After Action: Rookie Reviewing

10 mins read

The hardest part of growth is finding out you’re not as good as you thought at something. After that, it’s just a matter of time, effort, pace and cadence to get better. This weekend, we had a car fire – a good one. While that might not be high on the list of some more seasoned firefighters, this call proved a great opportunity for me to reflect on my performance. An after action report on serious calls is a good way to refine your operational readiness in the future.

So – we had a car fire. I was told on scene that car fires are good ‘practice fires’ because for the most part, they’re isolated to a single place. That, and if the victim has already been pulled, there’s less urgency than a big fire with exposures, attached buildings and such. Of course, between strut failures and popping magnesium, there’s still a good dose of reality to car fires. I remembered our classroom discussions on car fires and flaked the hose line to a diagonal off the side of the vehicle.

After action: get your gloves on!

Okay, so, before I get onto the guts of this call, I wanted to review something from the ride in. Early into my introduction to the fire service, I watched a FirexTalk on ‘stealing seconds’. The idea is that if we train the vital skills to become as efficient as possible, we’ll be able to use the time we’ve saved on those skills where it matters most. On the way to the call, I got my face piece on, disconnected the SCBA rig from the seat and got my balaclava in place. As soon as the truck stopped, I got my helmet pulled over my face piece and hopped out with my pack on. At the front of the truck, I started putting on my gloves. On a hot July day, that was easier said than done – a little bit of sweat went a long way to hanging up my gloves on the top of my hands.

Seconds matter. Get your gloves on in the truck.

Heavy breathing.

We got out of the truck with 4 people on site. A few more were en-route. You see, I’m serving in a mostly-rural volunteer department where we roll with the first few to show up on site. When I popped out of the truck, I was on air within 30 seconds and was happy with that. I could have been better with the rest of my gear and I’ll drill that for next time.

When I took the nozzle out toward the car, I really keyed in on the severity of the fire. This was my first ‘fully involved’ car fire and when the line charged, I opened up on it at the wheels and began erasing the fire from the ground up. In a few moments, the fire was largely knocked down. I eventually received some support via one of my teammates supporting the line behind me. We moved in on the vehicle and put it out.

Once I was targeting the sizzling parts of the frame, the brakes and the engine block, I heard myself breathing. Not only could I hear myself breathing, I could hear myself breathing hard.

I’ve trained for this. I’ve been here before.

No matter what my level of cardio and conditioning is – yeah, I’m one of those weirdos who actually likes running – I come upon the added influence of adrenaline. I like to think my relationship with adrenaline is fortified by my involvement in jiu jitsu, but it’s different at an emergency scene. There’s more going on and it’s new. I’m not as familiar with the operations at a fire scene. That alone can influence my reaction to adrenaline. An after-action can serve as a means to readily identify that. From there, we can plan to help mitigate that reaction in the future.

In jiu jitsu, I remember feeling similar. I remember my forearms being burned out from squeezing too tight. I remember the ‘butterfly’ feeling in my guts before a tournament. So, I’ve been there before.

Big takeaway here – I had to learn how to handle adrenaline in grappling the same way I’ll have to learn how to handle it as a firefighter. There’s no better way than through it directly.

It’s okay to be new.

However, when I was on this scene, it was just different.

After action for a vehicle fire is important. There is always room to learn.
Picture by @livingbyyyz on IG.

Self talk. Calm down.

One thing that I preach on is Positive Self Talk. For this circumstance, I employed this strategy well, if a little late. I realized I was really breathing heavy when I could hear it. For some reason, my consciousness was able to detect my heavy breathing from the sound of my inhalation.

When I noticed I was breathing heavy, I said out loud into my face piece; ‘okay, calm down.’

This helped me refocus on what was happening; the fire was largely out. The commotion had died down and we were on the downhill slope of keeping this call a positive learning experience. I would eventually breathe through an extra half-tank than the person behind me. I remember feeling bad about that – like I had somehow failed the team by using so much air or that I owed better performance given my attitude toward fitness and readiness. Now, a few days removed from the call, I’ve put those feelings into order and understand that it was my first real exposure to a call like that and, like it or not, I need experience in order to trap that kind of reaction – same as jiu jitsu.

I was lucky enough to tie off with the guy running the pump. He’s a full-timer with Toronto Fire. He let me know that overall, I’d done well. I actually received that feedback from a few people on scene. Unfortunately, I was really wrapped up with my self-diagnosed poor performance on air to allow that feedback to bolster my confidence. That is in itself a good learning opportunity – I can sometimes be too quick to snap self-judgement on a less-than-perfect performance or grade myself too sharply despite my lack of experience. Gift and a curse I suppose.

After action: Be more ready.

One idea I played with immediately after this call was that I could enhance my reaction to the incoming adrenaline by training harder. Most of the runs I take are around the 8-10km mark and feature a pretty stable pace. At the end of the last two runs I took, I wanted to finish as fast as I could. In doing that, I could feel that familiar light-weight response fluttering up in my guts again – a response that meant I was testing that push back against getting worked up during hard work. I think I’ll continue doing that and finding extra ways to challenge the response mechanisms I’ve got toward that adrenaline release. More reading to be done there, too.

The call itself went well. I remembered a handful of things I was supposed to do. I learned a ton – and I think that’s the main focus for any call; how can we take our response and learn from it?

Bill Dungey is a volunteer firefighter in Ontario, Canada. He is focused on fitness, mindset development and finding training opportunities to help the fire service make things better.

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