In the fire service, preparation is key. Understanding the tools available to you to tackle specific calls, experiencing how your department works together, and practicing following orders from your chief helps you proceed with effective, timely action. So, you train.
You regularly attend trainings, picking up skills, competencies, and information to put in your figurative tool belt, so you can become the most effective emergency responder possible. But, perhaps all this training isn’t what is making you more effective. What if there is something beyond more training exercises and lectures that makes you a better firefighter?
The Mundanity of Excellence
In 1989, researcher Daniel Chambliss undertook to study professional swimmers, distinguishing the Olympic-caliber swimmers from ordinary swimmers. He analyzed their workouts, their diets, and their way of thinking. Coaches would have said that physical characteristics set them apart as Olympic-worthy – or perhaps time devoted to training – but something surprising emerged. The athletes who focused on the mundane, small movements and spent their energy mastering these small but significant motions internalized these into habits and performed better.
Chambliss concluded that “Superlative performance is a confluence of dozens of small skills or activities, each one learned or stumbled upon, which have been carefully drilled into habit and then are fitted together in a synthesized whole.”
Every day, these athletes spend their time on perfecting small things, and over time those small things add up to something Olympic-sized.
Perhaps it’s the same in firefighting.
The daily-ness of your work can make it easy to get sloppy. As you get used to going through the motions, you may not think as often about perfecting your steps or drilling the small motions into your muscle memory. This isn’t necessarily bad. The danger, though, is that as you let intentionality slide, you may also be letting some bad habits creep into your work, as well. Maybe you have picked up some of the bad habits of your department – for example not cleaning your uniform properly or not using oxygen when you should or working out less often than you’d like to admit or neglecting rest on your days off. Whatever those small bad habits are, more training probably won’t solve them.
Pulling Weeds and Planting Seeds
Consider the analogy of pulling weeds and planting seeds. Every day, individuals must be either pulling weeds or planting seeds in their lives order to remain maximally effective.
For firefighters, weeds of complacency, unhealthy habits, tension with a colleague, or bad attitudes about policies or the department can grow up and choke out some of the best, most fruitful work he can do. But, intentionally pulling these weeds from his life can allow room for him to become both a pillar in his department and an encouragement/role model for his colleagues. He must choose to pay attention to these small details in his work, just as Olympic-caliber swimmers pay attention to the small motions and unhealthy habits in their line of work. Getting rid of them strengthens the individual and sets him on course for greatness.
Planting seeds of attention to detail, respect for colleagues and leadership, intentionally, and self-care, rest, and emotional wellness build the firefighter into a foundational part of his department. These intentionally planted seeds sprout into fruit-bearing habits that make the individual better because he chose who he wanted to be and worked to get there. Again, it’s the little things that make all the difference.
Naval Admiral William H. McRaven believed this wholeheartedly. In a graduation address to students of the University of Texas at Austin he explained:
“If you make your bed every morning, you will have accomplished the first task of the day. It will give you a small sense of pride. It will encourage you to do another task. And another. And another. And, by the end of the day, that one task completed. Will turn into many tasks completed. Making your bed will also reinforce the fact that the little things in life matter. If you can’t do the little things right, you’ll never be able to do the big things right. And, if by chance, you have a miserable day, you will come home to a bed that is made. But you made it! And, a made bed gives you encouragement that tomorrow will be better. So, if you want to change the world, start off by making your bed.”
It true. The mundane yields exponential results, only for those who are determined to dig in and work on the small areas of their lives. For those willing to introspect, and put in daily, consistent effort to get better and better in the small areas, the greatest outcomes will be seen.
So, the secret to better training isn’t more training at all. It’s self-correction. The goal of training is always to arm you with information and experience, so that you are equipped to perform tasks safely and effectively. But, sometimes broad-sweeping quantity-over-quality training isn’t what you need. Maybe what you need is a few, specific high-quality trainings that help you identify the best practices and most effective maneuvers, so that you can weed out the areas of your job that you have forgotten to make priorities. Maybe what you really need is to target the areas of your life that you know need focus and improvement and drill at them with vicious determination to make greatness come from them.
Think of this as your own, personal syllabus for training yourself. Who do you want to be as a firefighter? As a spouse? As a colleague? What seemingly mundane things do you need to correct and practice?
My middle school math teacher used to say, “Practice doesn’t make perfect. Practice makes permanent.” What do you need to practice until you make them permanent habits in your life?
For Olympic swimmers, it might be the way their hand enters the water. For firefighters, it may be the way you vent a roof. Or, maybe you become the best at washing your gear. You make it a priority, and you set the example in your department. Your change can encourage others to make a change, and decades down the road, you and your colleagues will have been exposed to a significantly reduced amount of carcinogens. Or, maybe you identify that you have been hesitant to embrace a new protocol or device you’ve been taught. Take it upon yourself to become a student of that protocol or device. Make it so that nobody understands better than you do about the protocol or about how that device works. As you learn, practice, and apply what you know on the job, you will be shifting and conditioning your brain to perform perfectly every time.
Or maybe, for you, you are out of the habit of getting enough rest. Rest is critical for emotional wellness in firefighting careers. Your brain has systems of neurons that fire when you are stressed and systems of neurons that fire when you are resting. Your brain is designed for stress and release. But, without release, you weaken your emotional wellness and your performance. Rest is essential for your performance as a firefighter, and perhaps, it is the area you may want to focus your attention on.
So, maybe more training isn’t what your department needs. Maybe your department just needs each individual to spend some time self-correcting, resting, and setting the example for one another.
Jada Hudson, M.S., LCPC, CADC, is a licensed clinical professional counselor, certified alcohol and drug counselor, clinical director of program development for Illinois Fire Fighter Peer Support, and clinical consultant for Operation Shattered Stars. Hudson is dedicated to helping firefighters process and heal from trauma, pediatric death, substance abuse, depression, and retirement transitions.