Dan Shaw started his fire service career in 1992 and is currently a Captain with the Fairfax County Fire & Rescue Department. He is also Vice President of Traditions Training, LLC.
Thursday, February 21, 2013
Taking a Lesson from "Reality TV"
While I was watching the show Surviving the Cut the other night that
highlighted the rigors of the training that the Nightstalkers
(160th Special Aviation Regiment) go through, I had an epiphany, or
at least I drew a corollary principle for what we should learn from this
training in the fire service.
The show portrayed the completion of a hellish, multiple-hours long training
session that spanned from mental and physically demanding tasks to ultimate
culmination in a nighttime march in full gear. The stress and rigors of their
training would be our snot-slinging working fire that demands every ounce of
your physical strength and mental focus.
Once the finish line was crossed, in this case their barracks, the candidates
were lined up and asked the simple question: “Is every one of the members of
your class present?” This would be the equivalent of the accountability report
we must give when we reach certain time benchmarks in an incident, change
strategies (i.e- offensive to defensive), or reach our finish line, which is
when we exhaust our air supply and must exit the IDLH. The depleted and drained
Nightstalker candidates responded back “Affirmative”, hoping that the answer
would lead to a break and some well-deserved rest. With “Affirmative” spoken,
they were then told to turn around and face the memorial located behind their
formation that had been constructed to honor all the fallen members of the
There, standing with hoods over their heads and grasping the P.O.W. / M.I.A.
flag, was the class leader and the second in command of their unit. As if in
unison, all of the candidates’ heads dropped forward, grasping the reality of
their failure to account for their brothers in battle. Their failure was marked
by the fact that the two who had been unaccounted for were what you would
envision as the most obvious, the class leaders.
This gut-wrenching feeling of inferiority was followed by a thorough verbal
reminder by the C.O. of the failure to complete the most basic and fundamental
rule to ‘never leave anyone behind.’ Even in the face of exhaustion or simple
complacency you must be your brother’s keeper. You must not lose your mental
focus in the face of depleted physical strength or the mere taste of
The punishment for their gaff? They were required to assume a squatting
sitting position, grasp an imaginary letter in their hands, and repeat verbatim
the letter the C.O. had prepared. The letter he wrote was to the family of the
now dead fellow soldiers. In it, he explained that there would be no husband
coming home, no father to watch the children grow up, and no son whom the
parents could hug proudly. Lastly, the letter explained they would not even have
their loved one’s body to bid farewell, providing at least some measure of
closure. Instead they could only grasp a memory. The exercise led these hardened
men to break down in tears, surely questioning their commitment and ability to
carry the name of the unit.
So, where is the parallel to our fire service? It is Everywhere! A factor in
almost all line of duty death reports is the lack of “Accountability”.
While this can be from a hardware issue, such as the absence of an
accountability system, it also covers lack of accounting for your fellow
firefighters in harm’s way. On paper it seems senseless that a causative factor
for the death of one of us could be that we did not account for each member of
the crew during the heat of our battle – fighting fires. If we remove the
hardware issue and look at the ‘human’ side of this issue, one can surmise
quickly that the linchpin for us is the Officer (Engine Company, the
Truck, Rescue or the Incident Commander.)
How often do we see firefighters promoted to an Officer’s position because
they have a wanton desire to be able to adorn themselves with the prestige of
the gold badge and not because they want accept the entire breadth of the
Officer’s responsibility. Or we see Officers who confuse proper aggressive
firefighting with poor tactics applied in a rapid and uneducated manner,
demonstrating they really only wanted to be the first in so they can walk out
with a charred helmet. The aggressive officer is one who moves with purpose,
that purpose being to always ensure his brothers and sisters are measuring their
risk (i.e., not safe but prudent risk-taking based upon competence and
mastery) to complete the job they took an oath to do. The question that each
firefighter who crawls down a hallway belching black smoke, or the Company
officer who makes the decision to enter the basement fire with his crew, or the
Incident Commander who decides to go “offensive” is this: “Have you prepared
yourself and your members for the firefight?”
This preparation is not merely how to pull a line or conduct a primary
search; have you also:
Made clear your expectations on the fireground?
What is your measure of success?
Have you provided the training and shared the knowledge to accomplish these
Do you demonstrate these traits every day yourself?
If not, then you have demonstrated that your commitment to “no man left
behind” is skewed and you do not mind writing the letter like the candidates
in Surviving the Cut.Every officer is charged with responsibility of
making a decision on the fireground, a decision that not only mitigates an
emergency but has a direct impact on their firefighters. While General Powell
was referring to military operations, his doctrine applies in our trade, “Do not
put your people in harm’s way for unclear purposes.”
Officers must consider the time when they may have to pen that letter to
their fallen firefighters family or look the family in the eye and deliver the
heart breaking news. If that unfortunate situation occurred, would you feel as
though you had done everything in your power and ability to prepare and train
your firefighters? Have you prepared yourself each and every day to recognize
hazardous situations and mitigate them correctly, or do you rest on the
reputation of your rank that was chiseled by your predecessors?
The clearest sign of true servant leadership is selflessly exhausting
yourself to teach, train, and lead those under your command. While our job is
inherently dangerous, no measure of this danger excuses leaders from preparing
themselves and those under their command to adequately face that danger. If you
need a reminder, consider what you would do and what you would say
when you have to face the family of one of your own on the day of their