you don’t like the way your department critiques incidents or training evolutions, do something about it. Begin by critiquing yourself, and then move on to your crew. The desire to learn is infectious, and if people are taught properly, it will catch on.

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