Brilliance in the Basics

Developing master proficiency with “everyday” tools to find success


When identifying the target hazards in a community, the wildland-urban interface threat seems to weigh heavy on most of the minds of those who live in it as we ramp up for the wildland season. (Photo by Keith Cullom.)


By Seth Barker | FireRescue Magazine Volume 12 Issue 9

Recently, I was teaching a class in Washington, and I was approached by one of the students during a much-needed break. We were discussing various approaches to modern fire behavior. During our discussion, he stated how my version of the “Tool in the Toolbox” theory really rang true to him. Often, we hear in our discussions on the training ground, “It’s just another tool in the toolbox.” This is probably the most overstated phrase in the American fire service.

Everyday Tools

So, let’s picture an average occurrence at a fire hall. You have a young firefighter watch a YouTube video, think it’s the next best thing, get support from the shift, get the captain on board, and the next thing you know they are training on how to do a direct attack on a three-million-acre crown fire coming right at them. (Here’s a hint: Get out of the way!) The way he justifies this to the rest of the troops is the catch-all phrase, “Just another tool in the toolbox, Cap.” Let’s break this concept down for a minute. If you really think about your toolbox at home on your workbench, what is in it? A lot of stuff that only gets used maybe once a year for that mystery Sunday project. What you need to be REALLY good at is the five tools in your toolbox that you use ALL the time: the hammer, level, tape measure, saw, and screwdriver. These tools need to be handled with master proficiency to accomplish the task at hand. Now let’s compare this to the fire service. What are your tools you use every day? I would offer being unconsciously competent at ladders, hose stretches, using self-contained breathing apparatus, searching, and forcible entry. These are the tools to get the job done, as Chief Forest Reeder says, to be “better, faster, safer, and smarter.”

Now, back to my student. When he approached me, he admitted to hearing a similar concept from his drill instructor while he was in the Navy SEALs (I was completely humbled at this point, being the teacher). It was the “brilliance in the basics” concept. This concept was founded by Colonel Brian McCoy, who was the commanding officer of 3rd Battalion, 4th Marines, in the war in Iraq. The concept was very simple: “Master the basics was all it was going to take to defeat the enemy.” My student went on to explain that this simple concept is all we needed to be REALLY good at our jobs. We can see these themes as a constant methodology with some of the leading instructors around the county. It is imperative to address these concepts to identify what are the most important tools.

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Hose Work

When identifying the target hazards in a community, the wildland-urban interface threat seems to weigh heavy on most of the minds of those who live in it as we ramp up for the wildland season. What basic things can we identify to mitigate these hazards? What are the five tools that we need mastery level proficiency at to ensure preparedness? Let’s begin with the foundation of all firefighting: hose work. We need to be able to show up and apply water onto a fire better, faster, safer, and smarter than ever before. Our fuel loads have changed, our climate has changed, and our response profile is ever changing. To be effective, we must have the basics mastered because time is not on our side. Putting hose on the ground and getting to work need to be extremely efficient to mitigate the hazard effectively. This is where the unconscious competence concept comes into play. For example, when we are tying our shoe, we are not thinking about the actual process of tying but what task we are going to do next.

We need to have this same mindset when performing hose work for a wildland start. The hose stretch, nozzle pattern, equipment being used, and personal protective equipment in place all need to be drilled to such an extent that we are considering all the other factors that go along with the fire while doing the basic tasks. We need to be thinking about which way the wind is blowing and how fast, what are my prevailing winds, are there structures threatened, are lives at risk, what is the topography, and is there defensible space? If we have achieved competence with our basic tools to a point of unconsciously performing them, we then can be a highly effective firefighter.

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The brilliance in the basics concept should be addressed with everything we do. (Photo by Pixabay.)

Anchor, Flank, Pinch

A great example of a basic drill that is familiar to all departments that have a WUI threat is the historic anchor, flank, and pinch. This tactic is not new to engine-based wildland firefighters by any stretch.

Anchor: All control lines must have an anchor point. The purpose of the anchor point is to prevent a fire from burning around the end of the control line and possibly outflanking the suppression crews. An anchor point is usually not a constructed fireline, but it could be a hoselay, road, bare field, stream, cliff, or previously burned section of the fire.

Flank: The objective is to create a “wet line” on the burned/unburned line of the fire. This wet line is achieved by spraying water on the burned/unburned line to extinguish further advancement of the fire. A flank attack is a simultaneous attack on two sides of the fire from a secure point or an anchor point. This point is often the point of origin. Crews will work toward the perimeter for control of the fire.

Pinch: As soon as the crews can reach the head of the fire with an effective hose stream, water is positioned from one or both flanks to stop the forward progression.

This drill needs to repeated over and over to achieve a muscle memory application and become second nature. Once this happens, the crew’s situational awareness becomes much broader to a 30-foot radius, then hopefully to a 100-foot radius, until finally achieving the overall goal of gathering information from the entire incident to formulate an effective strategy. When you drill on this simple tactic over and over, you will be surprised at how quickly your team adapts to minor obstacles such as terrain features, fuel loads, poor hose positioning, or a mechanical failure. We create this broad view of the incident because we are not worrying about the performance of our tactic. The tactic becomes the tool that we are unconsciously competent at. The best chance of success in almost every fireground operation is in the first several minutes. Rarely is time on our side. If we can be highly effective while being safe and fast, well, that’s the endgame we are looking for. Most wildland starts, if addressed immediately in your community, can be mitigated in the first 20 to 30 minutes with sound training, excellent situational awareness, and attention to the basics.

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Drill Repetition

The brilliance in the basics concept should be addressed with everything we do. We should demand that we and others have a mastery skillset with the basics. We should train until we have unconscious competence in the basics. This will create a better mindset on drilling, training, and lessons that will ensure our team is providing our customers with the best service possible.

So, what are the tools in your toolbox? What do you rely on every call to make sure you are performing at your best? Are you training with the tools? Or are you getting so bogged down with the next latest and greatest thing that you have lost sight of what’s important? Are you owning your own skillsets and demanding competency from others?

Now, I am not saying that you should only have five tools and they can apply to every situation. However, I will argue that most events require one of those five tools to help with the mitigation. Once competency is obtained, then the toolbox can grow to a larger chest, and then a bench, and finally a whole garage. Let’s start with the “brilliance in the basics” concept first to make sure everyone goes home.


Seth Barker is a captain and training officer for the Big Sky (MT) Fire Department. He is a state fire instructor for the Montana State Fire Service Training School and a state lead EMS instructor. Barker has a Blue Card Instructor certification, is an ISFSI instructor, and is one of the curators for


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Developing master proficiency with “everyday” tools to find success   When identifying the target hazards in a community, the wildland-urban interface threat seems to weigh heavy on most of the minds of those who live in it as we ramp up for the wildland season. (Photo by Keith Cullom.)   By Seth Barker | FireRescue […]

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