Connecting Relevance

By: Gary Lane

We don’t have those. We don’t do that. That’ll never work or happen here. How many times have we heard, or sometimes even spoken, those words? It happens all the time in departments across the country. Guys see or hear about a department, big or small, that does something at a fire or other emergency that they would never do. The mindset can start in recruit school for many of us, and then perpetuate itself over the years as a mildly bad attitude for some, and bordering on complacency for others. It’s the mindset of “us vs. them.” Because FDNY fights fire a certain way, we automatically would not fight a fire the same way because we are not a “big city.” Please stop saying that! While you may not have a Manhattan-esque skyline in your first due, you may have a building that cannot be reached by your longest ground ladder or aerial device. You may have a building that gets you out of breath when you walk it with a hook, halligan, and a can, even if it’s not a 6 story walk up H-type. We need to drop the chip on our shoulder and relate what we can to what is relevant to our own response area.

“Something(A) is relevant to a task(T) if it increases the likelihood of accomplishing the goal(G), which is implied by T.”1 I pulled this from Wikipedia because I think it perfectly spells out why we need to recognize the relevance that is present all around us. Relevance increases the likelihood of accomplishing the goal. Perfect. So how do we do that?

Finding the relevance in the things we see and do, whether it be on the Internet or out on the streets, is of the utmost importance. There is a disconnect that takes place for many of us while in recruit school or the fire academy. It typically starts with a “pass the next quiz” attitude or an instructor with less than perfect “people skills” who just tells you to memorize it for the test. There is no connection made between you and the material being covered on any sort of a personal level. Even worse is carrying that attitude into your career and allowing your enthusiasm to be overrun by complacency. This sets us up for a lackadaisical attitude in regards to knowing our own city, town, or district. We must constantly strive to remember what we may be called upon to do (fight fire!), however infrequently that may be.

So where do we start? We start by showing up, ready to work. That means mind, body, and spirit. When we make the connection of relevance in our minds, it can have a triggering effect that places that information in a more easily accessible area to be pulled from down the road during an emergency. This is that slide show tray we pick from, be it our experience on a call or a training. The brain will fill in the gap with the closest slide from memory that resembles the current situation and apply it. The term for this is Recognition Primed Decision Making (RPDM for short) and has been discussed numerous times on this website.

Hopefully you understand the importance of correlating relevance in everything we are involved with as it relates to our firefighting effectiveness and efficiency. I will give a few examples here of my own that can serve as a jumping-off point for others out there that are just starting to tap into this “relevance thing.”

The first example is something I’m sure all of us can relate to, Fire Engineering magazine. Fire Engineering typically has some really fantastic cover photos. While they are cool to look at, they also give us an easy way to drive home the basics of our job, i.e. “it could happen here.” With a cover that shows numerous FDNY firefighters outside a blazing Brooklyn Brownstone, it is easy for your first thought to be “we don’t have brownstones here.” That may be true, but you might have something similar in your district that would require similar strategies and tactics. So all of the sudden that “big city” photo does relate to your “small town” fire problem. Photo of Kent “brownstone” Where are the stairs? How many families or different units are there? What’s our access to the rear?

The next example we can find relevance in is the “garden apartment.” For years I kept hearing about guys in the D.C. area doing these crazy long hose stretches to garden apartments. I didn’t even know what the heck a garden apartment was! Then I realized we have several apartment complexes that could be considered that very thing in my first and second-due district. Photo of Garden Apartment While definitions and terminology can vary from coast to coast, we all have a connection to each other in our various operations. If a longer stretch works in Prince George’s County, why shouldn’t I look into the details a little deeper and see where it could benefit my department?

The next example has to do with our daily drills and training. Many visitors to the Fire Service Warrior website are familiar with the emphasis we place on physical, mental and task-oriented preparedness. The comparison to elite military units that place these same items at the top of their priority list is an easy one. While I would never claim to be able to relate to what a Navy SEAL endures during BUD/S, I can absolutely relate to a group of people dedicated to constant improvement by way of job-specific training. “A common man with an uncommon desire to succeed.” That small quote is taken from the Naval Special Warfare Creed. It speaks volumes about their mission. I truly believe we can apply this to our mission as Fire Service Warriors in “Forging Fire Service Excellence.” So how do I make a connection between the hard charging warriors that make up our Special Operations community and the above-average firefighter that wants to stay at the top of his or her game? It’s all about the basic drills—mundane, repetitive, fundamental drills. Over and over and over. If members of the Navy SEALs find it not only beneficial, but downright critical, to repetitively shoot tens of thousands of rounds of ammunition, to the point of perfect muscle memory that borders on automaticity culminating in marksmanship that is world class, don’t you think we can reap those same rewards by constantly stretching line, throwing ladders, and perfecting our own craft? Absolutely!

Every time I watch a video of another vacant house in Detroit burning. Every time I read about some technical high angle rope rescue in New York City. Every time I hear about small towns fighting house fires with five or six people (or fewer!) on scene. Every time, I try and relate it to my own city. My own department. To myself. Every time. It matters because it will help us accomplish our goal in the end. That goal is fire service excellence.

  1. Hjørland, B. & Sejer Christensen, F. (2002) “Work tasks and socio-cognitive relevance: a specific example” Journal of the American Society for Information Science and Technology, 53(11), 960-965.


  1. Great article! I try to instill this thought process into the personnel in my department on a daily basis. There is something to learn from every fire and every article on a fire that will make us better. Sometimes this is accomplished easier than at other times. This is where we, who are dedicated to the job, need to step up and be creative. Finding creative ways of relating a situation to something that we might find in out area is an important skill. We must find ways to get through to those who may not have the creative vision to see how every fire can relate to what we are doing in our area. When we open the eyes of others and help them realize how similar fires are, no matter where they are. Showing them that we can take pieces of each of those fires to improve or revamp how we are training and working on a scene, we will start to make progress towards a better service. The more we understand as an organization, a shift, and an individual the better off the people we have signed up to serve will be. We owe it to them to learn and apply this information. Not only to them but to those we work with, their families, and those who have paid the ultimate sacrifice at these fire before us.

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