You Can Teach a Monkey…

Everybody got their regulah? Ya' comfortable? Good.

Ok, ok. I know. That's a gorilla, not a monkey. Koko, the gorilla, actually. The one they taught sign language to and how to read and a bunch of other stuff. But it was a good picture to illustrate my point and I couldn't find a monkey pic that would do it as well. So calm you'ah liva. Anyway, today we're going to talk about the next generation. Those that will replace us and, more than likely, become our bosses before we retire. Yup, those kids.

So my shift and my battalion happen to have quite a few new guys on the job and three are just getting ready to get off probation, maybe. So my B/C calls up the house just after change the other other morning and tells my Luft that all the companies with new guys and probies are getting together to drill and run them through their paces. He also tells him that I'm going to be running one of the stations and evaluating them. So my day was off to a great start. I love teaching and am committed to training anyone that wants to learn while hopefully doing so myself. So as it turns out, the town had condemned an old building that had sat vacant for years and was intending to tear it down to make way for a community center and park or something. So they gave it to us and the coppers to train in before the wrecking ball came. It was a three story former tax-payer with two separate commercial occupancies on the lower and two apartments on each of the uppers, for a total of four. There was also an one-story addition off the back that was used as storage for the stores up front. The original building was ordinary construction with the addition being very cheaply slapped up with stick-built construction. The only thing we couldn't do was burn the thing down and we had to leave some way of securing the building once we were done. My mind was racing with ideas.

So we showed up at the appointed time and I got together with the B/C and the other instructors. We hashed out a plan and went over safety issues. The B/C really wanted to ensure that the new guys had their basic skills down pat, and then maybe we'd run a full-scale evolution or something. We had three Engines, a Truck, two Medics and ourselves so we basically had a structure fire assignment minus one Truck. Myself and one of the Truck guys were given the ventilation station. We went up to the roof of the building and decided we'd do some inspection cuts, louver-cuts, peeling the roof membrane and ventilation of the upper floor windows from the roof. We then went to the addition roof and decided about the only thing it was good for was some axe work. My Truckie partner took the main roof and I went to the addition. But first we made some "special" arrangements I had filled him in on.

So the kids were told what groups they were in and what they would be doing and to grab the appropriate tools and equipment. In some cases it was kind of interesting what they chose. So, my first group shows up and they have a chainsaw, two 8-foot hooks, a set of irons and a life-safety rope. Notice anything missing? Like a ladder. I briefed them on what I wanted, a typical 4'x4' vent hole, drop the ceiling, do a quick recon of what the roof structure was like. Nothing huge. Then I told them to get to work. They immediately started heading toward the 14' roof ladder I had placed. "Stop!", I barked. "Where 'ya goin'?" They kinda looked at each other and then one kid said, "Up to the roof, sir." "How 'ya gonna get there?", I countered. Confused looks, one kid even turned around to check that leprechauns hadn't taken the ladder he was sure was there. "Uh, the ladder?", another said questioningly. "That ladder?", I asked pointing to MY ladder. "Yes sir", the same kid answered.  "No you're not.", I replied. "You were told to bring tools and equipment to ventilate this roof, right?", I kind of snapped. Two of the four instantly got it, set their tools down and went to the Truck to retrieve a ladder. That was when I heard it for the first time. My B/C had come up behind the group while the exchange was going on, unbeknownst to them. As the two went to retrieve the ladder he kind of mumbled, "You can teach a monkey…". I let it go at the time and waited for the ladder to arrive.

So when the ladder arrives and is thrown the kid with the chainsaw gets set to start it. He makes all the appropriate settings, throttle lock, choke, checks the chain-brake, decompression button, and starts to pull. Muffled putters is all he's met with. We had switched the saw in the cabinet of the Truck with a training saw. A training saw with no gas, to be specific. He continued to pull for a few seconds and then ran through his steps to start the saw again, which I was pleased to see. He did not, however, check the gas. More futile attempts at starting the saw ensued, while everyone else in the group stood and watched. Finally I yelled, "Didja check everything?" Lightbulb goes off, gas gets checked, "it's empty", is the befuddled response. "Now what?", I bark. "I'll go get a gas can!", one kid yells and starts to book for the Truck. "Stop! You have an Engine company trying to advance the line and they're getting the crap beat out of them! Not to mention any civilians that might still be in there. WHAT ARE YOU GOING TO DO?!?!?!" One of the better kids responds, "I'd radio the Chief and let him know what the delay is and that we'll be cutting by hand until the saw is ready. Then I'd send someone to get the gas and fill the saw while the rest of us were working on the roof." "Good! Do it!", I bark. 

The rest of the evolution goes pretty well, except for the four layers of shingles and tongue-and-groove under those that I had identified but they had not. A little education was done at simply looking at the edge of the roof. Anyway, the rest of the groups had some similar troubles to greater or lesser degrees. When all the newbies had rotated through all the stations (both ventilations, hose advancement, search and rescue coupled with ladder work) the instructors met out front with the B/C and the company officers. Each instructor took a turn going through each group on their respective station and pointing out the good and the bad. A few times through this process the chief mumbled his line of, "You can teach a monkey…". But no one ever asked him about it. Many of the issues that the instructors had identified seemed to boil down to one thing; thinking. In general the actual performance of the tasks assigned went well with all of the groups. There were very few real issues at the task level. But each and every instructor noted that if a wrinkle or problem was thrown at the groups they seemed to stall-out for a minute. Some of this could be attributed to experience, but not all. We have several "new" guys that came to us from other jobs. So, then is it a training issue? Both ours and their previous jobs? Again, on the task level it doesn't seem to be the case. A number of other new guys are really good rookies and will do just fine on our job. So what's the issue?I have discovered a fictitious affliction that I call, "Leaving Your Brain In The Car When You Get To The Firehouse Syndrome". But that's too long so we just call it LYBITS for short. Rookies aren't the only ones that suffer from it, believe me. But it does seem to attack them more so than a lot of others.

So we returned to our respective quarters and continued on with the tour. Later that evening the chief came by with some frappes (not those foo-foo coffee drinks that the rest of the country drinks, mind you. Look it up if you don't know what they are) to thank us for the work of the day. We were sitting on the bench out front, chatting and drinking our frappes, and I finally asked the chief about his monkey saying. He kinda laughed and then explained, "We can teach a monkey how to do the tasks of a fireman," he said. "But you can't teach 'em to think like a fireman." I suddenly had one of those light-bulb moments. We train our people well when it comes how to do the tasks of our job. Indeed the newbies did perform most of their tasks well. Just look at the story I relayed. They were told what tasks they were going to have to perform but they just assumed that the ladder they saw on the building was for them, forgetting this was supposed to be a "train as we play" evolution. And then with the chain-saw. The candidate that was attempting to start the saw did all of the tasks correctly, he kind of failed in the thinking the problem through department. The getting the gas can issue, they couldn't see how their delay of opening up the roof affected the other operations going on or the potential to save civilian lives. They were simply focused on their task at hand. Checking out the roof by looking at the edge, I kinda think it's basic and should be talked about in the ventilation portion of the academy but I'm kind of willing to let it slide a bit and chalk it up to experience. Hopefully they'll learn and remember for the next time. So how do you train someone to think? Can you train someone to think? I think to a certain extent yes. When I conduct drills, either for multiple companies, an in-house session or at the training academy, I like to do it kind of in a scenario based way. Instead of saying, "See that roof? Grab the saw, a hook, an axe and the roof ladder and go ventilate it." I like to say something like, "You're the first-due Truck. You've been assigned to open the roof. Whaddya need and how 'ya gonna do it?" Then talk through the evolution, throwing in questions and problems, before I send them off to do it. Then, once we've done it, we talk about it some more. Personally I think that maybe, just maybe, by doing it that way and by throwing problems and questions at them in a more calm setting than when we're up on a roof with the chain saw screaming and saw dust flying, maybe they'll start to really look at the entire picture instead of just that particular operation. That's my hope anyway.

If anyone else has any other methods or tricks and tips I'd love to hear them, and I'm sure other brothers and sisters would too. Share them in the comments, or just tell me how crappy the post was. But until next time,

Getjerbutts off 'da tailboard and go impart some knowledge to some kid who's gonna be you'ah officer some day.

~TK

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *