Confidence is key to high performance.
For women in the fire service, confidence can be elusive, but it is essential if we are to thrive (and not simply survive) on the fire ground. Confidence gets ladders up. Confidence tears doors down. We need it to be our best, but ample obstacles exist. It is challenging to build confidence when almost everyone we are surrounded by is bigger, stronger, and faster. (This doesn’t mean they are more effective.) And, it is challenging to believe in ourselves when many of the people we work with don’t think women should be in this profession at all. It can sometimes feel as if we work under a spot light with all eyes upon us waiting for us to fail. This feels especially true when we are new to a department or if we are the only woman on the fire ground. We stand out and our mistakes can feel huge, as if they are confirmation and proof that we don’t belong.
I suspect we are most vulnerable in the beginning of our career when we are judged the most closely. It is here our reputations are forged. People are watching to see how we perform and they are often testing us, sometimes harshly, to see how we hold up. Early in our careers the people around us can have a huge influence on our self-confidence depending on whether or not they are invested in our success or failure. Are they teaching us and building our skills or are they tearing us down? We will meet all kinds, but how we respond is up to us. An officer once told me: “I am not responsible for your self-esteem,” and though he seemed to want me to fail, I see now that he’s right. At some point we must take responsibility for our own confidence and develop it the same way we would any physical or mental skill.
A number of years ago, my confidence hit an all time low after working with a difficult officer who was determined to drive me off his truck. We had some great fires, and I thought I had performed well, but that didn’t matter to him. It seemed like everything I did was wrong until eventually I felt paralyzed, afraid to make a move, lost in indecision and doubt. Even after I moved to another station, I could tell that my confidence was seriously shot. I knew to be a truly effective firefighter, I had to get it back and so I started paying active attention to the subject of confidence. I’m happy to say that I’m now at a great station with a crew that loves to train and values me, and I’ve learned that with study, training, and the right team around us, we can all develop the confidence we need to be true assets on the fire ground.
Grounded realistic confidence comes with knowledge, competence, skill and discipline (physical and mental). These are realms of the mind, body, and spirit. Here are just a few ways we can develop ours:
The more competent we are with our firefighting skills the more confident we will become. Find people willing to train you. Ask your officer if you can do one thing a shift for even just 30 minutes. Most officers are happy to oblige. Raise a ladder, pull a hose, catch a hydrant.
Practice on your own or with your partner. Officers have a lot of administrative work to do, and it’s not necessary to rely on them for all our training needs. My partner and I often pull out the 24 foot extension ladder while our officer is working on other things. But, if my partner’s busy, working out or something, I can still practice on my own. Often I prefer it. It’s sometimes easier to practice without a bunch of guys standing around watching and it gives me more hands on time. There is plenty we can find to do on our own: ropes, most ladders, and other myriad tools and equipment on the truck (saws, hydrant assist, portable hydrant). I work with the 24 foot extension ladder as often as I can. (Ladders were my biggest hurdle in the academy and I am determined to become gracefully confident with them.)
Do not wait for people to come to you. We are big girls and are responsible to actively seek out training on our own. As yoga guru Pattabhis Jois said when asked how to become a master, “Practice, and all is coming.”
Think like a firefighter
Analyze every call you go on for fire attack, forcible entry, ladders, etc. When you show up to a house fire and you already know how to conquer that door, window, or staircase, your confidence will naturally arise.
I work in a territory with a lot of new condos that have narrow interior winding staircases with three sharp turns and a small landing on the second floor. Two people pulling a charged hose line up these stairs would burn a lot of energy and time. We often run on medical calls in this territory and have discussed how we would deploy the line to the second floor (either haul it up with a rope to the landing or come in off the second floor balcony if possible). Knowing this before we respond to a condo fully charged with smoke and zero visibility builds confidence. If we get a fire in this territory we will know what to expect and therefore, what to do.
Read , watch videos, browse websites. There are hundreds of Facebook pages and websites with great articles and videos on training. (Some of my favorites are Fire Service Warrior, Fully Involved, Irons and Ladders, & Truckie Talk) Aim for at least one article and one video a week. Be a learner.
Visualize successful performance
Think of past performances that went well or a time when you overcame an obstacle. Then visualize a future optimal performance. Dennis Compton and Gary Mack write in The Mental Aspects of Performance for Firefighters and Fire Officers, “One theory on the effectiveness of mental practice states that powerful images can program your neuromuscular pathways into success circuits. . . Another theory states that your imagination can encode information in a way your body understands and translates into action creating blueprints to follow during actual performance.” Elite athletes and Special Operatives do this. We can do this too.
Be an empty vessel. Be that firefighter who never stops learning and picking people’s brain. Women have an advantage here–we usually know what we don’t know. Few of us suffer from over-confidence on the fire ground. The key is to develop our self-confidence so it is clear and true. Knowledge creates confidence. The more we know, the more confident we will be.
I was first exposed to the idea of self-monitoring when I was going through Air Rescue flight medic training. After a special ops exercise, we would come back to the classroom to debrief and our training instructor would ask each of us how we thought we did before he gave us his feedback. There was usually one person who thought he did great almost all of the time, whereas I was aware of every small mistake I made. At first I thought I must be really sucking compared to everyone else. It’s true I didn’t pick things up as fast as some of my fellow candidates. But, eventually I realized that they had made mistakes too, they just weren’t rattling them off like I was. And maybe they weren’t always performing as well as they thought they were. Either way, what our examiner wanted to see was our ability to self-monitor.
In the air, we have seconds to correct a potentially deadly issue. Often we work alone, either having gone down the hook by ourselves or remaining in the aircraft to work the hoist alone. On an actual mission, there is no one to say, “Hey, Gea, you’re about to shock load the system.” Or, “you didn’t lock that carabiner down.” It is essential that we know how we are performing. If we make a mistake, we must know that we are making a mistake so we can correct it. We must know if we’re being sloppy, unsafe, or uncommunicative. And when a mission is over, we must be able to gauge our performance accurately on our own because we might not have anyone else who was witness to it. This applies to the fire ground as well.
On the fire ground, self-monitoring means knowing when we are struggling or when we are succeeding. If we are failing at something, why? Is it a matter of strength, training, or knowledge? Christopher Brennan, in The Combat Position refers to this ability as Self-Awareness. Self-Awareness means knowing our strengths and weaknesses. And it helps us decide if we truly have an issue or if someone is just being unnecessarily negative and critical. Once we know what the issue is, we can correct it.
In the fire service we cannot expect people to affirm us. It’s been my experience that that rarely happens. Often, we will receive criticism, some helpful and accurate, others not so. If we look to others for affirmation in this field we will most likely be disappointed. We must learn to affirm ourselves when we do well and acknowledge when we don’t. This is why we must be able to accurately gauge our performance through self-monitoring and then correct it when necessary.
We must be able to self-monitor in order to be able to self-correct. Once we see a deficiency or that a certain technique is not working, we must address it. This applies to skills, techniques, and attitudes. If you see that you’re being too hard on yourself, lighten up. If you’re starting to slack off, pick it up. Does a certain tool intimidate you? Face it and conquer it.
Surround yourself with believers
Nothing can build confidence like an officer that loves to teach and a crew who backs you up. If you’re working with haters, try to find another crew. A person can only succeed so much if they are surrounded by people invested in their failure. Sometimes it’s not possible to change positions and in that case we have to do our time in purgatory and survive. Develop a thick skin (something I have never been very good at) Practice. Study. Listen. When we believe in ourselves, we will know what to take to heart and what to discard.
The more confident we become, the better firefighters we will be.
Just because we’re the smallest person on the truck, doesn’t mean we can’t be the toughest or most effective. Know what to do and do what you know. Train your mind, body, and spirit. Don’t ask for permission. Take it. Don’t wait for someone to teach you. Be proactive and teach yourself.
Let’s forgo seeking affirmation from others and learn to find it in ourselves. Let’s be responsible for our own confidence and skill. We don’t have to be the biggest or the strongest to be a hard core asset. What is more essential is skill, knowledge, and lots of hard core heart.