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Failure: Important Life Lessons Firefighters Are Afraid to Learn

Aug 11, 2023

By Chad Miller

No one likes to fail, especially firefighters. No one wakes up in the morning, goes to work and decides to take on a task or project with the intent to fail. We do not want to endure the ridicule or razing that we feel will inevitably come our way from our peers if we mess up. When it comes to firefighting, failure at a structure fire, a technical rescue incident, or at a medical emergency more times than not ends with a loss of life. On-duty failures can have disastrous consequences—not only great bodily harm or loss of life, but also loss of public trust and support for the fire departments that we work for.

Luckily for us, firefighters get countless opportunities over the span of our careers to train on the skills and techniques that we need to possess and be able to deploy at a moment's notice to be successful. So why are we as firefighters so reluctant to go to a new training class in order to learn a different technique or method of possibly doing our job better? Why do we shy away from participating in one of the many hands-on training courses being offered all over the country that are challenging participants to perform at a higher tempo or in a high-stress environment? Why do we refuse to simply volunteer to demonstrate a basic technique during a company training evolution in our own departments? I believe the answer in most cases is our fear of failure.

Every one of us have experienced failures as we grew up as children and young adults that taught us valuable life lessons. Our entire lives feature series of successes and failures that have molded us into the men and women we are today. In my life experiences, I have learned more from my failures than I have from my successes. Sometimes the consequences of failure left physical or emotional scars that resulted in pain and suffering. Sometimes those failures resulted in ridicule from friends and colleagues. Some failures on the sports field may have resulted in extra laps, pushups, or a good chewing out by a coach. No matter what the cost or toll that resulted when I have experienced failures, the one thing I am certain of is that I did not want to feel the unpleasant consequence of those failures again. Additionally, those same failures resulted in important lessons that I have remembered for the rest of my life—lessons that I was determined not to relive again.

In 2016 a group of firefighters from my department decided to attend a six-day training program in Dalton, Georgia. This program was designed to test both your mental and physical endurance while teaching you to be adaptive and develop critical decision-making skills in high stress environments. At the time I have been in the fire service for 21 years and I had not really experienced what I would consider any serious professional failures in that time. I did not hesitate to sign up for the class nor did I harbor any suspicions that I would not be successful. We trained for weeks leading up to the class and arrived in Georgia excited for the opportunity and ready to complete the course, which began on Sunday morning. I failed out of the class on Tuesday morning, unable to complete the required tasks, and by lunchtime was driving back to Oklahoma with two others. At first, I attempted to process what I had done wrong and how I had failed to complete the assigned task. The uncomfortable feeling of defeat, the sinking feeling inside of me quickly gave way to fear as I wondered what other firefighters would say about me not completing the course. What type of jokes and ridicule would I have to endure from my fellow firefighters? What I experienced when I got back to my department was not what I was expecting. My colleagues were supportive and encouraging, giving me credit for attending a course most will never even attempt to complete. My close friends, who I go to for advice and counsel, helped me process my failure and realize that I was a better firefighter after my failed attempt than I was when I made the decision to attend the course in the first place. They also helped me develop a game plan to correct my deficiencies so that I could go back to Georgia and successfully complete the course. I knew that I did not want to come home feeling the unpleasant result of my failure again, so I trained harder than I did before, shored up my personal weaknesses, and went back in 2017 and completed the course.

The lessons I learned in failing to complete the course the first time were twofold. First, I had feared the "pain and suffering" that I had convinced myself was sure to come from my brothers and sisters back home. What I actually experienced was support and encouragement. Don't get me wrong, regardless of where you work, there are haters who will never miss an opportunity to throw rocks at others even though they would never attempt to better themselves in any way, shape, or form. But if those are not the people that you normally go to for advice or counsel, then why do you care what they think about you in the first place? Second, I became a better firefighter simply by preparing for the course. Even though I was unsuccessful, I learned a lot in the three days that I was there the first time that not only made me a better firefighter but that I could bring back and share with other members of my department. This brings up a great side point: whether your coworkers want to join you in taking that high-level training course or the technically advanced rescue class does not matter. Come back to your departments and share what you have learned with others around you. Be humble in your attitude and approach to others no matter what you have done that they have not. This is how we can all help make the fire service better.

Failure is an unpleasant experience for all of us. It can result in embarrassment and ridicule on a personal level. It might result in far greater consequences on a professional level. But I challenge you to take the risk at the training level. Enroll in the class that not everyone successfully completes. Take a chance on the advanced level course that not everyone passes that may help you gain new skills and abilities to better perform your job as a firefighter. And take comfort in knowing that even if you fail, you will be a better firefighter from the preparation leading up to the class and for whatever amount of time you get to spend in it. Who knows what valuable lessons you might gain from making the attempt and coming up short? Who knows what professional or personal relationship you might make in the process that may change the course of your career or your life? The public we serve expects and deserves the best. Don't let the fear of failing or the unpleasant consequences that you think might come with it hold you back from advancing your skills and ability to be the best firefighter you can be.

Chad Miller is a 27-year veteran of the fire service. He has been with Tulsa (OK) Fire Department since April 2000, currently holding the rank of district chief. He completed the Georgia Smoke Diver program in November of 2017 in Class 54. Chad is a founding member of the Oklahoma Smoke Diver Association and serves as an Elder and its Chief Operating Officer. Chad has worked in the FDIC International HOT Logistics Section for the past two years.

By Chad Miller From Failure to Smoke Diver: A Four-Year Journey of Perseverance National Fireman's Journal Podcast: The Georgia Smoke Divers Program Quitting Is Useless, But Failure… Chad Miller