Developing skills by rote is an important first step, but true problem-solving requires firefighters to consider the entire picture.
By Scott VanderMeer
How often has someone told you, “Practice makes perfect,” since you were a kid? Once we reach adulthood, this seemingly unattainable saying becomes a mind-numbing reminder of failures and successes. Practice in this sense points toward the monotony of repetitiveness that inadvertently drives us to an illusionary view of perfection.
But when practice becomes routine, we lose the benefits it can potentially unleash. As a coach training young cross-country skiers, I wouldn’t tell them to “just get out and ski” – the training needs to be focused on a goal or objective in order for it to be fun, challenging and educational. The same is true when training firefighters.
As a crew leader, I often had opportunities to run a pump practice. The biggest mistake leaders can make is simply practicing for the sole purpose of starting the pump to ensure that it works. Don’t get me wrong – this is very important to the operational side of firefighting, but how about tapping into the emotional and intellectual side of the brain to design a practice that combines skill with reality? It is important to engage the student to want to learn. Ownership of the experience leads to a positive end result.
In his book, Deep Survival: Who Lives, Who Dies, and Why, Laurence Gonzales discusses decision-making and explains that the human thought process is often performed logically. He writes, “That is the difficulty with logic: It is step-by-step, linear. The world is not.” In terms of training, we need to go beyond these skills to develop the ability to solve problems.
In math class, you practice multiplication skills over and over so that “practice makes perfect.” But what works for math may not hold true to reality. If I want to know the pressure of 1Â½-inch hose running 300 feet up a slope with an incline of 20%, I can say that I know how to multiply, divide, subtract and add, but do I know what I am supposed to do with all of these numbers?
This is the true essence of problem-solving. The problem-solving we often face in wildland firefighting involves taking set objectives or skills and applying them to many different situations. It is this thought process that should be involved when practicing.
In terms of the pump practice, the skill would be starting the pump. Higher-level training would consider the greater potential for an urban-interface fire based on conditions. Such training would identify the hazards around a structure and require firefighters to take 10 minutes to set up sprinklers to protect it. They then would debrief, discussing what they set out to do, what actually happened and how they may do it differently in the field.
This method of training promotes critical thinking and problem-solving skills that would not be engaged in a skill-specific practice. Situational awareness and quick, decisive decision-making is critical in expediting actions on incidents. Integrating both the theoretical and practical framework of training is crucial to ensuring that practice makes perfect.
Education through “practice” only gets us part of the way there. Practice will only make perfect if done in a way that does not include replication for the purpose of application, but rather emphasizes application through a critical, problem-solving approach.
Stress is a reality when making decisions in a wildfire environment. Training under stress rarely is! Even though training under stress is hard to mimic, it can be done. Taking the routine out of training and implementing real-life problem-solving through the application of basic skills learned provides a pathway to perfection. Not only does this approach increase situational awareness, but it also makes giant leaps forward for crew morale and leadership development.
Recently I have been involved in a project with FP Innovations looking at the value of infrared cameras for initial attack mop-up. While in the field, I observed various fire suppression tactics, including the excessive use of water on a spot that would be smoking one hour later. Why? Because that crew was trained to cut out one of the three parts to the fire triangle – heat – and knew that water was one way to do this. This is common practice or routine. But what that crew didn’t consider was the fact that the fire weather indices had been higher then normal. Deeper situational awareness was required to reach success.
When receiving comments on the viability of the infrared device, the feedback received was positive overall. One reason, in terms of training, is that this was something new to nearly all those who tested it. Its novelty was an asset to this study because the firefighters had no preconceived experiences to base their feedback on – it was fairly black-and-white, whether they thought the infrared device could work.
Those who had more fire experience often stepped past the skill of using it to critically analyze its possible use. How could this be used? How would you use it? Such ability shows strong problem-solving skills. This information can’t be generated by the theoretical approach alone; it must be incorporated with practical and applicable training.
Does “practice make perfect”? Only when practice engages the brain into critically thinking beyond the practice of routine, does the true value of practice–make perfect.
Scott VanderMeer is currently working for FP Innovations, FERIC Division, with the Wildfire Operations Research Center in Hinton, Alberta, Canada. He has a B.A. and M.Sc. and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.