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Firefighter/EMT Safety, Health & Survival: We Play Like We Practice

"Practice doesn't make perfect, it reduces the imperfection."
– Toba Beta, Master of Stupidity

Football coach Vince Lombardi, when he was with the Green Bay Packers, was quoted as saying, "You play like you practice."

Most fire service personnel have some sort of sports experience in their past and have likely heard a coach cite that phrase or something similar. It was usually tied to a speech meant to motivate and inspire a greater effort from the team after a lackluster performance.

Simply restated, if we aren't focused when we train, we won't be focused when it matters the most.

Over the years, the fire service has increased its focus on safety, and we're doing a better job of looking out for our people. While this is a generalized statement, there's one area where complacency has leveraged itself against good judgment: training.

Applying the Lombardi quote to training, several teaching points come to mind:

  • Expectations – knowing what to do
  • Coordination – being physically capable
  • Support – having the proper tools and training
  • Experience – having confidence built from familiarity
  • Motivation – having a desire for safe and efficient operations
  • Team Synergy – creating united delivery of individuals for a common goal

"Playing like we practice" is applicable to fire operations, as an unsafe environment is directly proportionally to the absence or inadequacy of any the above. Fire chiefs have an obligation to create a climate that's conducive to each, be it delivering clear expectations through policy and procedure or by facilitating training for knowledge and experience. Personnel safety relies on these tenets, so they're essential to the welfare of both firefighters and citizens.

We don't have to search long to find examples of training failures within our ranks. News stories regularly list examples that have resulted in firefighter injuries or deaths that are often followed by litigation. All aspects of our work are subject to training, so the list includes everything from live fire operations to pulling hose. In our efforts to become better, we often forget that we're vulnerable.

Most of these instances result from laziness that manifests through complacency. We're guilty of delivering checkbox training to meet required CE that is usually accompanied by phrases such as, "We're doing it this way today, but in a real fire we would do it differently" and "We all know how to do this drill, so we'll only hit the highpoints."

Muscle memory for even the most basic suppression skills must be maintained for competence and safety.

We also try to be efficient with our time and cut corners by oversimplifying a scenario. Training participants are told that they don't have to go on air for the drill and in some cases don't wear their full ensemble of personal protective equipment. Hose is pulled but left dry or it's charged but not advanced, firefighters stand instead of keeping low and many more. We should stop using imagination in the place of actual practice whenever possible.

To be fair, many of our crews train hard and include as much realism as possible in their drills. A danger of this practice can include the tendency to overwork the crews; fatigue and dehydration are common byproducts of overtraining. When these conditions are present, we're not at our best and people can get hurt.

Despite some of our best intentions, bad habits are formed that could compromise the safety and effectiveness of our personnel. The training environment must be managed to ensure balance between effectiveness and safety.

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