The fire command experiential

John Buckman III Chief's Traffic
by John Buckman III

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Today’s fire suppression strategic decision making and tactical implementation process is significantly different than yesterday’s. 

Today’s incident commander must not only watch the flames and notice the differences in color, but watch the smoke for color, density and velocity. The IC must determine the type of construction involved, and the possible contents that are on fire and how the fire will behave.

Observation skills are critical to the incident commander. The information they observe is a critical component to the overall implementation process. Those observation skills are not acquired overnight.

Do you know what you should be seeing if you are the one standing in front of the burning structure? Looking at something and seeing it for what it is and what it is saying are different processes.

For example, fire is a chemical reaction that creates energy, heat and light. The light emitted by the flames is the visible component of combustion. Natural burning material flames are most often orange, red, yellow and even some white. Today’s combustible material flames might burn in even more colors, like green, blue or black. Flame color tells you about the fire’s temperature, which significantly impacts the water volume you might need to suppress those flames and the BTUs generated.

Fire science

In science, theories are important, but theories alone may not be enough to prove or disprove a conclusion on the fireground. Decisions must be made on the fireground after careful observation with a systematic approach to formulating a response to the facts. The fire service is currently experiencing a tremendous amount of scientific research that is changing the way we conduct our business.

When you make decisions on the fireground, you make those decisions using a quantitative and qualitative process. One example is an inquiry decision making process. Ask questions such as:

  • Have you completed a 360 assessment?
  • What does the TIC tell you about internal conditions?
  • What is the visibility level in the interior?
  • Is there anyone survivable still in the structure?
  • What is the building construction?
  • What are the hazards associated with the construction?
  • Is there a basement?
  • What is burning?
  • What heat, smoke and fire behavior do you observe?
  • Is the fire restricted to a room its contents or has it extended to the structure?
  • How long has it been burning?
  • What is the structure that is burning?
  • What are the resources I have to suppress the fire?
  • What is the condition of the structure?

From these and other questions, the incident commander will formulate a strategic and tactical response to the problem. But the IC must also continue to ask questions as part of the size-up process.

Experiential learning in firefighter training

Training is one of the keys to effectively confronting a fire by enhancing your ability to take action. Most firefighters don’t get as much real-world experience as we think we do. When assessing your firefighters’ experience, ask yourself, how many times in the last 12 months have they been on the nozzle of the first-in 1 3/4” hand line? Is it less than five times? For many firefighters, that is their experience level. There is a huge difference between the first-in hand line and the second-in. You can learn from others’ experience, but in order to enhance your skills, you must have that first-in hand line experience.

Experiential learning is the process of learning through experience. It is not a new educational concept. I first learned about experiential learning 30 years ago. You can learn through your own and others experiences, but the learning must be done in a structured manner. It is not just about observation and then copying what was observed into your own habits. Experiential learning occurs during a hands-on experience. Experiential learning is a process whereby knowledge is created through the transformation of experience.

The cycle begins with an experience that the student has had, followed by an opportunity to reflect on that experience. Then, students may conceptualize and draw conclusions about what they experienced and observed, leading to future actions in which the students experiment with different behaviors. The question I have for firefighters is how often do we have an experiential learning opportunity? The second question is when do firefighters actually discuss the positive and negative aspects of the experience? What does the actual experience gain the firefighter? What additional experiences does the firefighter have that reinforces their original experience?

For an exercise to be truly experiential, the following attributes are necessary in some combination:

  • The goal of experience-based learning involves something personally significant or meaningful.
  • Reflective thought and opportunities to write or discuss experiences should be an essential part of the process.
  • The whole person must be involved, not just their mind but also senses and feelings.
  • Officers/instructors need to establish a sense of trust, respect, openness and concern for the wellbeing of the firefighters.

Experiential learning is a powerful tool when used appropriately. Classrooms primarily address the cognitive domain. Experiential learning involves the whole person.

Learning is a continuous process, from both training and experiences. As chiefs, we need to maximize the opportunities to ensure our firefighters are taking full advantage of learning opportunities.

This article originally posted on Aug. 14, 2018. It has been updated. 

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