The information gradient: How all firefighters contribute to the knowledge base

Mentorship and information-sharing are invaluable among generational transitions


I have the luxury to view the fire service from many vantage points. Fourteen years ago, I started as a volunteer firefighter in a volunteer-only department, and I recently began a career as a full-time firefighter. When the public calls 911, whether it is a rural volunteer department or a big-city career department, the expectation is someone is coming to fix the problem. So how do we know how to fix those problems?

The fire service has been fixing problems since the Knights of Malta cared for burn victims during the Crusades. In the United States, we have evolved from community bucket brigades and horse-drawn pumps to modern-day apparatus and high-tech tools – all the while, knowledge has passed from one generation to the next.

One way to pass on that experience learned is to write it down. Standards are set, books are written to reflect the standard, and certifications are born to confirm competency of the standard.

"There is a concentrated wealth of knowledge in experienced firefighters – and more fresh firefighters ripe to absorb that knowledge every day," Benjamin Baham writes. (Photo/LACoFD)

For many fire and EMS certifications, the standard is 70% of an entry-level curriculum. We all have to start somewhere, but our communities deserve better than 70% of entry level. So, how do we raise this bar?

Follow the gradient

There is a concentrated wealth of knowledge in experienced firefighters – and more fresh firefighters ripe to absorb that knowledge every day. Passing knowledge and experience to others is rewarding for yourself, your company and your community. But how do we get this wealth of knowledge to the eager minds?

We follow the gradient. With any gradient, concentrations go from high to low, the substances equalize, and both substances contribute to the final product.

The senior firefighter has the concentration in the gradient. But do not discount the new firefighters; they can surprise you. Plus, if you dismiss them often enough, they will stop speaking up. The senior guy has the knowledge and experience, and the rookies have just learned what was in the book. There is only so much you can put in a book, and most books teach some minimum industry standard. But the rookie has some advantages with this. They just received the latest training, hopefully with newer evidence-based practices vs. the “how it’s always been done” approach to the job. I believe that as we age, we all gain some resistance to new things. Senior members may be resistant to new technology or procedures because they are unfamiliar, and this is a place where the rookie can shine.

Venn diagram of senior and rookie firefighters contributing to the knowledge base of each other.
Venn diagram of senior and rookie firefighters contributing to the knowledge base of each other.

I’ve held several positions in different professions and attended several universities and trade schools. A critical lesson I’ve learned is that when someone goes out of their way to show you something or talk to you, it is time to listen, even if this is something you believe you are familiar with. If at the end of the discussion you are 2% faster or you know 2% more, that means you are 2% better at your job. Eventually all those 2% increases add up, and one day you find yourself being the person to stop and share, or you are the person people come to with questions.

Have you ever worked with someone who was particularly efficient at what they do? When you watch them work, every motion and every decision is fast, fluid and has a purpose. Well, they weren’t all born that way. All those 2% improvements added up. These are the members who when a SOP is not followed or something is done out of order others do not question if they were wrong, but others do want to know why they were right.

As we advance in this profession, this is the member we should all strive to be. Regardless of whether we sought the position, as we become more senior, we become de facto mentors and advisors to our subordinates, peers and even our supervisors and administrators.

Take the time

I’m very grateful to my parents and the many mentors I’ve had in my life. Coming up in a volunteer fire department, I realize that we don’t all have the opportunity to learn from someone who does this job every day. But as a firefighter and instructor, I’ve seen how important it is to take the time to help those who are willing to listen. Those members are going to be the same individuals passing down their experience to the generation that follows them.

I dedicate this article to my first mentor and father, C.T. Baham – June 12, 1936-June 2, 2021. 

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