What is Experience?


In and out, day after day, but what are you doing on each run?


The U.S. Army’s Caisson Platoon at Fort Myer, Virginia is responsible for bringing the deceased to their final resting place at Arlington National Cemetery. The members of the platoon participate daily in military funerals, sometimes more than one a day. While the circumstance may differ, each funeral detail is basically the same. The horses, tack and caisson are cleaned, riders inspected and the team turns out; a solemn duty continually repeated.

Members of the platoon who have attained 500 rides, funerals, are given brass spurs as a mark of distinctive service.

500 times that a solider has repaired, cleaned and polished tack; picked hooves; combed manes and tails; brushed bodies; tacked and hitched horses; loaded a casket; and rode through the same neighborhood.

The fire service relies on experience as justification of various opinions and thoughts ranging from an individual’s promotion to an entire department’s strategy and tactics. In some instances experience is valid. Knowing the details and context that one relies upon, experience can be the proof, the point where the rubber meets the road. Unfortunately, some wrongly equate experience with busy, as in running a lot of calls.

If you were to take a look at one month of your time at the firehouse, how much of that time is real, task-oriented working experience? How many times did you have the nozzle? How many times did you perform the primary search? We need to be careful in assuming that just be cause we went out the door we gained specific experience. I kept a journal in my later years as a firefighter and line officer. In one year of duty shifts, looking at working fires, the most time I had inside a burning structure was as assigned to the engine, backup firefighter position, on the 400′ line, as the second-due engine company. Narrowed down in such a way, by company assignment, seat assignment, box alarm, position due and hoseline run, I was mostly behind the Lineman at another company’s fire.


The methods may be the same, but the details are not. Are you qualifying experience or do you just count it as one of many trips down the road?

Methods may be the same, but not the details. Are you qualifying experience or do you just count it as one of many trips?

When we discuss the experience of our personnel, we need to look carefully beyond them simply being with us as we respond to alarms. This is especially true in volunteer departments. When staffing is always uncertain, the experience of those who show up to answer the call will have an impact on the initial actions at the scene. Training can tip the outcome to us in a positive manner but even training needs to be measured. The practicality of classroom lesson turned into tested value and then into working experience is diminished if the chance at working experience is slim to none.

Instructors need to consider experience as well, not just their own (although that would certainly help some take an honest look at their message) but that of their students. A class of 50 firefighters brings 50 different levels of experience and in turn 50 different levels of how the lessons will be learned. Ask your class the following questions, having them answer by a show of hands, keeping hands up if the question applies:

In the past month how many of you responded to a fire?

Of those, how many of you found a working structure fire upon arrival?

Of those, how many involved a residential dwelling?

Of those, how many of you were on the first due or first arriving apparatus?

Of those, how many of you were the nozzleman?

I’m certain that as you ask the questions, the hands will begin to drop.

When we talk about experience and especially when we talk about it in the realm of tactics and strategies, old and new, we must remember that everyone is not on the same page or riding with the same caisson.

Questions for Discussion

What is the collective experience of the company you work with?

Is it true, among your company, that the senior member has the most experience? If so, what role does that individual take on average (driver, chief officer/incident command, company officer)

Among your company, does any individual have an overwhelming amount of training when compared to experience?

Does your officer’s experience outweigh his training? Should it?

How do you coach or mentor a member with little experience? How often his he assigned to the Nozzleman or Lineman position? When does he become part of the exterior team performing ventilation or VES?


Photos courtesy of the Department of Defense.



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BioPicBill Carey is the online public safety news and blog manager with PennWell Public Safety, or more specifically FireRescue Magazine/FirefighterNation.com, JEMS.com, LawOfficer.com and FireEMSBlogs.com. Bill started in the fire service, as a third generation firefighter in 1986, on the eastern shore of Maryland and then continued after moving to Prince George’s County. He served as a volunteer sergeant and lieutenant at Hyattsville. Bill’s writing has been on Firehouse.com, Fire Engineering, FireRescue Magazine, FirefighterNation.com, the Jones and Bartlett 2010 edition of “Fire Officer: Principles and Practice”, The Secret List and Tinhelmet.com. His recent writing on firefighter behavioral health has been nominated for 2014 Neal Award for Best Subject-Related Series.


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  • Ed says:

    Excellent post. The same question may be framed for other than working on the nozzle (e.g., if delivering pump operator training). In addition, even if you went to a lot of fires on the nozzle or as the first in company officer, what did you do with that experience? Reflection and integration of the experience with prior experience and knowledge is another essential element in the value of “experience”.

    • Bill Carey says:

      You’re correct Ed. What did we do with that experience? Did we take as many lessons from it as we could or did we simply file it away as a run in the logbook.
      Thank you,

  • Ron Ayotte says:

    Excelent post. Evey day of duty and every run should be a learning experience. Far too many firefighters just look at the duty tour and incident as what I like to call “the shampoo mode”… wet hair, apply shapoo, lather, rinse and repeat”.. Our version is put on the gear, get on the truck, go to the call, return to quarters. What happens on the call is quickly forgotten.

  • keith says:

    A different perspective is, we are busier than we have ever been. I have attended many fires in the past thirty years in a busy urban system as a line officer. Our EMS is overwhelming us and our fires are decreasing. Even with a deeply embedded training and experience base, you get rusty. There are times I pull up and have to think about what is the best plan. The”second nature” mode can slip away if you don’t practice it. Participate in the trainings and stay sharp. Practice like your lives depend on it. Fire prevention and sprinkler systems works. It’s likely we won’t increase our fire numbers, but we will get rusty. Be safe.

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