Friday, May 22, 2009

Speaking the Language - What Firefighters Can Learn From Apollo 15

In my opinion, one of the best TV-miniseries ever made is From the Earth to the Moon, produced by Ron Howard and Tom Hanks in the late 1990's.

The twelve-part series chronicles man's journey to the moon. It's well known for the accuracy of its portrayal of the Apollo program and for outstanding special effects.

I'd put in in the same league as Band of Brothers.

Every episode was fantastic, but I'd like to tell you about episode 11, Galileo Was Right, which tells the story of Apollo 15. This was the first "J mission" which means the astronauts stayed on the moon longer, were the first to use the Lunar Rover, and were the first to prioritize lunar field geology.

Why is that important?

It's important because it was believed that while astronauts were the some of the best pilots in the world, they did not possess "scientific minds".

It was astronaut Harrison "Jack" Schmidt (a civilian geologist) who convinced NASA to bring in Professor Lee Silver from Caltech to "bring out the scientific mind in all of them."

Professor Silver was exactly the kind of instructor most firefighters would enjoy having. He took the astronauts out to the Orocopia Mountains and taught them how to size up the terrain and describe it over the radio in a language that geologists back at NASA could easily understand.

During the training, one astronaut would go out into the field wearing a mock-up of the pack they would carry on the moon. Using a walkie-talkie, the astronauts would go to the highest place they could find and give a size-up of the terrain to another astronaut back in the base camp. The second astronaut would then draw a picture of what the first astronaut described.

In the beginning, the astronauts had no idea how to describe what they saw. They would fumble through their radio report, and the picture the other astronaut drew would look nothing like the terrain the first astronaut was looking at.

Then something happened. The astronauts learned the language of geology and they got better because they practiced. The radio reports became concise and accurate. The sketches started to match the terrain. In short, they become skilled field geologists.

Commander David Scott and Lunar Module Pilot James Irwin went on to land on the moon at Hadley Rille near the Apennine Mountains and bring back to Earth the so-called "Genesis Rock" -- a 4 billion year old piece of the moon's primordial crust.

What does this have to do with you?

What language do you speak when you pull up in front of a structure fire? Do you speak the language of a fire service professional? Are you knowledgeable about building construction? Can you read smoke? How well can you describe what you see? Do you provide context? How is your command presence?

Scene size-up is a skill that can be practiced. Just ask the crew of Apollo 15.

If you gave yourself a good report card, there are three possible explanations. Either you have a lot of experience, you've practiced a lot, or you're not as good as you think you are.

There are very few natural-born incident commanders.

We're blessed to be in a career that offers us the opportunity to make a real difference in the lives of others who are quite possibly having the worst day of their lives. It's a huge responsibility that requires character, competence, humility, and a commitment to excellence.

These traits don't develop themselves, and in our line of work, there are no second chances. At least, not for the victim of today's emergency.

If you knew that sometime in the next 365 days, a life-or-death situation would develop for you or a member of your crew in your first-in district, would it make a difference in how you spent your next shift? Your next 10 shifts?

Would you train more? Do more pre-incident planning? Concentrate on self-survival skills?Incident command? Risk management? Stress tempered communication? Air management?

It's not given to us to know when these skills will be required.

It's possible that our entire careers will boil down to a single moment in time when we either have the knowledge, skills, and abilities to save a life, or we don't.

Train for that moment.

1 comment:

  1. Not that I am in the fire service, but I cannot help but think that this strategy can be applied to healthcare. Learning to anticipate the needs during a crisis, such as running a resuscitation of a child in cardiac arrest. Knowing that you don't know everything and having an open mind to learning a better way can only prove helpful and may even save a life.