Competent vs. Proficient:
It's important that every firefighter masters certain basic competencies, but you need to go the extra step to ensure they become proficient at those skills
By Scott Cook

Competent and proficient.

As firefighters, we tend to look at these two words as being one and the same. However, as Webster’s tells us, they actually have two very different meanings.
Competent means having requisite or adequate abilities or qualities. Proficient means being well advanced in an art, occupation or branch of knowledge.

For our purposes, one could consider competent to mean “meets the minimum standard.” In fact, the 2005 Texas Commission on Fire Protection’s Certification Curriculum Manual for basic fire suppression personnel states, “[t]he committee developed the competencies and objectives focusing on the minimum requirements for a basic firefighter in Texas.” See what I mean?

Let’s consider a firefighter straight out of the academy. Technically speaking, that person has the competencies necessary to perform all the tasks required of someone who rides backward on an engine: drag hose, throw ladders, search and rescue, etc. After all, he’s demonstrated the requisite knowledge and skills time and again in the Academy, and (likely) passed the academy’s final written and skills exam, as well as the state’s certifying written and skills exam.

But once he reports for duty at your station, the situation is completely different. No longer is he a student in a relatively safe training environment, with instructors around to assist him should he get into trouble. Quite the contrary: Now he’s the third person on (what is likely) a three-person engine company that’s first due for who knows how many square miles. What’s more important now? That he’s competent or proficient?

Clearly, I think we know the answer. That being said, his competency is the foundation for his future proficiency.

Consider that all your new firefighter has demonstrated is that he’s met the state and local minimum requirements to be a firefighter. Now it’s your turn to ensure he remains competent and becomes proficient.
Some departments, stations, companies or—in some cases—one or two colleagues—take great care to ensure that the rookie is trained, coached and supervised to develop and increase his proficiency. Others, well, don’t. If that’s the case, the rookie may never have a chance. He’ll probably end up at the retirement station in the non-combustible part of town because the crew there needs someone, you know, just in case they have to pull hose or throw a ladder.

After all, he’s qualified for the job; the state said he was. We hired him. He’s four-O and ready to go. Just issue his gear, show him how to use the stuff he didn’t use in the academy, and make sure he can make coffee and do the dishes.

Think again.

In the vast majority of cases this is the optimal time to build proficiency. Instill the necessary skills into your rookie so he can do them when you ask, or worse, when you need him to pull you out of a jam.

Scott Cook is the former chief of the Granbury (Texas) Volunteer Fire Department and a fire service instructor. He’s also a member of FireRescue’s editorial board.

Copyright © Elsevier Inc., a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.
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