Is This the Dumbing Down of the Fire Service?

As I watch car commercials I am always struck by the new and better ways car manufacturers come up with to get us from point “A” to point “B”. All the bells and whistles add up to is more bells and whistles on wheels, but they don’t change the fact that we just need to go from point “A” to point “B” reliably. I came up with a phrase for it a few years ago “The Dumbing down of Drivers”. I think it started with the automatic transmission then worked it’s way to ABS, back up sensors (now cameras), then came the lane wandering doohickey, and now there is the “I can’t parallel park” button and automatic “Oh Shit” brakes. None of this crap is actually NEEDED to drive a car. Sure they are nice to have so drivers can focus on other things like phone calls, texting, TV, and whatever they are warming up on the heated seat. But the bottom line is they don’t change the point “A” to point “B” thing. The one thing they do change is they allow poor drivers to appear competent. Drivers can’t tell if their car is running hot because there is no gauge to go by, just a light that comes on when it’s too late. Many drivers could not back into their garage without the camera or a ground guide. In the city at night you will see numerous drivers without their headlights on because they are used to the car doing it for them, they may not even know how to turn them on. Cars are now designed to help prevent incompetent drivers from damaging other people’s property, and sell you the next big thing of course.
I could say the dumbing down of pump operators started with the relief valve on steamers but I’ll keep it a little more recent.

I didn’t mind when computer controlled pumps came around, they were inevitable. But they were probably the recent beginning of the end of really proficient pump operators. As proof of that we were doing a drill with a probie and a mechanically controlled pump that we had as a spare while ours was in the shop. We made him break off and charge a line before he went to make the hydrant. He turned the throttle up to the proper pressure and then went for the hydrant, when he opened the hydrant the man on the pipe got a bit of a high pressure surprise. The only way to control the pump was by controlling the RPM’s, the probie was used to the computer controlled pump that would idle down if more pressure came in. We also learned that the pressure relief valve was not set at our department standard of 130PSI, it was set at 190. I know, I know, this is a case of knowing your equipment but I think the bigger issue is not knowing how the pump works because the computer controlled pumps compensate for lack of operator expertise. Pumps are designed to remove operator error and operators are leaning on these safeties without even knowing it.

I’ve just been introduced to the preconnect and I’m not a fan. Not a fan at all. I actually think this is another step in the dumbing down of firefighters. Peconnects started as a great time saver that firefighters could use on a large swath of their fire calls. But they have turned into THE way to connect to a pump. I can see the value of having a preconnected handline on your apparatus. What I cannot understand is why ALL of them are preconnected. Preconnects eliminate 90% of the hydraulic calculations, so it’s cookbook firefighting do what the recipe says you don’t need to know why. The anecdote for this “new and better” idea comes from a drill I was lucky to be a part of. We ran a small line off a pump, then went back for a 2 1/2″ line. We didn’t need the whole 250′ so I asked the operator to break it off at 100′. He did, then he pulled the rest of the crosslay out, unhooked the remaining line and hooked the 2 1/2″ up in the bed. I had to look at it for awhile to understand what I had seen. He was so used to running preconnects that he forgot about the regular discharges on the pump panel. Also the angle of the connection in the bed kinked the line so bad water would not flow, it had to be shut down and be moved to a regular discharge anyways.

Automatic Nozzles….Why would you? Automatic nozzles continue the dumbing down of the fire service and are a hazard. Too many firefighters have leaned on them for far too long. They are used as a crutch to replace training and real world experience with nozzles. As a firefighter you need to pull lines and flow water, then you need to add challenges and complications. It’s better to figure out how to clear these complications in training than at an incident. I’ve worked with people who could not tell a fog nozzle was clogged and then had no idea how to work around it (pull the fog nozzle off and go solid stream) because they have never had the opportunity to do it. Automatic nozzles give you a pretty stream, not a consistent volume and its the volume of water that puts out a fire, not the attractivness of the stream. We all know it’s nice to have something pretty but when it’s time for me to place my trust in my equipment I want to know how its going to perform not how it’s going to look.

When your department agrees to purchase automatic nozzles they are saying 2 things, maybe 3.
1. We don’t think our operators are competent enough to supply the proper GPM’s at the proper pressure.
But when you are running preconnects you don’t have to worry about what to set anything at, right? So I guess it works out.
2. We don’t trust our officers/pipe people to know when something is going wrong with their water supply.
Bad looking stream = bad water. Automatic nozzles always look “good”.
3. We buy what the city next to us buys. Administration mails it in, line personnel pay the price.

Their is no replacement for experience. If you cannot get that experience on the fire ground try to get it on the training ground. When you run lines and flow water you need to add complications, you need to see what happens when you have inadequate/excessive pressure. You need to break off the line and hook it somewhere different.

Fire departments are getting sucked into the “Fast Water” craze that had been swirling about recently and have forgotten that fast water has always been an issue. Fast water is just another hollow concept that firefighters aspire to without any understanding of. Being good at the basics of your job will more for everyone in your community than worrying about “Fast Water”. If you train on your equipment there will be no difference between a preconnect and a flat lay, but you may have to pump at a lower PSI. Many firefighters are not prepared to change things that “Have always been done that way” also know as the worst excuse for cookbook firefighting ever. Firefighters are focusing on minutia of the service and letting GIANT issues slide, like inexperience and lack of training.

Take a self assessment, are you one of those drivers that knows how to control your vehicle if it starts to slide? Do you know how your ABS works? Do you know why your pump’s RPMs drop when you open the hydrant? Do you know to pump for 1/2 a bed of line instead of just the preconnects? Can you successfully troubleshoot a poor fire stream?

I realize there is PLENTY I don’t know. When listening to the retirees I’m amazed at how many little tricks they have, possibly because they had to do the same job with less. Their bells and whistles were actually just bells and whistles and not much else.


  • David Peterson says:

    Just a few counter arguments to your valid thesis: Today’s modern fire service has responders wearing too many hats such as EMS, fire, hazmat, inspections, and public education. On top of the ever-increasing number of daily emergency and non-emergency runs it becomes very difficult to get the training that is needed to be good, much less proficient, at all of the above. Then, this all becomes a juggling act and it is even difficult to find the time to shop for, and cook, the food for meals. Many crews now eat at fast food restaurants because of time constraints! Expertise will not come from fire experience because fires are too far and few to learn from these days. All of this adds up to finding engineering controls (read: anything that takes the element of human error out of the equation) that can make the chance of mistakes minimal. And, as a former fire chief, this is what I’d prefer at emergencies when stress is high and things need to be accomplished quickly and accurately. So, what I am saying is that “dumbing down” may be the most efficient, safe, and effective way of eliminating mistakes and unfortunate outcomes in this modern world involving emergencies!

  • Ray McCormack says:

    This is defenity part of it. When we are too busy to drill that’s one thing but when we don’t even get a chance to learn the options that is another issue. Complaints of lazy firefighters will only increase when technology can be blamed and used as the scapegoat for not knowing your job.

  • Johnny says:

    When I was a probie, we had pre-determined pressures, and we knew the friction loss for our hoses, but our Captain ran us through hydraulics classes. While we might not use those formulas, I’m still convinced the understanding is indispensable if one wants to be a great chauffeur.

  • dennis says:

    it was just a matter of time until this became evident in the fire serice. Unfortunately the dumbing down as you call it, could be a direct result of the nation’s professional fire service being forced to hire candidates that have lower grades on their employment exams due to racial and ethnic quotas being enforced.

  • Hollie Broughton says:

    I was left feeling a little offended here. Trying to have an open mind, but also trying to figure out why you have to knock Pump operators so badly. Full time, I see your point. But I volunteer. And am a Pump operator/ Firefighter. I was graced with only 48 hours of training and 4 years of experience. And at a good working fire after a full shift at the paying job, I’d be lucky enough to get a handful of people to help sometimes. Taking a tole on everyone there. Now not only myself but everyone else there has to think and do twice or three times as much. And not having to count hoses is one less thing. And the only thing that is pre connect is an 1 1/2 inch and I have 2 of them. I do agree that we need to learn the old way, just in case something breaks. Goes wrong whatever. But please, see my point of sometimes that little extra helps us. And when you never know what your doing at that fire, some things are blessings. My name may be Pumper Monkey. But I’m interior certified. And I don’t want that guy newer than me to have a whoops moment. Nothing but respect here. Thanks for the read.

  • Aaron says:

    As an old school firefighter i have seen the change in our job from gear to hud display on my mask to transmitting 12 leads by wifi to the hospital and its not the drivers or the young firefighters fault for not knowing “the other way” or the dumbing down of the fire service. Its us the old school guys who have crawled on our bellys to get to the seat of a fire not because of the tic showed me were to go, but my ears by listening and feeling the heat change. I dont rely on the change to do my job i rely on experience we as “senior firefighters are part to blame. I ask my driver all the time what if? As for automatic nozzle i agree with you but again if you don’t show the young guys then how do they know. You cant expect them to figure it out thats not there way its a generational thing. Its your job to show them just as it was shown to you. Tradition is a huge part of this job and change and tecknology is inevitable. You say dumbing down of the fire service I say pass on the traditions and show them the way to do it old school

  • Coleby says:

    While I am part of the newer generation of firefighters, I completely agree with a lot of things that have been stated in this article. There is too much technology in the fire service, to an extent. HUDs on an airpack I am grearful for, automatic nozzles I am not a fan of. Technology just adds another thing to go wrong at exactly the wrong moment and us new guys need to be TAUGHT how to troubleshoot these problems. I’m a young volunteer with a passion for learning the job. I want to learn everything I can, including trouble shooting problems. But I’d be absolutely lost in learning these things without someone to teach me. On a related tangent, if anyone has any suggestions on training for issues like this, I’m all ears. Please help me out.

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