Daring to Dislodge Dogma



It is natural that when you’re a child you listen and accept virtually everything that your parents and teachers tell you. When you become a teenager you realize that they are wrong about everything and that Justin Bieber is the single greatest musical artist to walk the earth since the first caveman banged some sticks against a hollow log. The kids are still into him, right? The Beebs? Anyway, when we become adults we begin to realize that some of the things that we were taught long ago were believed to be true by our teachers, but now that we have more information, our understanding of that topic has changed and it would be unwise to keep believing the same old thing in light of this new information just because “I was taught this long ago!”


That first time we took a firefighter or EMT class, how many things did the instructor tell us we had to “Learn it, live it, love it, know it! Make it a part of your life forever!” Did we seriously believe that when we happened to take that class the pinnacle of all knowledge in emergency services had been achieved? Did we think that it impossible for anyone to learn any more, that there would be no need to publish an updated textbook ever again?

Perhaps some people think the answer is “yes”, that the textbooks and instructors hold the predefined set of facts and it is their job to hand these facts over to the student who, by passing their final exam and earning their certificate has proven that they have learned these facts and will never need to update them or learn new ones.

Perhaps other people never really wanted the facts in the first place.

Perhaps they only wanted the certificate and were simply seeking the bare minimum of facts that they would need to pass the final exam. Sadly, like some students want to learn only the bare minimum to pass, some educators want to teach only that much just to get through the day and move on to their next class.

The point is, whether the initial fault lies with the student, the educator, or elsewhere, fire, rescue, and EMS personnel that know the “bare minimum” are perhaps the greatest danger to other responders and emergency services in general.

When someone starts from the position of only seeking to know just passing (about 70%?) of the current state of understanding in their field, how can this person expect to still be a functioning responder in five, ten, or twenty years? How much of that “bare minimum” will they still remember and how much of THAT would it be better that they have forgotten?

As @AmboDriver Kelly Grayson is fond of saying, “At least half of what you learn in class is wrong. The problem is, nobody knows which half.”

Does this mean that every five years we should drop everything because a publisher has put out a new textbook?

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No. Does this mean that the things our elders have told us are bad just because it is long-held knowledge? No. Does this mean that some people might no longer be qualified to operate in emergency services even though they passed a final exam and have nicely framed certificates with shiny gold stamps proclaiming them to be “Firefighter” or “Paramedic” or “EMT”? Maybe.

This has nothing to do with new knowledge versus old knowledge. This has nothing to do with book knowledge versus street knowledge. This has to do with a way of thinking. Emergency services has to get away from the way of thinking that everything you need to know is contained within a textbook, set of protocols, or binder of procedures.

Dogma. It isn’t just what snuggles up with DogPa to make puppies.

(I’ll stop and give you a minute for that one). It’s the idea that someone can teach you a piece of information that you should accept without question, who’s truth will never change. Dogma is the “I tell you, then you know, then you do it and pass it on without question” way of thinking that has long been abandoned by successful professions. So what new way of thinking works for them that maybe we should look at? Critical thinking. The idea that any information should be evaluated based on merit, not just its source or longevity.

That doesn’t mean that we should leap to change anytime someone dangles a shiny new idea in front of us. The point is that we need to also evaluate each idea as it helps our customers, not based on how different it is from the thing that we are doing today.

Every one of us, you and everyone around you, wants to do a great job.

You want to go out there and help people and be recognized (even if only among your peers) for how awesome an emergency responder you are. So how do good people get locked into dogmatic thinking? Because critical thinking is hard. It takes work to keep up with the new stuff coming down the line. It takes even more work to understand it and to see how it fits into your agency’s operations.

The good news is that there is a lot of help out there.

I get the opportunity to attend Fire, Rescue and EMS conferences all the time to see what’s new, see what really smart people think about these new ideas, and check in with peers from around the country to see what their real world experience is. Conferences like this are a great chance for me to put myself in front of really smart people not only to teach, but be tested and questioned and exposed to methods of emergency services delivery and levels of critical thinking that I had not previously considered.

If you didn’t make it out to a conference to attend or to teach (and I highly recommend both) then pick up a magazine, listen to a podcast, or join in a really good high-level online discussion. Expose yourself not just to new ideas but also to new ways of thinking. Remember the old adage that you can’t solve a new problem by using old ways of thinking. DARE to dislodge the old ways of thinking. When the old dogma starts to stink, it may be time to take it outside.

About romduck

Rom Duckworth is a dedicated emergency responder, author, and educator with more than thirty years of experience working in career and volunteer fire departments, hospital healthcare systems, and private emergency medical services. Rom is a career fire captain and paramedic EMS Coordinator for the Ridgefield (CT) Fire Department and director of the New England Center for Rescue and Emergency Medicine. Rom holds a master’s degree in public administration, is a graduate of the National Fire Academy’s Executive Fire Officer program, and is the recipient of the NAEMT Presidential Award, American Red Cross Hero Award, Sepsis Alliance Sepsis Hero Award, and the EMS 10 Innovators Award. Rom is the author of "Duckworth on Education," as well as chapters in more than a dozen EMS, fire, rescue, and medical textbooks and over 100 published articles in fire and EMS magazines. A member of the NAEMT Board of Directors, as well as other national and international advocacy and advisory boards, Rom continues to work for the advancement of emergency services professions. Contact Rom via www.romduck.com