Why Firefighters Shouldn't Confuse Confidence with Egotism



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Why Firefighters Shouldn't Confuse Confidence with Egotism


Confidence is ordinarily a valued trait in firefighters and their officers. It would certainly be difficult to enter a burning structure without a firm belief that you, and those around you, know how to do the job and that your chosen course of action is appropriate. A lack of confidence can also be dangerous, even fatal. Second-guessing one's decisions costs time, which may not be an available luxury, and it often instills doubt among one's fellow firefighters, distracting them from the critical task at hand. In short, confidence is an important part of effective firefighting, and is basically essential to fireground leadership.
There are at least two types of confidence, however, that are markedly less beneficial for the fire service, and may actually be among its most destructive elements. The first is inflated confidence. Also known as overconfidence, it occurs when one's self-estimation exceeds one's actual knowledge or skills. At times, overconfident fire officers can be equally if not more dangerous than unconfident fire officers, leading their crews into situations that they cannot handle or refusing to evacuate or call for mutual aid when circumstances objectively dictate these actions. In addition, overconfidence of this sort can potentially inhibit the mutual trust that firefighting requires. At the very least, it can be really annoying
The other type of undesirable confidence—and the focus of the remainder of this article—can be labeled egotistical confidence. This is the unwillingness of a firefighter or officer to acknowledge that any given incident may have several reasonable, alternative solutions, and that his or her chosen or preferred solution is not the only feasible approach. It is more than simply a heightened confidence in the legitimacy of one's position, as one's position may actually be legitimate. Rather, it is an unjustifiable belief that one's position is the only stance that is legitimate, and that every other position, including the incident commander's, is hopelessly misguided.

It rarely seems, moreover, that the egotistically confident firefighter can keep his views to himself. After returning to the station—if not at the scene—the firefighter must declare the patent wrongfulness of other people's decisions, coupled with a declaration of what the one true course-of-action should have been. We have all encountered such declarations. The vehicles should have been staged at this location, not that location. The engine should have taken this hydrant, not that hydrant. The crew should have this tool, not that tool, or should have done this tactic, not that tactic.

No matter how well the incident is resolved, the egotistically confident firefighter must denounce error and pronounce truth. In essence, he is an armchair firefighter, equivalent to the proverbial Monday-morning or armchair quarterback—except that firefighting is not football, and the consequences of egotism can be much more devastating.

What, in fact, are these consequences? What exactly is wrong, in other words, with the egocentrically confident firefighter? For one thing, his view of the world is simply distorted. It is rare than an incident can only be approached one way. Ask several veteran chiefs how they would handle a scenario, and you are likely to get several different answers, although the differences will normally be matters of degree, not of kind.

It is not mere distortion that is worrisome, however. It is the fact that this firefighter has an obvious mental or conceptual blindness, and the concern is that this blindness will extend to other (perhaps every other) aspect of his performance. What kind of personality, after all, can effectively write off his colleagues, repeatedly and with no corrective sensibility to his own manifest errors? What other distortions are in store for his crew or his department? One suspects that such a person is, in the long run, a walking liability for the department and its relations with the press, with local government, with other departments, and with the public.

The consequences of this form of egotism also concern departmental morale. Complaining tends to beget complaining, and the egotistically confident firefighter can basically function as an attitudinal pollutant within the ranks. He may even convince others that the chief's decisions are wrongheaded, or that this firefighter or that MPO is genuinely stupid. In turn, he may foster an atmosphere of dissatisfaction and a culture of dissent (even disobedience) in the department or firehouse. And once a department starts down such a road, it is not easily turned around. It may take years of collective effort to undo six months of damage by a single firefighter whose ego is sufficiently warped.

By no means is this to imply that departmental assessment and post-incident critiques are undesirable, or that all criticism is a function of unbridled ego. To the contrary, well-run and balanced critiques are an important part of the fire service. But egotistical confidence does not involve balanced critique, which is intended to prompt learning and self-assessment. The declarations of egotistically confident firefighters, by contrast, are self-centered distortions of the world that erode others' confidence, undermine department morale, inhibit firefighter trust, and impair fireground performance.

The task of firefighting, whether career or volunteer, is not always simple. Pressures at work and at home can impose ample stress on any individual and clearly do not need to be compounded by department personnel whose sense of self is so underdeveloped or twisted that they must tear down the people and institutions around them in order to feel satisfied. The costs they impose far outweigh any benefits that they might provide, and they certainly do not reflect the ideals of the fire service, which so many others try so honorably to achieve.
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