The Effective Post-Fire Critique: Positive-Negative-Positive

We’ve all walked away from a critique telling ourselves, “I guess we really screwed that one up.” Maybe we did mess things up a bit, or maybe the person conducting the critique just isn’t very good at it. Some, in my humble opinion, just don’t have the right demeanor to conduct an effective critique. No one wants to be told they screwed up. I’m sure something went right. In my lengthy career, I have yet to be at a fire that went perfectly. I’d say many went well but I can’t say perfect. I suggest that there’s almost always something we’d have done a little different or maybe even better had we gotten the chance for a replay.

An effective critique is a vital part of the learning process. If a mistake is made, we need to own it and learn from it so as not to repeat the error. The all-negative critique or, should I say, brow beating does not create any kind of learning environment. You’ll listen to someone telling you that you dropped the ball for just so long. At some point, the brow beater begins to sound like Charlie Brown’s teacher. No one will listen, and there’s a pretty good chance no one will learn anything. Do the negatives need to be spoken about? Absolutely, but I suggest there is a better way to do just that. Never waste a teachable moment.

There is a simple formula I like to use. I’ll refer to it as Positive-Negative-Positive. Start with some of the positives. Try to do better than the standard “No one got hurt and the fire went out.” If you’re going to do a critique, make some good effort. Then talk about the negatives. Be thorough. Cover them all, no matter how small. If it’s something you remember, it’s probably worth mentioning. Then summarize the incident and end on a positive note. If you finish on a negative, the good stuff will get lost in translation.

Let’s look at the following simplified incident and what would be an effective critique.

Units are dispatched to respond to a fire in a one-story single-family private dwelling. It’s 3:00 in the afternoon. The weather is clear and warm. Traffic is not an issue. The rigs are fully staffed. There’s a hydrant just past the fire building on the same side of the street as the fire building. The battalion chief is first to arrive and reports a working fire with fire showing from a bedroom window on the first floor on the Bravo side. There are no cars parked in the driveway and a neighbor reports seeing the occupants leave for work this morning as usual. The house has a deep setback, approximately 200 feet from the street. The officer on the first-due engine while still en route turns and tells his crew that it’s a working fire. He checks the map and tells the engine chauffeur where the hydrant is located. Things are setting up well.

As the engine comes to a stop, an excited probationary firefighter jumps out and grabs a 200-foot 1¾-inch crosslay, puts the shoulder load on his shoulder, and pulls the remaining 100 feet of hose from the bed as he walks toward the front door. This is not what the engine officer is planning, and as the probationary firefighter is on his way to the front door, the officer stops him: “Keep the 100-foot shoulder load on your shoulder and disconnect it from the rest of the line.” He orders another firefighter to stretch the 200′ 2½-inch leader line toward the front door. The leader line has been equipped with a 2½-inch to 1½-inch reducer. “Bring the shoulder load to the leader line, connect to it and flake out the line, and we’ll go in and put this fire out,” the officer says to the probationary firefighter. The line is charged and bled and the engine crew masks up while the truck forces entry and begins a search. Members of the truck crew tell the engine officer the fire is in the rear bedroom off to the left. The engine crew extinguishes the fire without incident. The truck opens up the walls and ceiling near the seat of the fire to check for extension with negative results. The primary and secondary searches are negative, as the homeowners are apparently both at work. Damage is minimal. No injuries are reported. Hose is repacked, ground ladders and tools are stowed, and the booster tank is topped off. All is well.

The battalion chief is very happy. While this turns out to be somewhat of a ground ball, he feels the companies on the scene did a great job. He did see the 100 feet of 1¾-inch crosslay lying on the ground, but the operation seemed to go smoothly, and it was inconsequential.

The battalion chief checks on his troops, making sure there were no injuries or other issues. The engine officer starts to explain the extra hose lying on the ground, but the BC tells him to hold up and that he’ll get to that in a moment. The battalion chief quickly summarizes and reviews the department’s standard operating procedures for private-dwelling fires, reinforcing all the things done correctly. The correct line was stretched, tank water was initially supplied, and a water source was secured–all in a timely fashion. The truck spiked the jamb and quickly forced entry and began a search while coordinating with the engine crew. The outside vent firefighter fully cleared the window that had failed and vented and fully cleared a second window in the burning bedroom as the engine crew opened its 1¾-inch line, quickly extinguishing the fire. Overhaul was conducted and damage to the house was kept to a minimum. Great job! Positive.

It’s now time to address the only apparent error that occurred. The battalion chief didn’t personally observe what happened, so he passes the floor to the engine lieutenant. The lieutenant had already taken the probationary firefighter to the side as the line was backed out of the house. He stressed the importance of waiting the additional minute or so to find out what tactic the officer had planned and the probie was receptive to that information. The lieutenant further told him that he loves the enthusiasm but, in the future, to make sure of what the plan is before starting to stretch the line. The lieutenant explained what happened to the group, and the battalion chief agreed about liking the enthusiasm and briefly explained the importance of everyone being on the same page. Negative.

Summarizing, the battalion chief reiterated that he was very happy with how the operation went and to keep up the good work. A small error occurred, but it was quickly detected and corrected and was really of no consequence. Company training with an emphasis on the basics is paying off. Positive.

This was a solid operation. A lot of good stuff went on here with only one small error. The critique was conducted, and the members went away with a positive thought. Sometimes there are some big errors that may require a good bit of conversation to figure out and put to bed, and so be it. The point is that if it ends up being a brow beating session, the teachable moment will most probably have been squandered and the desired effect will have been lost. Everyone walks away with a sour taste in their mouth. No good. The saying goes, “You catch more flies with honey than you do with vinegar.” Give it a shot!


Carl Meyer has more than 35 years in the volunteer and career fire service and is a lieutenant with Horry County (SC) Fire Rescue. He was a second deputy chief instructor at the Nassau County (NY) Fire Service Academy and was the chief of the Seaford (NY) Fire Department.

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