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So Now I’m Back!

From outer space!

I just walked in to find you here with that sad look upon your face,

I should have changed that stupid lock I should have … what?

Are we not in a singing mood?


Fresh off a 2 week wandering of the coast of Alaska your Pal Happy is back in HMHQ exclusively to ramble on and on about this thing we still call EMS.

Ground rules remain the same:  My writings are my own opinion, I avoid talking about specific work related stories (Although sometimes I reaaaallly wish I could) and anything that offends you in here is your problem, not mine.


On that note a few ideas I’ve been tossing around for my Firehouse World Presentation, “That’s why we’re here, but that’s not what we do,” centered around culture and decision making in the Fire Service and EMS.

When someone tells me I’m crazy for running into burning buildings I used to respond, “No, I crawl in taking calculated risks.”  I have always marveled how 2 people with similar backgrounds, training and experience can make 2 completely different risk assessments given a specific situation.

Of course it mostly comes down to experience and the number of times a person has encountered that exact situation.

For example, 2 Engines arrive head to head at an apartment fire.  Officer 1 has 25 years and has been to 4 apartment fires.  Officer 2 has 10 years experience and has been to 10 apartment fires.  One has had more opportunity for experience while the other has actually built up experiences that can impact the current situation.

In his book Thinking: Fast and Slow Daniel Kehneman addresses the way our brains process risk, which he states is simply the way we address randomness that can not be explained.  He goes on to say, “Biased reactions to risk are an important source of erratic and misplaced priorities. The availability cascade – easier to recall justification leads to misplaced weight on risk analysis.”

What this means is that our Officer on Engine 1 with more years in, if unable to immediately recall his last apartment fire, will calculate risk based on the easiest to recall information that may, or more likely may not, be useful in that situation.  The Officer on Engine 2 may have more recent apartment fire experience to recall easier.  Both will use their experiences to assign risk based on the ability to recall the situations present.

This means that being to 100 fires on the Truck does not prepare you for a single fire on the engine and vice versa.  When you tell me you’ve been to 20 fires this month, how many were you first in?  How many on the first truck?  Supply?  2nd in on the 2nd?  What kind of experiences are you drawing on to make decisions at a fire and how long will it take your brain to process those experiences?

We talk in the fire service about decision paralysis, how newer officers can sometimes freeze at the scene and not know what to do.  That is because their brains are rifling through the rolodex looking for experiences to calculate the risk of certain actions.  It’s the same way you process what to eat, where to go and what to say.

Separate from that action is the application of cause and effect of one’s actions without considering the entire event.  For example, Engine 1 quickly knocks down a kitchen fire just before Truck 1 vents the roof.  The fire goes out and Truck 1 feels as though their actions had a positive impact.  At the next kitchen fire each member of that crew will recall cutting the hole and the fire going out and will apply the same intervention, regardless of whether or not it might work.

We try to limit this kind of application of risk with training based on the latest research.

I say try because so many Firefighters would rather apply their own experience based observations over those of a controlled experiment.


We only fool ourselves when we allow limited specific experience to dictate our actions, yet that is exactly how our brains work.  Only through continuous hands on training and exposure to other fires, usually via helmet or scene camera or discussions with those directly involved, can we collect observations to aid us in quickly recalling experiences to apply a risk calculation.

So what does all this mean in the end?  It means that, based on how the brain makes decisions, it may be more useful to watch an entry team from a helmet camera than it is to stand across the street at the actual incident.

In no way am I claiming that a “youtube firefighter” will gain the experience and ability to be a firefighter, I’m saying that standing across the street at that fire does not give any useful experience for later application.

Unless, of course, you sit down later and ask them, “What did you see?  Feel?  Hear?  What was your plan?  Did it work?  Why not?

These conversations seem to be happening less and less from what I hear, mainly because if an entire house goes on the same fire most members will apply the same level of experience, “1 fire” instead of standing back and asking, “What did I learn from this experience?”


More ramblings to follow…

It feels good to be back home.

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