How “Oh Sh*t” Moments Can Make You a Better Firefighter

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This is the first of a three-part blog series by Jody Jahn, PhD, that addresses how we learn about complex hazards. Each of the three posts focus on a different facet of learning:

  • This first post – How we process our individual lived experiences;
  • The second post (next Tuesday, Aug. 18) – How we understand our role and voice in the context of a crew’s culture;
  • The third post (the following Tuesday, Aug. 25) – How organizations strive to understand incidents, and how lessons-oriented documents (learning reviews, rapid lesson sharing, etc.) can help individuals and crews relate to what happened.

Jody Jahn, PhD, is an organizational communication and behavior researcher and professor at University of Colorado at Boulder. She was a wildland firefighter for eight seasons, working on engines, hand crews, and heli-rappel.


How “Oh Sh*t” Moments Can Make You a Better Firefighter

By Jody Jahn, PhD

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Jody Jahn

You can learn about wildland firefighting from reading books and taking classes. But you can only master it through experience.

A firefighter I interviewed a few years back, put it this way: “Experience is something you gain right after you need it. And sometimes, some things in fire you have to experience to learn how to deal with it.”

I love that quote because it captures the Oh Sh*t element of learning-by-doing—that you will face situations you won’t know how to deal with. But, you’ll feel your way through and come out the other side with new slides in your deck.

What are your most pivotal learning experiences in fire? What kinds of things come to mind?

…taking on a new leadership position?… being chased by fire? …declining an assignment and justifying why? …being involved in an accident or responding to one? …dropping the ball, messing up?

In my research with wildland firefighters, all of the above came to mind for people when they talked about their key learning experiences.

The most common thing people talked about, though, were their Oh Sh*t moments. The times when they had to think and move fast because everything was going to hell in a handbasket.

As a researcher, I have a 35,000-foot view of people’s experiences. Something that I never got in my eight seasons as a wildland firefighter. People, who in some cases I’d known for years, told me about crazy experiences that they’d never brought up before, and probably wouldn’t have if I was not interviewing them.

Looking across a bunch of people’s Oh Sh*t moments, I’ve noticed a few things that might be helpful as you try to get the most out of your hard-won experience.

  1. Oh Sh*t Moments Make Your Body Smarter

We all have common sense ideas, training, and book knowledge about basic firefighting guidelines and best practices, and what it looks like to implement them adequately.

In this profession, most of these best practices are “written in blood.” The 10 & 18, LCES, Downhill Line Construction Checklist (etc.) distill lessons learned from accidents and fatalities, and they speak to injuries and deaths that re-occur.

Think about early season refresher training—walking through the timelines for the South Canyon, Cramer, or Yarnell Hill fires. How many times have you heard someone lament that the wildland fire profession “keeps learning the same lessons over and over again”?

The reason is that a profession (as a whole) can’t learn! What it can do is record insights from accidents and fatalities, write new guidelines or re-emphasize old ones, and come up with new training, best practices, and changes to organizational culture. Unfortunately, the process of capturing the deeply physical lessons from accidents and translating them into words—especially, new written guidance, etc.—means that the physical part can get lost. The blood gets washed off.

This is why Oh Sh*t moments are so important.

Experiencing a close call—like running from fire—implants deep lessons about these back-to-basics aspects of the job into your muscles, your spatial awareness, and your adrenal system (what phenomenology scholars refer to as embodied learning). When these lessons become part of your body—not just your mind—they become tangible knowledge about your surroundings, and you likely won’t be willing to compromise on them in the future.

Here’s another great quote from a firefighter reflecting on his Oh Sh*t moment. He said:

“I think if people haven’t had those experiences, you know, those close calls or those “Oh Sh*t” moments you know…if people haven’t been burned—not literally—but if you haven’t had a close call or seen some close calls, then it changes what you feel is an acceptable risk. …Things that now make me leery are…people who I know haven’t been bitten or shown. That concerns me because I do see them acting more aggressively toward fire…You just realize that they haven’t had that kind of experience quite yet and they haven’t had their decisions change because of it. …I’m always a little leery if they don’t know their limits.”

The point here is that these experiences can change a firefighter’s normal way of doing things for the better because they transfer into our dumb* bodies what our smart minds already know.

*Admit it. Our bodies could step it up.

  1. Oh Sh*t Moments Help You Gain a Voice

Or they make your voice stronger and more resolute.

Once you’ve gone through the exertion, emotion, physical and biological experiences of an Oh Sh*t moment, you feel strongly about what you know because now you know that lesson for sure. (I have a lot more to say about voice, but I’ll leave that for another post.)

  1. Oh Sh*t Moments Can Make You…or Break You

It might be helpful to know that talking about your pivotal fireline experiences can help you process them more effectively.

In my research, I found that crews that make a point to do regular learning-based discussions can help their people put intense fire experiences into perspective. If all crew members feel comfortable sharing their points of view openly and honestly, then everyone can benefit from seeing a tough situation from a variety of angles.

But you can’t just expect everyone on the crew to “say something.” Crew supervisors play a really important role in setting the expectation that the crew will have these discussions, modeling what openness and honesty look like, and holding their members accountable for contributing. (I’ll talk more about that in my next blog post in this three-part series.)

When crews don’t talk about their experiences, especially the ones that stand your neck hairs on end, people can get traumatized. Talking about your experiences allows you to name, or put a label on, what happened and how you feel about it. Once the experience has a name, then you can start to deal with it. Brene Brown talked about this in a recent podcast, and here’s an old This American Life episode along these lines.

Without talking about these events, people can feel isolated, coming to believe that an incident was only scary for them and nobody else, or that what they are feeling is abnormal or weak. And they can carry that stress with them.

Oh Sh*t – Now What?

Given that these experiences are so important, what tools can you hone—as an individual—to get the most out of them?

The main thing to recognize is that Oh Sh*t moments show us this: when it comes to truly knowing fire, our bodies are the real brains of the operation. So, the goal here is to make a stronger mind-body connection by reflecting on your key learning experiences and getting really specific about what you learned from them.

Step 1: Gather all your slides and put them in one tray

  • In other words, take time to reflect on your most important learning experiences in fire. Maybe they are Oh Sh*t moments, maybe they’re not, but get them all in one place mentally. If you’re a writer-downer jot ‘em down.

Step 2: Label the skill

  • Firefighting is a multi-faceted job and there are lots of skills to master. Here are a few skills to consider that a given slide might speak to. Add your own categories to what I’m leaving out:
    • Understanding fire behavior.
    • Leadership development.
    • Strengthening your voice.
    • Bringing safety lessons to life. Or, transferring what your brain knows about LCES, 10 & 18 (and others) into your body/muscles and spatial awareness.
    • Firefighting strategies (bigger picture firefighting goals).
    • Firefighting tactics (the specific actions that implement strategies).

Step 3: Label what changed you

  • For each slide, think about how the experience led to you thinking or acting differently than you did before.
    • Are you more willing to stand up to other people than you were before? Pinpoint what it was in your slide that makes you feel sure of yourself.
    • Did you scrap an old way of doing things for a new one? For example, do you now always hike and time escape routes instead of just eye-balling them and calling it good?
    • Did you find a technique that worked really well that you now use on a regular basis?

Step 4: Be a mentor

  • The last step is to distill three to five key lessons you’ve learned and tell them to a less-experienced firefighter—this could be another person or your younger self.
  • Why share lessons with other firefighters? Every firefighter I’ve met has experienced significant events that left them with deep lessons. Even though you can’t transfer your slides intact to other people’s trays, your stories give people new things to look and watch out for, and new ideas about how to handle tough situations.
  • Why share lessons with your younger self? So you can see both the depth of experience you’ve built so far, and so you can be honest with yourself about where you need to grow.

Now it’s your turn. How do you get the most from your firefighting experiences? What would you add to this? I’m eager to hear your thoughts.

NOTE: I’d love to do a blog series dedicated to your Oh Sh*t moments. If you would like to anonymously contribute one of yours and its take-away lesson(s) to the blog series, here’s a link to a Google form. I will not collect any identifiable information, and if you accidentally give me some, I will make sure to edit it out.

5 thoughts on “How “Oh Sh*t” Moments Can Make You a Better Firefighter

  1. WOW! This is really excellent. “….translating them into words—especially, new written guidance, etc.—means that the physical part can get lost. The blood gets washed off.” Light bulb moment for sure. Can’t wait to read the next two!

  2. Some great insights in this article thanks for pulling it together. I have shared this widely in Australia with fellow New South Wales Rural Fire Service Volunteers as we get closer to our fire season. The 2019/20 season was horrific and many of us experienced these oh sh@t moments. I went from Advanced Fire Firefight to Crew Leader over tthe 2019/20 period and experienced some radically different fire behaviour. I am actively involved in training i ng our new volunteers at our brigade and the insights if this article will be used to pass on my experiences

  3. I believe that personal experience can be the *worst* teacher of a hazardous activity. If they get out alive, many people will teach themselves a false lesson — that they are smart enough or good enough or ready enough to escape such moments. If they don’t get out alive, well, then…that.

    There *are* things to be learned:
    – when your decision has put you in danger
    – when your decision has put your subordinates in danger
    – when your decision has put uninvolved 3rd parties in danger
    – when a supervisor has put you in danger
    – when a subordinate has put you in danger
    – when an uninvolved 3rd party has put you in danger
    – when you have recognized unmitigated hazards and negotiated a successful turndown or modification.
    But I believe it is irresponsible to consider those exposures as a standard teaching environment.

    It is important to learn as much as possible from a personal near miss experience, but I believe it is more important to learn how to not *have* narrow escapes — yet still learn and retain the important lessons of fire operations, driving, etc.

    My observation is that the least risk, most effective, and exceptionally durable safety lessons are learned from personal emotional engagement with the tragic outcomes of our peers.

    We don’t learn much from the tidy analysis of “others” we might argue were less smart, less ready, less trained, less conditioned, less equipped, less organized, less lucky, or less anything than we are. Rather, the meaningful lessons come from the loss of friends, acquaintances, and historic peers who we individually and deeply believe were were exactly as smart, as ready, as organized, trained, conditioned, and equipped as we are — probably they were even better than us in some important ways. And when they went to the same places, to do the same things, in the same ways, as we do them every day, they didn’t come out the other side.

    When we truly believe all that, then there is no more important professional lessons to discover than the ones which led to their loss. When we find and learn those lessons, they can stick for a career spent putting them to use and passing them on. I may need annual practice on technique, but I don’t need a refresher on principles — those lessons are in me for life. “Damn, that was close!” is no substitute.

    A successful career is not the one spent collecting close calls, but the one with the fewest and smallest errors — picking up as many aggressive good saves as you can collect along the way. Live long, and prosper.

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