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Two Fires

August 24, 2009

Every firefighter will tell you the same thing: No two fires are alike.

True enough.  No two of anything are exactly alike, so why should fires be any different?

Knowing or saying something is true and acting consistently and with conviction upon that belief are not the same, however.

Firefighters know the laws of physics that control fire growth and spread don’t change from one fire to another.   The properties of the water they use to fight fires remain essentially unchanged from one fire to the next too.  The tools and equipment they have available may change over time, but for any two fires occurring near the same time or place, the firefighters arriving to fight them have pretty much the same stuff available to do the job.

So what’s different?  Context and details.  And context and details are everything when it comes to fighting fires, as they are in almost any other serious or complex endeavor.

What about the context and details matters when it comes to fighting fires?  Time, place, people, and circumstances all make huge differences.

Most fires in buildings grow at an exponential rate, at least until they involve all or most of the available fuel in a given space.  Where and when a fire occurs may determine how long it takes to detect and report a fire, which in turn has a big effect on when firefighters get notified, and, as such, will often dictate whether or not they have any chance to make much of a difference once they arrive.  Although firefighters fret almost incessantly about response times, the time it takes them to get to a fire is of far less concern than how long it takes to detect a fire once it starts and what people will do once they discover it.

So many circumstances affect the progress of a fire and its ultimate consequences that the faith we place in firefighters to make a difference in the outcome should strike us as irrational.  Somehow it doesn’t though.

In so many endeavors, we find what we know and what we believe at odds with one another.  Without fully realizing it, we often find ourselves in the awkward position of holding two quite contradictory notions in our minds at once.  Our beliefs and the evidence before us should lead to different appreciations of the situation, but they don’t.  And most of the time, we stumble through these situations as unaffected as we are unaware due to habits of the mind that serve us reasonably well in all but the most extraordinary circumstances.

Despite the inherent danger of complacency and fully aware that every fire is different from the one before and the one that will follow, firefighters become as habituated in their responses as anyone else.  They get into trouble when sudden changes in the situation either come to their attention too late to affect their misapprehensions or they fail altogether to detect the mismatch between what they know and what they want to believe.

Experts realize that efforts to simplify the rules of the road will not help resolve this situation.  They know that contradictory evidence and beliefs are simply par for the course, and as such learn not only to tolerate but to actually embrace ambiguity.

Experts reconcile these situations by honing their intuitions.  They know that snap judgments depend not upon well rehearsed routines or habits but a deep and often innate understanding of the subtle relationships among the myriad elements of a situation and its environment.  Their ability to appreciate complex situations without apprehension not only helps them recognize contradictions between what they know and what they believe, but also to act with both conviction and consistency.

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