The prison of two ideas
Editor’s review ❘ By BOBBY HALTON
Over the years we have had many important debates. Some have resolved themselves: everyone is now pretty good with motor vehicles, and the horses have been put out to pasture. Most sensitive firefighters do not breathe smoke, although there are still a few “smoke eaters” in the closets. We still have a few “golden oldies” debates going on, like smoothbore nozzles vs. mist nozzles, which have now been around for about 50 years. Lately a few new ones are being drilled: always kick from the outside before entering, never punch from the outside before entering, always lie down, never lie down, and always do a 360 except when… . But the nature of these conversations has a consistent theme – always or never this one; always like this, never like this.
The scientific community says it this way about conflicting ideas: “The scientific process requires constant external challenge and criticism to arrive at an approximation of truth.” Comedian and social commentator Greg Gutfeld has a construct that helps us ordinary people see the nature of our dilemma. He calls it the “prison of two ideas”. The prison of two ideas means that we believe or feel so strongly that if one thing is true, then the other idea or concept cannot be true. It’s like we’re constantly looking for that “quick fix”. It’s a bit crazy because if there is one thing that is absolutely true in our profession, it is that there is no universal solution. Some authoritarians constantly shout that firefighters need a “dogma,” a written set of foolproof tactics codified in a universal manual. These people are usually “paper” and stupid firefighters.
It’s intoxicating, that sense of infallibility, and no one is immune, no matter how proud you are of your humility. Often we are so attached to one thing that we see no value or possibility of usefulness in the other. Some of our profound positions are absolutely valid and are confirmed by our local experience. In other words, our success with the tool or tactic locally makes us so comfortable with it that the alternatives seem counterintuitive. If it works, why should we change? Don’t get me wrong, this is a perfectly legitimate position. Change for change’s sake is a bad idea.
So how can we make ourselves more open to alternatives when it seems to go against our own human nature? It’s harder than it looks. Over tens of thousands of years of evolution, we have developed a very elegant sense of intuition. Intuition is a deeper concept than hunches; this is how the highly sophisticated human brain processes a lifetime of learning and experience and, within milliseconds, helps us make a decision or choice and helps us to act, most often correctly. The key is pattern matching. We can identify patterns and match courses of action from those patterns, and we do this unconsciously, instantly, and effortlessly.
Take the smooth bore against the fog. Each firefighter has had the opportunity to use several types of nozzles: smooth bore, combination, automatic, air suction and general fog. Often, in training or during our travels, we come to use tools and nozzles that we do not have at home. Even on our own platforms, we usually have at least the two main competitors. Whichever we prefer, the choice for routine operations or regular use, comes down to the local environment, history and customs.
The smoothbore team has history, widespread urban application, range, penetration, and even a hydraulic overhaul. It has been used for hundreds of years and its maintenance is almost zero. It is effective and nearly foolproof, so the smoothbore case as the point of choice is now and always has been very strong. Much of the above is also true for the other tipping choices. If you have 3-D or gas emergencies, fog is the choice. Fog nozzles are extremely versatile and the ability to switch from a straight to wide pattern is the default in many situations.
There are pros and cons for every perspective, every tool option, every organizational structure. At this point, some good firefighters say, “EMS destroys the fire department,” and to them, that’s the truth. If so, someone better ask Ed Croker to correct that line from “No Ambition But One,” where he says, “But, above all, our proudest endeavor is to save lives of men – the work of God himself.” Yeah, old Ed said, “EMS good.” But even today, some fail to recognize that some of the best firefighters in the world are dual role firefighters/paramedics. These guys and gals have no problem “crawling down hot, dark hallways” or dealing with a complicated stroke patient. Yes, they do both, maybe not at the same time, but they do both.
Two ideas can coexist. We can use smoothbore tips and fog. We can put out a fire and then go do our interior attack, or not; it depends on a lot of things. Sometimes we should lie in the fire and sometimes we should use the water from the tank. We can train our people in one set of skills — firefighting or EMS — and in some places that’s great and it works; or, we can have dual-role, multi-purpose medical firefighters. When you meet people who are stuck in the prison of two ideas, remember: they’re not bad people, but maybe they didn’t have a puppy or they didn’t go out much. And remember, when you notice the splinter in their eye, we might have a log in ours.
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