There is only one thing that counts at incidents – and that is what we do. A live fire exercise where students do not understand how the lessons learned should affect their actions, is probably pointless.
And if the instructor do not know how certain information should impact the students behavior, it will only cause confusion among the students.
Therefore, it is crucial that we create exercises based on the behaviors we want to see.
That's one way to do it, but it's not right.
If behaviors are what matter at the incidents, it should be vital for every rescue service to know what the optimal one is. What is the optimal behavior in this situation, and in this one, and in this one?
Unfortunately, we have not really decided what the best action and solution is for each situation. It not only varies between rescue services, but also between stations and shifts.
And the phrase “that’s one way to do it” is frequently used to maintain a high morale during courses and training, as if all solutions are good. But they are not.
Firefighters need a default behavior.
To create correct behaviors, we must first decide what the right action is in a specific situation. That is most often difficult to figure out. But it is still easier to decide it beforehand, instead of during the incident.
We usually do not have the time required to analyze and make decisions for perfect behaviors at the incident. But we do not need ten different techniques to cool smoke from the exterior door into an apartment. One decent technique is most often enough.
Firefighters need this decent technique to start from. You can call it a standard behavior, rule of thumb or a guideline. I simply call it a default behavior.
Default behaviors describe how.
A default behavior describes HOW something should be performed. That is the correct behavior we should try to teach in exercises.
Firefighters should learn how to start the fan, how to raise the ladder and how to cool smoke.
And officers should learn how to manage risks, how to formulate orders and how to organize the incident.
Anything that affects the outcome of an incident is fundamentally a behavior to me. Even if it is words being spoken.
Every default behavior needs a trigger.
But we also need to know in which situation a default behavior is relevant, in other words WHEN it should be used.
When should I give a specific order, when should I cool smoke in a certain way, when should I evacuate the building?
We need a trigger that initiates the right behavior at the right time.
Both the trigger and the default behavior are therefore crucial for the right things to happen at the incident.
A trigger can be many things.
A crackling fire can be a trigger for trying to cool smoke in a certain direction. A warning sign for acetylene cylinders can be a trigger to retreat and think.
A specific action can be a trigger for another action in a longer sequence – if someone does this, you should do that.
But most triggers are visual, which means that we primarily need exercises to look like reality for them to work.
Creating good triggers is difficult.
A problem with creating exercises for firefighting is that it is difficult to create good enough triggers for behaviors.
Should the theater training smoke be considered cold and white – just as it looks to the student?
Or should it simulate hot and black smoke and the student need to pretend? If so, how hot, and what happens when it is cooled? And how does the smoke react to different techniques of cooling it?
Even in training buildings with fire and smoke from wood, these visual triggers will be more or less inaccurate. And the layout and furniture of the buildings rarely look like reality.
Of course, we should strive to create as accurate visual triggers as possible. But we probably cannot avoid creating incorrect triggers and thus incorrect default behaviors.
Unclear triggers create conflicts in training.
The shortcomings in our training environment also create difficulties when students need to interpret the triggers.
After the exercise, it is unfortunately common for the instructor to get stuck in a discussion about how the exercise’s triggers should be interpreted. Instead of focusing on what the correct behavior should be in the intended situation.
If a student interprets the cold theater training smoke as actually being cold and white, it is difficult to say that the correct behavior is to cool it.
And it is unfair to correct a student that forget to cool hot smoke because they have only practiced cooling flames in exercises, and thus learned the wrong trigger.
We must therefore help students to interpret triggers during training before they act, not afterward, to avoid these conflicts.
Default behaviors require knowledge.
We need default behaviors for situations where we do not have time to analyze, decide, communicate and coordinate our actions. And we need the triggers for when the default behaviors should be used.
However, we cannot create thousands of default behaviors to fit every possible situation. The firefighters need to be able to bridge between the default ones and adapt their behavior to fit the situation.
This requires knowledge and understanding. The more we understand, the better we can adapt our default behaviors to the situation.
Robots or chaos?
We prefer not to have robot firefighters who only follow the default behaviors and never adapt them. But we also also know that without default behaviors it will be chaos.
Finding the balance between those is super hard and the answer will vary with every department. Safe firefighter robots may be the only realistic option for a department with limited training. We just need to make sure that the default behaviors are as good as possible.
But for most departments, the ideal should be enough good default behaviors that works most of the time. And have knowledgeable firefighters that know how to adapt the behavior when needed.
Behavior, trigger, and knowledge.
How something should be done, when it should be done, and what knowledge is needed to adapt it.
As an instructor, I probably cannot skip one or more of these questions as it will create confusion for the students.
These three questions should thus serve as a constant reference point when conducting an exercise if we want to build competent firefighters and officers.