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Flashpoint: Taking a new look from outside the box

Change management consultant Peter de Jager has made a career of looking at problems from different angles. This is a valuable skill, especially when the mainstream thinkers are all operating from the same perspective.

February 25, 2009 
By Peter Sells

"To think outside the box, we must first see that we’re in a box – once we do that, the rest is (relatively) easy.”

–Peter de Jager

Change management consultant Peter de Jager has made a career of looking at problems from different angles. This is a valuable skill, especially when the mainstream thinkers are all operating from the same perspective. Looking at the compiled results of the Fire Fighting in Canada 2008 national fire department survey (, I can’t help but get the impression that collectively we are all in the same box, looking at our common issues from the same viewpoint.

Structured surveys can have a tendency to do that, intentionally or not. These information-gathering tools will sometimes channel responses into categories. In fairness, the surveys must be structured and designed strategically in order to allow for meaningful analysis of the responses. Also, the reality may be that the surveyed population actually does break down into those who face issue A, those who face issue B and so on. That being said, I found the survey results as interesting for what they did not report as for what they did report.

A large number of respondents stated a need for more funding for fire service training. Frankly, the surprise would have been if anyone had said “No, thanks, we have more than enough right now.” But of course, the survey asked “What is your fire department’s biggest training challenge?” not “How’s training going for you these days?” So, funding realities and the question as posed have put us in de Jager’s box and asked us to whine about money, time and resources. Still, nobody responded with “Our biggest challenge is making the best use of the limited funding available to us” or “We are struggling to optimize our training activities.” These responses would indicate that someone recognized they were in a box, stepped outside of it and looked back in from a new angle. Until that happens, the frustration will continue.


Another trend popped out at me that is nothing short of a paradox. Despite the identified shortfall in training resources, 29 respondents made specific mention of one of the most time- and staff-intensive training activities we have in our industry – live fire training. Watch out, I’m about to get myself in trouble again, or at least generate some lively discussion. Live fire training is a waste of time, in most cases. If you want your people to learn how to pull hose into a building, have them pull hose into a building – up the stairs, proper carry, on the correct shoulder as you go up the fire escape; all the old drills. If you don’t have that stuff down pat, what purpose does it serve to have a fire burning? If you need to work on hose streams, why do it in the dark? If you need dark conditions for search and rescue, a smoke machine or blacked-out facepieces would be way cheaper and way, way safer than burning an acquired structure. Sure, feel free to respond to this column – that’s what it’s for. Just read the rest of this before you write anything down.

I challenge anyone to look at the line-of-duty deaths that have occurred at fires in Canada over the last 30 years or so, and find one that demonstrated that firefighters need more task-level training at live fires. Our fallen comrades have been lost or improperly accounted for (North York, Kitchener), trapped in structural collapses (Barrie), placed in unnecessarily aggressive positions (Yellowknife, Etobicoke), caught in flashovers or untenable fire conditions (Winnipeg, St. Thomas) or otherwise victimized by tactical or strategic decision making that did not match the situation. Some instances are understandable, given the rapidly changing and chaotic environment in the first few minutes at a structure fire. We can be placed in danger beyond our ability to recognize it as such in our haste to make a fast rescue. But some of these deaths were the result of bad decisions, pure and simple.

Despite this record, not one respondent to the survey mentioned a need for more command, incident management or decision-making training. Many such programs are available, through your formal or informal networks, online from colleges, academies or other training providers, or by in-house mentoring of your junior members by those with years of experience.

Make the most of your limited training resources. Ensure that the time and money spent have a net positive result in fireground effectiveness and safety.  See the box and step outside for a fresh look.

District Chief Peter Sells writes, speaks and consults on fire service management and professional development across North America and internationally. He holds a B.Sc. from the University of Toronto and an MBA from the University of Windsor. He sits on the advisory councils of the Ontario Fire College and the Institution of Fire Engineers, Canada branch.

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