Dealing with “Why?” An Inquisitive Firefighter Isn’t a Bad Thing

by | June 29, 2020

Work in the fire service long enough and you’re bound to experience it: the rookie firefighter with a seemingly unending list of questions. How does the apparatus pump work? Why do we carry this number of ladders on the truck? What’s the right way to operate this saw? Why are we still using paper for apparatus checks when digital forms would be faster?

At first, this curiosity may be charming, even welcome. But for many company officers and tenured firefighters, it doesn’t take long before it becomes tiresome. Rundown by demands for information, feeling as though their authority or experience is being questioned, the other members of the crew often start to shut down, choosing not to engage with the inquisitive firefighter. Sometimes, they will even turn against the firefighter.

While inquisitive firefighters who realize their questions aren’t welcome may stop asking and appear to assimilate into the crew, in fact too often they are left feeling marginalized and undervalued. Worse yet, they may learn procedures incorrectly, afraid to ask for clarification.

So, what’s the right way to deal with “why”?

Why the Why?

Why do some firefighters ask so many more questions than others? For today’s company officers, it’s tempting to make this a generational issue: Kids these days have a 6-second attention span, they lack respect for authority, they’re out to prove you wrong with the information they found on the internet.

I don’t think inquisitiveness has anything to do with age or generational differences. The fire and rescue service today is a diverse business. We have so many different tasks we have to carry out—EMS protocols, fire suppression, public education, fire prevention. For those of us in leadership positions, we had the luxury of learning as we went, slowly adding new responsibilities and call types. But firefighters coming up behind us don’t have that luxury. They lack context even as they’re trying to learn technical skills and memorize a lot of information. They are truly trying to understand, but they need someone to show them how.

While certainly challenging, an abundance of questions from a firefighter can be a great sign of their potential. It’s not that difficult to follow orders. But questions may indicate a passion for the craft—not only wanting to know what to do but why you’re asking me to do it. This is not a challenge of the company officer or chief’s authority, but rather an honest quest to master the information in a way that will, in time, make them much better at their jobs.

And sometimes, it’s simple nervousness. Junior firefighters may feel pressure to prove themselves in front of the other senior members. And remember, some of this pressure comes from the environment and example you may be contributing to also! They may simply need some support in getting settled in.

Getting Frustrated

When company officers and other leaders get frustrated with curious and inquisitive firefighters, it usually comes down to three reasons:

  1. Weak leaders interpret the questions as a challenge to their authority.
  2. Officers who lack proficiency in their own skills and abilities may be concerned that if they have to demonstrate skills or answer the questions, they won’t be able to perform at the level the junior firefighter expects.
  3. Leaders may not see the value in questioning—they fundamentally don’t see it as a way for firefighters to better understand their craft.

Conducting hot washes or after-action reviews after calls provides junior firefighters with an appropriate time to ask questions while still connected to the incident.

But it’s not fair to place the blame only on company officers and other senior firefighters. In truth, inquisitive firefighters may exacerbate frustration by asking questions at the wrong time. It’s simply not appropriate to ask nonessential questions during emergency operations, whether an EMS call or a vehicle incident. In these instances, a junior firefighter’s job is to take commands and reserve questions for later unless there is an immediate safety concern. Similarly, inquisitive firefighters sometimes dominate every training session with questions that disrupt learning, annoying not just the company officer but the other firefighters as well.

Good company officers know how to deal with both of these issues. Conducting hot washes or after-action reviews provides junior firefighters with an appropriate time to ask questions while still connected to the incident. Of course, the questions need to be about the incident, not random technical points.

As for the firefighter who constantly interrupts, the company officer must set firm guidelines and expectations. Without expectations, everyone will do what they think is right. Ideally, this is done when the firefighter first joins the crew: “I know you have a lot of questions—I expect you to have a lot of questions and I welcome them. But understand I have other tasks so I may not be able to answer all the time. When I say, ‘Not now, I’m busy,’ that’s not personal; it’s me being honest with you. Be respectful of my time. I will get to your questions and I’ll make sure you have what you need, it just might not be in the moment.”

Company officers influence the type and frequency of questions firefighters ask through their reactions. “Susan, that’s a great question. Let me show you why and what you need to know.” Then follow that with a question back: “Do you understand? Please articulate it back to me.” This approach slows down the motormouth firefighter who’s just asking to ask. More importantly, it follows best practices in communication: confirming the receiver understood, which in turn creates an opportunity to correct misunderstanding.

Equally important is to remember that it’s not the company officer’s responsibility to answer every question. Effective company officers will tap the resources of the entire crew for answers, and will also not waste time trying to answer questions related to human resources, but instead connect the firefighter with the people who have that information at the ready.

Consequences and Benefits

At the moment, it can seem fairly harmless to shut down an inquisitive firefighter—the interruption is silenced, the crew gets back to work and everything seems fine. But when company officers consistently prevent questions, negative consequences result, including:

  • The junior firefighter’s morale suffers. They may become isolated, which in turn can affect their work ethic. Disengagement is not just unproductive; in our business, it quickly becomes a risk factor for injury or death to self or other crewmembers.
  • Rather than falling in line, the junior firefighter may become more disruptive, even rebellious, choosing to “do it their way” rather than follow the direction of others.
  • The firefighter may end up leaving the fire service or transferring to another station. While the company officer’s initial reaction to this may be a relief, losing firefighters in this manner is detrimental to the long-term health of the organization. Career departments spend thousands of dollars equipping and training firefighters. And volunteer departments face significant challenges in recruitment. No department has the luxury of just letting firefighters walk out the door.

Firefighters who feel vested in what they do and that the leaders are vested in them are more likely to value what they do, take pride in what they do and feel like they belong.

There are also tangible benefits to “embracing the why,” including:

  • It gets firefighters excited about what they do. They invest in understanding what they do and how to do it. At some point, they will understand and stop asking so many questions. And how fast they learn is influenced by their ability to get answers to their questions.
  • It enhances the safety and effectiveness of the entire crew. More informed firefighters deliver better service and more accurate patient care.
  • It promotes positive attitudes. Firefighters who feel vested in what they do and that leaders are vested in them are more likely to value what they do, take pride in what they do, and feel like they belong. And that will make them much more enjoyable to work with!
  • It encourages other firefighters to ask questions and therefore promotes company-level learning. Often, answering the new firefighter’s questions leads to a demonstration or a company drill—10 minutes on the K saw or SCBA failure. Everyone struggles with staying proficient in the many skills we are expected to master, so we can all benefit from a review. This is also a great opportunity to ask other members of the crew to answer the question or lead the demonstration.

Embrace the Why

A firefighter who constantly asks why is not necessarily a problem employee and doesn’t have to be a source of fatigue or frustration for the company officer and the crew. Faced with the inquisitive firefighter, fire service leaders have two choices: Push them away and risk crushing any motivation they have to become a good firefighter, or embrace their questions and invest a little time into developing them into a proficient member of the crew.

It seems pretty obvious why the latter choice is the better one.

BRUCE BJORGE's fire service career includes more than 38 years of experience in command and training positions with career, combination, volunteer and military fire agencies. Currently, he is a Battalion Chief with the Western Taney County Fire District in Branson, Mo., and has also served as a company officer and Assistant Chief of Training. Bruce is also the Director for Fire Policy Sales at Lexipol. He formerly was the Aircraft Rescue Fire Fighting (ARFF) Specialist for the University of Missouri Fire & Rescue Training Institute where he managed their Mobile ARFF and other live-fire training programs. He has also served as a Training Developer for Lexipol. He holds Training Officer certification from the International Society of Fire Service Instructors and is a graduate of the National Fire Academy’s Training Program Management course. Bruce has been an active instructor and evaluator for the past 28 years and is a regular presenter at state, regional and national conferences and training events.

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