Making fireground decisions in an instant-replay world

Billy Hayes

In my column “Why Fire Service Data Matters,” I said how much I love sports. While I’m no longer actively playing as much as I wish I was, I do watch and study many different sports, teams and individuals.

One thing I’ve noticed over the past few years is the dependency on instant replay. I certainly think it has its advantages, but I wonder if it has hurt sports.

Further, has it hurt our ability as a society to make decisions, and then accept the decisions that are made and the outcomes? And, what is the impact on the fire service?

Baseball has always been my favorite sport. I only played football (which I love) for a short time, but I held a bat and ball in my hand since I could walk. Like so many others I grew up with, I was always playing baseball — spring, summer, fall and, yes, even winter.

I can remember my mom and dad taking me to the other side of Atlanta for practice clinics and playing baseball in December in 30-degree weather. It didn’t matter, if there was a game on the diamond or in the street, you could find me in the middle of it.

I was a catcher most of my baseball career, all the way into college. As I grew older, I understood the game more and more, to the extent that I began to question calls that the umpires made.

I remember as a 14-year-old kid playing recreational summer ball, and after an obvious strike (at least in my opinion), the umpire called the pitch a ball. Knowing that I was the only thing between him and a fastball to the facemask, I simply asked if he was watching the same game as I was.

After he told me to focus on catching and he would make the calls, we both laughed and the game continued.

That umpire would eventually be my high school coach. He told me in high school that he appreciated my attention (not necessarily my sarcasm) because he knew my passion and understanding of the game (perhaps his subtle way of apologizing for blowing that strike call).

Booth review

For the past few years, we’ve had the graphics on TV with strike zones that show whether a pitch, despite what is called, is a strike or not. Three years ago, we’ve added instant replay to see if hits near the lines are fair or foul and if plays at bases or in the field are safe or out.

In football, almost every play is reviewable. After watching the Super Bowl, I’ve seen discussions on whether there was a holding call here, whether this was a completed pass or whether this ball crossed the goal line or not.

People focus on the various calls the referees made and not on the coaches’ play calling and the team’s execution of those plays. Ultimately, the Falcons loss in Super Bowl LI wasn’t the final touchdown call on the goal line, but many use it as the justification for a great comeback by the Patriots and a complete collapse by the Falcons.

With that said, I watched a football game not long ago where the announcers made a comment that regardless of the call the referees made, the replay booth would have the ultimate decision.

The official called the play a fumble so it could continue in case they were wrong. Once the play is whistled dead, regardless if a player advances the ball, it is down. I’ve seen players injured on plays that were dead, but officials allowed the players to play through relying on instant replay to correct them right or wrong.

Think about this. Before instant replay, officials and umpires would get together and discuss the call to see if one another had a better angle. If not, the call stood, like it or not.

Essentially, we have discounted the decision-making of game officials and placed it in the hand of technology. There are those who say the strikes should now be called by technology and not the umpire.

Upon further review

There are constant comments in the last two years of how officiating in both college and professional football has become worse. Could it be they too have become less proficient because of technology? Could it be we no longer value the decisions that sports officials make because technology is the safety net?

What does instant replay in sports have to do with decision-making?

Instant replay has taught our society that everything should be reviewable and up for questioning, and if we don’t like the outcome, we continue to question it in hopes it will be overturned. Further, it has made us skeptical of human decision-making and reliant upon instant replay.

Let’s take the presidential election, for example. In the days after the election, there was a re-count effort because the results weren’t in favor of some on the losing side.

In fact, it revealed that there were more votes in some areas for the winning candidate than originally counted. There have been those who said the election shouldn’t count for this reason or another. Because some didn’t vote for Donald Trump, there are hashtags and bumper stickers “Not My President.”

Many people cannot accept the decision that was made so protests, rallies and even violence have resulted as if the election will be over-turned. Partisan obstruction has never been more prevalent.

This is not a political statement; it’s a mere observation of the current situation.

While conducting presentations and workshops around the nation, I often hear about how millennials are always questioning authority. This isn’t something new, as my teenage self will attest.

However, could it be that we overlook the fact that the millennials have grown up in an evolving state of instant replay? Perhaps they have been programmed in a society to ask why, or even call foul (challenge the play if you will).

Making the call

Perhaps decades of taking short-cuts, hitting the reset button or starting over in video games if we don’t like how it’s going makes us think real-life is the same.

The difference in sports and the fire service are life-and-death decisions. There is no instant replay for us. The decisions made as first-arriving officers determines the rest of the incident.

The next play of an emergency incident could be a body recovery if the previous decision failed. There is no next batter. There is no next free throw. There is no next down. There is no hit the reset button and start the game over.

Nonetheless, I believe much of our society has evolved into this. We should take every precaution that years of fire service history, experience and line-of-duty-deaths have taught us, and that is we must be proficient in our decision-making.

As an example, my friend Chief Ron Dennis references his time in, Arizona, which is home to spring training for the Chicago Cubs. He tells a story of watching Hall of Famer Ryne Sandberg field ground balls and throw to first, time after time, for hours every day.

His goal was to be proficient and flawless in the execution of his responsibility, years before instant replay arrived. His goal was to make the play where there was no doubt for the umpire’s decision.

It’s that kind of decision-making and execution that we must teach, train and execute in the fire service.

The public’s trust is for us to help prevent or mitigate whatever emergency they may face, without calling a timeout to make a call to the replay booth.

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