"There is a serious danger that fire policy will be developed on the basis of work carried out in the context of the market place rather than being underpinned by research which has been subjected to full process of academic rigour and peer review" Professor D Drysdale (European Vice-Chair, International Association of Fire Safety Sciences) and D T Davis (Chair of the Executive Committee, Institution of Fire Engineers). Fire Engineers Journal 61, 10, 6-7


















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Vinton, B. (2002) Topography Training Within The Fire Service: ‘From Visualisation To Total Recall’, www.fitting-in.com/vinton.htm.








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Abstract: ‘How come I knew all the street names but couldn’t direct the driver to the fire’. The problem of recall under stress in the fire service has become evident in the context of emergency calls and requires further investigation. I have criticised the style of topography training both past and present and will support this criticism with relevant examples, this will progress towards a literature search, not only to understand why this problem has appeared but also how to improve the present situation. By researching Situated Learning, Culture, Fire Service Culture, Stress and Memorizing Techniques I hope to produce enough academic and scientific evidence to challenge the present teaching format. My main aim as a beginner researcher is to understand what in general action research is all about. I want to concentrate my attention on certain specifics, which in my view seemed important in constructing a quality research project, these are methods & strategies, values, validity, quality, presentation, perspective, meaning, interpretation, awareness, consistency, structure, quality indicators, data collection, ethics, systematic inquiry, reflection and principles of procedure.  Development of the project began with collaboration with co-workers forming a workgroup, which decided a systematic enquiry and data collection was required, consisting of questionnaires, interviews, event log and observation (Ethical consideration applied). The objective will be to look for keywords and issues from all interviews and then categorize these into both negative and positive statements, the aim then to eradicate the negative and implement the positive if possible. The basic use of triangulation will be used to analyse the results, firstly the researcher, then secondly an experienced fire appliance driver and finally a selected fire station watch as a workgroup. Hopefully this process will move topography teaching towards the concept of ‘visualisation’ striving ultimately for total recall.




Most firefighters develop skills/qualities/attributes in common.  Generally, these associate with what firefighters recognize as their main job, firefighting.  Moreover, because firefighters are mostly men, they form up in an informal hierarchy through which older firefighters pass down to younger firefighters their knowledge about the skills/qualities/attributes necessary for firefighting.  Apart from firefighters being mostly men, the organization in which they work is also predominantly white, working class, heterosexual, able-bodied and pseudo/para-military (Baigent 2001).


Research question

Imagine as a fire fighter you knew all the answers to all the questions and filled every street name on the board in the lecture room, leaving you with a final picture of a board full of street names within a network of lines, all logged in your memory. A day or a week later you are turned out to a fire at SMITH ST, NUMBER 21, nearest main road – JONES ROAD, NEWCASTLE AREA, PERSONS REPORTED (Persons trapped in house).

·        You are moving as you think.

·        You have to visualize where it is in your head.

·        But first you must direct the Detached / Guest Driver from another Fire station who is unfamiliar with this area, he/she must be told left or right out the station.

·        You have to don fire kit and breathing apparatus.

·        Think of nearest main road *FIRST to give yourself more thinking time.

·        Try and visualize where it is.

The whiteboard full of lines and names, bear no resemblance to houses, buildings and roads, but the street name does sound familiar.

An older hand on the back say’s “Its second right after the Co-op, I shop there all the time”. When you get there you realize you knew the street and the names of all the surrounding streets but couldn’t visualize where it was.

‘How come you knew the streets but couldn’t direct the driver’?

This is the problem fire fighters face everyday; a new training package was required for topography to replace the old style, of trying to remember hundreds of street names.   



I am an operational fire-fighter with over 25 years service, as my research is specifically about topography training within the fire service, I wanted to develop a methodology that would make best use of my operational experiences concerning topography, supported by other fire-fighters views and experiences. I will be investigating appropriate literature dealing with subjects such as situated learning, culture, stress, success patterns, memory and personality. As a beginner researcher I will enquire about the basics of action research and apply the most appropriate qualities to my own action research. I will discuss the implications of the research findings and analyse the results, to come to some sort of conclusion.


Why is topography important?

Fire-fighters knowledge of the station area is a vital part of the job description of an operational firefighter and it is this very area of training, which has become the subject of my research. My main areas of concern have been the training environment/atmosphere and the teaching techniques used in the past and present concerning this topic.


Aims and Objectives

The main objective of the investigation will be to devise a different approach to topography training, using research to study the different theories of thinking and learning, to assist in both theoretical and practical situations. I believe the problem of recall under stress has become evident in the context of emergency calls and needs further study. This study will hopefully assist firefighters in finding their destinations, by applying and researching memory techniques in real life emergency call situations also examining the recall capabilities of fire fighters under stressful situations.

Initially the first task was to try and eradicate a stressful learning atmosphere of an antiquated, authoritarian, didactic style of teaching. Secondly taking a broad look at learning senses and applying certain strategies to a specific problem of topography teaching, with the aid of discussion groups with other firefighters.

I wanted to apply a curriculum model with the firefighters learning needs as a priority, working together as a group, but allowing each individual to progress independently, with the student having control over their own learning. I wanted to adopt a learner –centred approach to the design of this curriculum, because it is evident at fire station level, how each professional fire-fighter is at a different stage or knowledge level concerning topography, and one single approach that has been used in the past seemed to be neglecting so many fire-fighters differing learning styles. To understand the reasons for this oversight, a short look into the history and makeup of the fire service is essential. The fire service also has a culture unique to itself and this goes a long way in explaining the reasons behind their teaching methods. Topography training in summary would be looking to take Rote learning to Visualization, looking to strive for total recall for the student. The audience is operational fire fighters. The wider context is a national initiative, which could have wider implications in the education of fire fighters.


Identifying the Literature

‘How come I knew the streets but couldn’t direct the driver’

THE IMAGINARY FIRE at the beginning of this document, in reality, may be a common occurrence up and down the breadth of the U.K. fire service, the scenario of not being able to direct the driver in a real emergency situation based on the prior teaching methods, is the main discussion area of this paper, also to ask the question why that individual knew the street names but couldn’t apply that knowledge in a practical situation, what was the cause?  What is the solution?  


Situated Learning

According to Lave and Wenger (1991) learning viewed as situated activity has as it’s central defining characteristics a process that they call Legitimate Peripheral Participation, by this they mean that learners in communities of practitioners (trainees with experienced firefighters) and that the mastery of knowledge and skill, requires newcomers to move toward full participation in the socio-cultural practices of a community (Fire station). This seems to be a way of academically describing an apprenticeship. The problem that trainee firefighters have is that they are riding the back of a fire appliance from day 1 and are expected to participate not from a peripheral point, but from the beginning to be totally immersed in the action. The requirement to prove oneself is high up on the personal agenda’s of trainee firefighters, in fact in the fire service, roles can be reversed, instead of the apprentice watching the experienced practitioner, the practitioner observes the trainee at operational incidents not from a peripheral point, but from a co-participation standpoint as part of a two wo/man team for example and then comments are made after the event. So the trainees may therefore be expected to perform at a level beyond them at times and this can occur with expected or presumed knowledge of topography. The peripheral participation is simply not part of, or an expected action during operational incidents, where everybody is expected to perform to their maximum. Since full participation is expected from trainees at certain times then expected outcomes should be limited to their capabilities. Initial knowledge of topography should be limited to knowing landmarks, memory points and main roads at first, then building up from that point through time. Learning regarding trainee firefighters only partly - and often incidentally – implies becoming able to be involved in new activities, to perform new tasks and functions (the fire service prepares trainees for the unexpected, no two incidents are the same) to master new understandings, to be able to move on from a trainee to a qualified firefighter in steps and the same should apply to topography. (Lave and Wenger, 1991).    


Fire Service Culture

Fire Service ethos: to provide an efficient service to help the public:         

Up until the 1960’s, ‘all’ firefighters had undertaken military service. Tradition passed from the military to the fire service, despite long hours and often harsh-discipline the fire service appeared to have one view about service delivery (Segars 1989). Officers and firefighters bridged any gap between them by their shared understandings of the fire service’s professional ethos: ‘to provide an efficient service to help the public’. This ethos closely links to another shared understanding: the saving of life; the suppression of fire and the rendering of humanitarian services (what in the military might be seen as a sense of honour, see Dixon 1994). (Baigent 2001). 

This military connection may well be the cause of such antiquated teaching methods being passed down to the fire service, the difference between drill sessions and teaching sessions may have become blurred in the eye’s of fire service officers and instructors, the need for a more user-friendly approach towards mental tasks might be the answer. 



To understand the meaning of the fire service culture, I had to look at culture and the link to personality and where teaching fell amongst this process. In the 1950’s culture was defined by Kroeber and Kluckhohn (1963) as patterns, explicit and implicit, of and for behaviour acquired and transmitted by symbols, constituting the distinctive achievement of human groups, the essential core of culture consists of traditional (i.e. historically derived and selected) ideas and especially their attached values; culture systems may, on the one hand, be considered as products of actions, on the other as conditioning elements of further action.  A more scientific view by Barkow et al (1992) states culture is the manufactured product of evolved psychological mechanisms situated in individuals living in groups. Culture and human social behaviour is complexly valuable, but not because the human mind is a social product, a blank slate, or an externally programmed general-purpose computer, lacking a richly defined evolved structure. Instead, human culture and social behaviour is richly valuable because it is generated by an incredibly intricate, contingent set of functional programs that use and process information from the world, including information that is provided both intentionally and unintentionally by other human beings. Even though there is 30 years between these views they are very similar, the first is an anthropological view, where the second is a scientific standpoint, however there is a use of similar meaning words, such as mechanisms and patterns, products of action and functional programs, explicit and implicit, compared to intentional and unintentional. The words ‘groups’ and ‘behaviour’ are in both comments about culture, which is valid and appropriate concerning the individual personalities of firefighters, whose behaviour in a group situation is a well observed action. The idea of separating certain realities from each other as a way of understanding these concepts is quite confusing, culture from psychology, group from individual and so on. Geertz (2000) explains, what seems less arguable is that as our understanding of the brain, of information processing, of individual development, of social communication and collective behaviour, of perception, emotion, fantasy, memory, and concept formation, and of reference, sense, representation, and discourse severally advance in some sort of wary and side-long, corner-of-the-eye awareness of one another, the possibility of reducing all of them to one of them, sorting them into sealed compartments, or bringing them into a comprehensive, theory-of-everything synthesis, grows steadily more remote. They are all undeniably linked and to learn more about them they have to be found, separated and dissected but then put back together and placed back. Education is no different Bruner (1999) stated education is part of the continent of culture not an island on its own, dealing with the sciences and humanities, planting the seed of action, theory and effect. Giving causality, personal experience and decision making to the individual. (Bruner 1986). Education has a function and role to play within the fire service, like any other organisation, however a misconception may have occurred where disciplined instruction and teaching have not been separated enough or maybe, have been married together over time and each is affecting the other in a negative way for the learner. There may be a need to break away from traditional protocols regarding instruction.


Currently the fire service is caught up in a dynamic of change that is sweeping through the public services. This can be unsettling for those in the fire service and service delivery, because changes might damage many of the established practices that have ensured that the fire service provides an efficient service to the public. (Baigent 2001). There seems to be a conflict between the traditional and the now. The now or ‘reality culture’ consisting of groups such as department’s, union, representational bodies, outside influences such as government are pressing the fire service to become more pro-active. To move away from the macho, military culture of the heroic fireman to the more politically correct community firefighter who are perceived as caring and sharing, who reflect the multi-cultural community they serve, therefore teaching and training should progress alongside, being part of the whole package, allowing a more user-friendly approach for the individual.  


The general background culture of an individual is an important factor of their personality, as they enter the more specific culture of the Fire Service, which, has maybe more emphasis on certain areas such as discipline, peer expectation and pressure, professionalism, courage, fitness etc…but also this particular culture could have had an effect on the longer serving fire fighters who will have high expectations and standards, coupled with possibly a low tolerance of other peoples failings, due to conditioning from past hierarchies. One of the reasons for the 18-week introduction course by the training school is to enforce the fire service culture on selected individuals so that they can survive the pressures ahead. Barkow et al (1992) asks if culture creates the individual, what then creates culture? Therefore the question is not so much, what are the forces that act on and influence human culture and human affairs? But rather, what is the generator of complex and significant organization in human affairs? Shweder describes ''cultural psychology'' as ''the study of the way cultural traditions and social practices regulate, express, transform and permeate the human psyche, resulting less in psychic unity for humankind than in ethnic divergences in mind, self and emotion'' (Shweder, I990, p.I). Here Shweder is suggesting the powerful culture of some institutions maybe to strong or powerful to unite individuals to the cause, and may in fact alienate or discourage personalities to grow. Some personalities may overcome these hurdles others may not. Vygotsky ( 1978) argues that because the historical conditions which determine to a large extent the opportunities for human experience are constantly changing, there can be no universal schema that adequately represents the dynamic relation between internal and external aspects of development.


The answer for the fire service question of antiquated teaching methods is to offer better alternatives to the past and understand that, the culture may or may not change when expected but will be affected by more information being added and digested. Vygotsky (Ibid) suggests that the formation of new functional learning systems includes a process akin to that of nourishment in body growth, wherein at any particular time certain nutrients are digested and assimilated while others are rejected. Therefore in this case the new nutrients are a new topography package for firefighters, they may digest or reject, but at least they have a choice of nutrients where before they only had  one. I believe that a change of teaching style from a basic authoritarian to a more humanistic approach would improve firefighters attitudes towards topography teaching, leading the approach away from a pressure fed negative type atmosphere to a forward thinking positive style. The fact that 90% of trainers/teachers in the fire service are operational firefighters tends to cloud the role of the teacher/student where the teacher is also the student in an operational fire fighting sense. I see the teacher role in this instance as more of a facilitator for the student helping them gain the knowledge and confidence required to conquer the problem and assist in striving to achieve this in a non-stressful and enjoyable way. My main areas of concern were an authoritarian teaching style, an antiquated didactic teaching technique and a stressful learning atmosphere. The teaching approach to topography has not been geared towards the firefighters needs and concerns. I had to create a better learning atmosphere for the individual with no stress or pressure to effect memory retention or enjoyment of the task.



Western (1996) claims stress refers to a challenge to a person's capacity to adapt to inner and outer demands, which may be physiologically arousing and emotionally taxing and call for cognitive and behavioural responses. Stress is a psychobiological process that entails a transaction between a person and her environment. From a psychological standpoint, stress entails a person's perception that demands of the environment tax or exceed his available psychosocial resources. Stress, in this view, depends on the meaning of an event to the individual or to apply that to topography how do I cope with a situation where I have not had the required input to respond adequately.

Lazarus's (1966) model identifies two stages in the process of stress and coping: primary appraisal, in which the person decides whether the situation is benign, stressful, or irrelevant; and secondary appraisal, in which the person evaluates the options and decides how to respond to events that often lead to stress are called stressors. Stressors include life events, catastrophes and daily hassles. (McNamara 2000).

Stress can be conceptualised within three main models:

1.      environmental model

2.      medical model

3.      psychological model


Research shows that people respond differently to the same levels of stress. There are individual differences in patterns of physiological actions to stress, which involve heart rate, respiratory rate and galvanic skin response. Furthermore, different types of stress elicit different types of physiological response. It also appears that the type of coping strategy employed will affect the pattern of physiological responses. The fact that we respond differently to different types of stress and that each of us responds in an individual way makes it clear that our psychological processes play a very important role in the way stressful events affect our emotions, physical health and behaviour. (McNamara Ibid p.4)


Taking into consideration this opinion that individuals respond to stress at varying levels, it appears to be important that a process of lowering the stress factor is important to assist fire fighters in their attempt to recall street names under stress. Maltz (1960) the author of ‘Psycho-Cybernetics’ writes pressure retards learning, Dr. Tolman an expert on animal behaviour found that if rats were permitted to learn and Practice under non-crisis conditions, they later performed well in a crisis. For example, if rats were permitted to roam about at will and explore a maze when well fed and with plenty to drink, they did not appear to learn anything. Later, however, if the same rats were placed in the maze while hungry, they showed they had learned a great deal, by quickly and efficiently going to the goal. Hunger faced these trained rats with a crisis to which they reacted well. Other rats, which were forced to learn the maze under the crisis of hunger and thirst, did not do so well. They were over- motivated and their brain maps became narrow. The one ''correct'' route to the goal became fixated. If this route were blocked the rats became frustrated and had great difficulty learning a new one.  Prof. Jerome S. Bruner of Harvard University trained two groups of rats to solve a maze to get food. One group, which had not eaten for 12 hours, learned the maze in six trials. A second group, which had eaten nothing for 36 hours, required more than 20 tries. (Ibid p.190) There are three things to draw from this information; 1) Practicing under non-crisis situations helped rats to learn. 2) When motivated with hunger the rats performed well. 3) The more intense the crisis situation under which you learn, the less you learn. Learning topography is there to help in alleviating a crisis situation. Responding to a fire call, and remembering street names are two separate functions, one is physical and the other mental, the way is to combine the two. In other words a teaching package that takes into consideration the turn-out procedure and the problems involved concerning the driver of the fire appliance.


Fire Drills Teach Crisis Conduct in Non-Crisis Situation

Maltz ( Ibid) wrote people react in the same way. Persons who have to learn how to get out of a burning building will normally require two or three times as long to learn the proper escape route, as they would if no fire were present. Some of them do not learn at all. Over motivation interferes with reasoning processes. The automatic reaction mechanism is jammed by too much conscious, endeavouring too hard. Something akin to ''purpose tremor'' develops and the ability to think clearly is lost. The people, who do manage somehow to get out of the building, have learned a narrow fixated response. Put them in a different building, or change the circumstances slightly 'and they react as badly the second time around as the first. But, you can take these same people, let them practice a ''dry run'' Fire drill when there is no fire. Because there is no menace there is any excessive negative feedback to interfere with clear thinking or correct doing. They practice filing out of the' building calmly, efficiently, and correctly. After they have practiced this a number of times, they can be counted upon to act the same way when an actual fire breaks out. Their muscles, nerves and brain have memorized a broad, general, flexible ''map.'' The attitude of calmness and clear thinking will ''carry over'' from practice drill to actual fire. Moreover, they will have learned something about how to get out of any building, or cope with any changed circumstance. They are not committed to a rigid response, but will be able to improvise to react spontaneously to whatever conditions may be present. The moral is obvious for either mice or men: Practice without pressure and you will learn more efficiently and be able to perform better in a crisis situation.


Neurologist J.A.Hadfield (cited Ibid p.198) believes the secret lies in adopting a new attitude of ''fearlessly accepting the challenge,'' and confidently expanding our strength. This means maintaining an aggressive, a goal-directed attitude, rather than a defensive, evasive, negative one: ''No matter what happens, I can handle it, or I can see it through,'' rather than, ''I hope nothing happens.'' Maybe this is the correct process to help trainees to be proactive and replace the negative attitude of some Fire Service trainers of the past. If your intention, or your attitude-goal, is to go forward, if it is to make the most of the crisis situation, and win out in spite of it, then the excitement of the occasion will re-enforce this tendency it will give you more courage, more strength to go forward. This is the attitude required for topography training building on success step by step. If you lose sight of your original goal, and your attitude-goal becomes one of running away from the crisis, of seeking to somehow get past it by evading it, this running-away tendency will also be re-enforced, and you will experience fear and anxiety. (Ibid p.210) This was the attitude of past topography training where fire fighters because of the error-ridden lecture where failings were jumped on rather than explained dreaded the training. How could individuals learn under such stressful conditions?


How Science Explains That Winning Feeling

Cybernetic scientists have built what they call an ''electronic mouse'' which can learn its way through a maze. The first time through the mouse makes numerous errors. It constantly bumps into walls and obstructions. But each time it bumps into an obstruction, it turns 9O degrees and tries again. If it bumps into another wall, it makes another turn, and goes forward again. Eventually, after many, many errors, stops and turns, the mouse gets through the open space in the maze. The electronic mouse, however, ''remembers'' the turns, which were successful, and the next time through, these successful motions are reproduced, or ''played back'' and the mouse goes through the open space quickly and efficiently. The object of Practice is to make repeated trials, constantly correct errors, until a ''hit'' is scored. When a successful pattern of action is performed, the entire action pattern from beginning to end is not only stored in what we call conscious memory, but in our very nerves and tissues. (Ibid, p.212)


Build Success Patterns Into Your Gray Matter

President Elliott of Harvard (cited Ibid, p.212) argued that teachers arrange work in the early grades so to ensure that the student experienced success. The work should be well within the ability of the student, yet interesting enough to arouse enthusiasm and motivation. These small successes, said Dr. Elliott, would give the student the ''feel of success,'' which would be valuable in any future undertakings. If we are habitually frustrated by failure, we are very apt to acquire habitual ''feelings of failure'', which colour all new undertakings. But by arranging things so that we can succeed in little things, we can build an atmosphere of success, which will carry-over into larger undertakings. We can gradually undertake more difficult tasks, and after succeeding in them, be in a position to undertake something even more challenging. Success is literally built upon success and there is much in the saying, ‘‘nothing succeeds like success'' (Ibid p.213) Weight-lifters start with weights they can lift and gradually increase the weights over a period of time



Optimal states of Mind *(See Footnote)

Harary (1991) claims many educators and psychologists now contend: that there are optimal states of mind that are wildly conducive to accelerated learning. These mental states have, in recent years, been associated with the right brain. By turning down the engine of the left-brain (associated with rote learning and analysis) and revving up the right brain. (associated with intuition, visualization, and spontaneity) students can get to the aha! phase of learning. They can grasp skills or subjects in a new, profound, and potentially deeper way. The left hemisphere, they defined, was involved in those tasks that required analytical reasoning and linear logic. The right brain, on the other hand, seemed to be involved in visual tasks such as recognizing disparate bits of information such as reading or interpreting maps. While the left-brain could memorize material and learn by rote or plod through reams of text analytically to find an answer, the right brain could say aha! - it could have direct, immediate, emotional, and seemingly intuitive responses to data, receiving the underlying patterns in a flash. No matter if your subject is art, auto-mechanics, organic chemistry, or topography, opening up non-linear and nonverbal channels of thought can help you learn in a new, more expansive, and frequently more rapid way. The information researched seems to lean towards a combination of both left and right hemispheres as the optimal learning state for any individual. Groeger (1997, p.140) believes that any of us, or at least most of us, given the dedicated application of appropriate encoding and retrieval strategies, can perform as if we have exceptional memories. It is encouraging to learn as a researcher that virtually everybody has the same potential and it is how we use these qualities that hinders us, not our potential. Numerous authors and researchers of the brain have categorically stated that the human mind is an infinite machine that is virtually untapped.


Footnote - (This area has a lot of critics and has been described as theoretically vacuous by academics, however, as a potential creator of a topography package which involves memorizing, I am very interested in the area of mind maps and creative thinking introduced by Tony Buzan, (1989) author of ‘Use Your Head’ and many other educational books concerned with the brain.. All of his books are dealing with the brain and it’s untapped potential. The book ‘Use Your Head’ I borrowed from a university library and I have seen mind maps used on Open University as a learning tool, I feel it is my duty to study this controversial area of learning.) 



Personality refers to the enduring Patterns of thought, feeling, and behaviour that are expressed in different circumstances. Western (1996, p.448) states personality psychologists have two tasks. The first is to construct theories that describe the structure of personality, that is, the organization of enduring Patterns of thought, feeling, and behaviour in the mind. The second task is to study the way people resemble and differ from one another, that is, their individual differences. Ideally, these two aims should dovetail, as researchers use their theories to select the relevant personality dimensions on which people can be expected to differ. I feel it is important for fire service instructors/teachers to recognize that personalities are important and must be taken into consideration when teaching certain subjects. One system to fit all is a real neglect when dealing with mental processes such as memorizing. 




The reason for the literature review was to move on from the original problem that fire fighters had with topography, and create a process of research to understand initially culture and its relevance to personality. Recognizing personality and identity was important to ensure a user-friendly topography package for individuals, with the latest memory techniques to enhance their chances of remembering, adding fire service culture into the melting pot and how it effects the personalities within it. The subject of stress was important also, just to emphasize the fact that recall is very difficult under stressful conditions and the understanding of the nature of stress under all different disguises was significant. Linking this to practice without pressure, fearlessly accepting the challenge, creating a successful pattern of action and building success upon success was essential research in creating a topography package which will hopefully be simple, effective and practical.


Research rationale and methodology


My main aim as a beginner researcher, was to understand what in general, action research was all about. I wanted then to concentrate my attention on certain specifics, which in my view seemed important in constructing a quality research project. The specifics are methods & strategies, values, validity, quality, presentation, perspective, meaning, interpretation, awareness, consistency, structure, quality indicators, data collection, ethics, systematic inquiry, reflection and principles of procedure. I believe that understanding these relevant concepts will give a well-rounded view of what quality action research requirements are.  


Action Research

Well-conducted action research can lead; ' to your own personal development, to better professional practice, to improvements in the institution in which you work, and to you making a contribution to the good order of society. (McNiff et al 1996 p. 8). Good professional practice emphasizes the action but does not always question the motives for the action. To do action research, there must be praxis rather than practice. Praxis is informed, committed action that gives life to knowledge rather than just successful action. It is informed because other people's views are taken into account. It is committed and intentional in terms of values that have been examined and can be argued. 'The linking of the two, action and research, highlights the essential feature of the method: trying out ideas in practice as a means of improvement and as a means of increasing knowledge ... ' (Kemmis and McTaggart, 1982). This emphasis on action is also clear in John Elliott's statement that: 'Action research is about improving practice rather than producing knowledge. ' (Elliott, 1991).


My Action research

My research as a whole focuses on the question of ‘how can I help firefighters find their destinations’ in their everyday professional practice (basing the improvements on finding a learner friendly teaching style with innovative memory techniques). In this section I will be specifically looking at methods and strategies of enquiry (a mode of interrogation), also striving for quality in qualitative study. According to Stefan Larsson (1998) the first step in a process aiming at a theoretical contribution is to choose a problem or focus that contains a potential for further theory building in the current knowledge base within the field of research. The formulation of a problem, therefore, can be judged on the basis of what potential of theory development it contains. This requires wide reading but also courage to do your utmost to generate new knowledge. I believe this study has the potential of the sort of development mentioned.


David Frost an action researcher stated ‘another important lesson I have learnt about practitioner research is that rigor and validity depend on researchers being prepared to situate themselves in terms of the framework of professional imperatives within which they work and in terms of the values, which underpin their professional action.’ (Frost 1995). Also Marion Dadds has recently reminded us of the fact that research for the insider action researcher is necessarily ‘passionate enquiry’ driven by the individual’s values and the goal of the direct betterment of professional practice (Dadds 1993). This is certainly true in my case as an operational firefighter who through numerous experiences spaced over 26 years service, has given rise to having severe doubts about the teacher/trainer techniques used within the fire service, these techniques were grounded in the military and based on drill sessions, which were designed for assimilated stressful emergency situations, where discipline is severe and a prerequisite for safety reasons and operational efficiency. Topography training is a specific requirement, paramount to the professionalism of a firefighter, however the antiquated methods of instruction used in the past and present have not addressed the problem from the learners point of view, and this applies to instruction across the board in the fire service. I want to explore how instruction within non-academic institutions might be updated accordingly alongside their academic counterparts. 


The beginning

As is often the case with innovation, the collaboration was, in the first instance, between individuals rather than institutions and so the development of this project was the result of dialogue between my co-workers. I had the same feeling as other action researchers, who felt empowered by the process and excited about the potential of staff development.

Then after the backing of my peers a systematic enquiry was required to build up the argument. In order to sustain a commitment to systematic enquiry within our own practice and institutional setting we need support from an external agency network within which enquiry itself is celebrated and valued above all else. (Frost op.cit.). The external agency in my case was my own post compulsory education. Without the opportunity to investigate these problems at an academic level the status quo would have prevailed, however with my organization’s permission I was allowed to continue my research.


There remained a tension on my part between my criticisms of the organization and their willingness to allow me to continue, however I was pleased to discover that I wasn’t the first action researcher to sense this tension. Peter Holly suggested that ‘Action research fosters collegiality, informality, openness and collaboration across boundaries, etc. while institutions veer towards the hierarchical, bureaucratic and formal’ (Holly, 1984, p.100). I realized that in this case the tension was a natural state of affairs.


My Research Methodology

A key methodological problem for practitioners is the question of how to make a beginning and what constitutes a beginning?  By considering a beginning we have to raise questions about the relationship between the research and the professional practice. (Frost op.cit). I also feel there is a need for a high level of reflexivity and self-awareness as a researcher (Walker, 1985). Lubcke cited in Larsson (1998) makes the point that:


We should reflect our direct experiences of the thing itself, i.e., we should turn to those acts in which we make our experiences, and with this reflective attitude we will give a neutral description of the thing itself, just as we experience it directly. We must stop inserting a theory between the thing and ourselves. (Lubcke 1987 p 47.)


 I sense these experiences are not enough on their own and I required extra support of valid theories and perceptions. I will be introducing alternative teaching methods, and proving their relevance through continuing research and reflection. This I believe is the best way forward, to enhance professionalism within the fire service.

As a beginner researcher I feel I need to have a basic model or plan to initially follow, to give some sort of structure to the research. Here are two examples. Elliot’s revision of the Lewin model includes: The general plan should contain: 1. A revised statement of the general idea…2. A statement of the factors one is going to change…3. A statement of negotiations…4. A statement of the resources one will need…5. A statement of the ethical framework, which will govern access…(Elliot, 1991, p.75)


Barrett & Whitehead’s model, cited by Jean McNiff:

1.                                                      What is your concern?

2.                                                      Why are you concerned?

3.                                                      What do you think you could do about it?

4.                                                      What kind of evidence could you collect to help you make a judgment about                        what is happening? (McNiff, 1998, p.57)


These models may seem somewhat basic and obvious, but in this case they are helpful in creating a beginning but also useful to keep returning to, to reflect upon., which I believe is helpful in keeping it relative to the specific professional practice, and not losing the focus. As I began to construct my action research project, it appeared that the research began to have a life of its own, in that it formed it’s own cycle where the research is researched through reflection, and it grows and forms and changes shape as it progressed. To keep this growing phenomenon under some constraint, I was interested in the term ‘principles of procedure’ which Stenhouse took from R.S. Peters and used to mean those criteria, which determine validity (is a measure of the extent to which you are measuring what you think you are measuring) in an educative process (Stenhouse, 1975). The basic principles in my case being the effectiveness of/ practicality of/ possibility of a user-friendlier teaching program for the learner, equipped with researched learning techniques specific to the problem of firefighters finding their destinations under stressful and anxious conditions. More principles of procedure may well be added or amended as the action research grows, these maybe of particular importance to other research practitioners who may want to continue in the same research field. Elliot (1993) argued, that the expression of such principles in the form of ‘quality indicators’ could enable professionals to enter into reflective discourse with other audiences having an interest in our work as educators. These ‘quality indicators’ appear to be units of knowledge or opinion which open up the interpretations to a wider audience, giving rise to thought provoking discussion, which will appear to add more validity to the research.


Research Plan

According to Altrichter et al (1993), data has two important features: one, which is to do with its physical existence and the other, which is to do with its relevance to the issues being investigated. Before collecting data I will make clear my research focus and the kind of data I would want to gather, in this case it would be an event log, semi-structured interviews, observation, workgroup and questionnaire. I would also make assurances about confidentiality and about consultation over reporting.  


Ethical Consideration.

Before I could proceed with the data gathering, I had to consider the ethical dimension of my work as a researcher. An action research project by its nature is liable to uncover issues, which will lead to tension and conflict within an organization. I decided to draft a ‘code of practice’ document,


My code of practice is listed below:


1.      All participants and other individuals affected will be asked for their permission for any evidence about their participation in the project to be used in the research.

2.      Where evidence is gathered through observation of individuals, those observed will be invited to discuss and agree the accuracy and validity of the evidence.

3.      Where evidence is gathered through interview, individuals will be invited to agree to the inclusion of the evidence gathered. Where an individual requests it, items will be deleted from transcripts.

4.      No individual will be identified beyond the confines of the research team.

5.      All evidence-gathering strategies and opportunities will be made known to all parties concerned and their agreement will be sought.

(Frost op.cit)


The ethical dimension is important in practitioner research and Altrichter et al, have summarized it this way:


Action research is based on the belief that effective change in practice is only possible in co-operation with all the participants in the situation—it cannot be achieved against their will. Therefore, research methods should help to develop democratic and co-operative relationships.

(Altrichter et al, op.cit, p.77)


This captures the ethos of quality action research. However Howe & Eisenhart (1990) emphasize that a high ethical value often reduces other qualities in a study.  Maybe we have to abstain from the best arrangements, or we may not be able to confirm our conclusions with full clarity if we are to protect the individuals. In other words, a conflict emerges between validity and ethics. This conflict may be the case but to ignore ethics maybe beneficial in the short term but long term, barriers may appear which could quite well hinder progress.



Rolfe et al (1993) have pointed out that it is, ideally, up to a professional community to preserve and develop, autonomously, criteria of quality in their profession. The autonomy should concern the group, not the individual. Steffan Larsson suggests that it is about inter-subjectivity; i.e., agreements which can be influenced by individual contributions, if they are able to convince the academic society. (Larsson 1998). Rolfe’s comments supports my position as a firefighter armed with constructive criticism, aimed at the teaching styles and techniques of the fire service, however I need to convince also my peers and the academic society. Overcoming these barriers will prove the quality and validity of the research. The over-riding concern is that by giving my research the quality and disciplined approach it requires, I may lose my way with the essence of the subject. Cronbach and Suppes (Eds.) discussing ‘Disciplined Inquiry for Education’ stated that:


 “Disciplined inquiry does not necessarily follow well established, formal procedures. Some of the most excellent inquiry is free ranging and speculative in its initial stages, trying what might seem to be bizarre combinations of ideas and procedures, or restlessly casting for ideas.”

(Cronbach and Suppes, 1969, p.16)



Perspective awareness.

The researcher should not withhold her/his perspective from the reader; understanding falls back on the idea that meaning is constituted in interplay between parts and the whole. The parts are given meaning in relation to the whole and the whole is given meaning by the parts. There is always an interpretation inherent in all meaningful thinking; “facts” are always perspective dependent. Already at the first encounter with what is to be interpreted we have a conception of what it means; we have a pre-understanding. This pre-understanding is changed, developed in the interpretation process into a new understanding. By making this pre-understanding explicit the basis for interpretation becomes clear, since this pre-understanding is the foundation for the kind of interpretation that will be developed. Ultimately, this is built upon the idea that research shall be available for critical inspection. (Larsson, op.cit, p.4). I will be describing personal experiences, in the introduction of the action research report, which have been not only influential and relevant to pre-understanding of what is to be interpreted, but the main cause of my action.



Awareness and Consistency

Awareness and consistency in treatment of background assumptions are key values that Howe and Eisenhart (1990) mention in their suggested general criteria for quality of research. A prerequisite for the meaningfulness of perspective awareness is, that there exists some consistency in application of the perspective. Lincoln and Guba (1989) have a similar point in their argument that the paradigm applied should resonate in the empirical material. Assumptions together with the empirical data constitute the central parts when trying to understand how a result is construed. A clear account of the assumptions as well as the empirical basis then becomes valuable, as the limits of the interpretation grow more visible. The reader can for instance judge if she shares the assumptions or not. Consequently, the reader gets a more precise understanding. By describing the assumptions, the researcher clarifies the conditions under which the results are valid. Assumptions, in this sense, may be complete theories of interpretation, or they may be more restricted assumptions pertaining to limitations of the phenomenon, methodological rules, and ones own taken-for-granted ness discovered during empirical work. (Larsson, 1998). I need to be conscious of these key values of awareness and consistency at all times, to be able to accomplish an action research study of quality. Even after 26 years of experiencing in my view the wrong style of teaching of topography, this was only one mans interpretation of events, I still required the nod of approval from my fellow firefighters. This would come in the form of qualitative data collected from questionnaires, interviews and group discussions.

The basic use of triangulation will be used to analyze and compare different data collected, recognizing different phases, discussing different accounts and also reflecting on the different types of data to give a more all round account of experiences/information gathered within the research. 
Qualitative Method

Qualitative method is about ways to characterize something, to give it a shape or “gestalt” It is in the heart of the matter – often qualitative approaches are legitimated on the ground that it provides the richness in meanings that is lacking in other ways of doing research (Mischler, 1986). This ‘richness in meaning’ needs to have some sort of structure according to Larsson (1998) there is a tension between richness of meanings and demand of structure. This tension must be dealt with in the qualitative analysis in a way, where both sides are not losing too much. In good cases, the tension dissolves into an exactness of the interpretation where the parts and nuances are highly structured in the presented interpretation. Another requirement is it should be possible to follow the reasoning throughout; important parts should not be omitted. In other words, there has to be a main line of thought to follow. Cronbach and Suppes (op.cit, p 18) writes: The detail of the argument, whether it is describing methods of data collection or the derivation of practical recommendations, is lucid, specific, and pertinent. With such a presentation there is something to learn from explication de texte, whereas in an undisciplined discussion the summary message is all that can be taken seriously. The issue here is to develop a rationale for the reader to be convinced, as the arguments are carefully sequenced so as to create a basis for a conclusion or an interpretation. Texts often suffer from lack of clarity and it then becomes difficult to decide what is the main thing and what is less important. Essential points are served in one sentence, while less important matters are given much space. Good structure in a text means that it is obvious what is essential and what is less so. In other words, one important feature of the structure criterion is good rhetoric. The art of writing is thus vital for the quality of a qualitative study. (Larsson, op.cit)



I have taken into consideration the essence of action research benefits, such as personal development, better professional practice and improvements in the institution, they all seem to apply, also the act of uncovering new knowledge is relevant, in this case it applies to memory recall under stress. I will try to maintain my focus throughout the research and use methods and strategies not only for data gathering, but to generate new knowledge of value, which will underpin the professional action in which I am involved with.

Development of the project began with collaboration with co-workers forming a workgroup, which decided a systematic enquiry was required, consisting of questionnaires, interviews, event log, observation, further questionnaires and follow up interviews (Ethical consideration applied). The guidelines and procedures of all questionnaires, interview and group work were all gleaned from the ‘Handbook of Qualitative research’ – (Denzin and Lincoln 2000). Would the recorded interviews and group work be structured or unstructured? What is the purpose, setting, role of interviewer (directive or non-directive), framing of interviews and interpretation of interviews? All of these questions I needed answers to and the handbook was invaluable and a constant source of useful information and guidance, it went a long way in helping to understand the whole process of qualitative research, not only the data gathering procedure but also the analysis.


Reflection is important and feedback from the workgroup helped in maintaining a structure in this area. Awareness of wider theories gives more validity to an argument and if it applies to the principles of procedure being used, this hopefully should enhance our progress and development, helping to form solid quality indicators.


The aim for quality presentation would begin with the researchers perspective, to help the reader understand the meaning of the research and allow their own interpretation to evolve, and by consistently keeping the reader aware of my perspective, it should help in explaining my interpretations and assumptions, and convince the reader that I have a valid argument. To help emphasize how important the past culture of the fire service has been in influencing the thoughts and minds of firefighters, to such a degree that new initiatives in my view are difficult to implement without resistance, here once again is the incite into how firefighters learn, from an ex firefighter Dr. David Baigent (2001) author of ‘ One More last working Class Hero’: A Cultural Audit of the UK Fire Service.


Implications of research findings


Most firefighters develop skills/qualities/attributes in common. Generally, these associate with what firefighters recognize as their main job, firefighting. Moreover, because firefighters are mostly men, they form up in an informal hierarchy through which older firefighters pass down to younger firefighters their knowledge about the skills/qualities/attributes necessary for firefighting. Apart from firefighters being mostly men, the organization in which they work is also predominantly white, working class, heterosexual, able-bodied and pseudo/para-military. (Baigent 2001).


The Training Centre

The training centre offers a false vision of the fire service, it is a mechanical process to discipline the recruits and teach them the tools of their trade in preparation for the next and crucial stage of their training at the station.


The typical initial-training course lasts for up to 18 weeks and provides the trainee with a rudimentary knowledge of the tools needed to become a firefighter. Training involves:

v     learning to obey orders and respect rank;

v     correct wearing and preparation of uniform;

v     improving fitness;

v     gaining the basic skills necessary to test the equipment they will be using;

v     learning search and rescue techniques;

v     passing a two week course in BA (Breathing Apparatus);

v     simulated ‘hot fire’ training;

v     an introduction to firefighting science;

v     an introduction to Fire Prevention/Community Fire Safety;

v     passing a first aid examination;

v     an introduction to equal opportunities;

v     passing weekly examinations and appraisals on these subjects.


The training environment is noisy, disciplined and each day may start with a formal parade; uniforms are well maintained and instructors are called Sir/Ma’am; drills are performed at the shouted command of instructors, at the ‘double’ and by ‘numbers’. Recruits will also receive informal advice from instructors about fire service rituals, understandings and customs. Recruits are unlikely to forget this advice because it involves very real aspects about what it is to be a firefighter. (Baigent, 2001).


v     the need to ‘fit-in’ and become part of the team;

v     the expectation that the fire service looks after its own;

v     the notion of loyalty (to boys club rules);

v     the custom of working and playing together both on and off duty;

v     stories about firefighters who have not ‘fitted in’;

v     the custom that trainee’s should look to experienced firefighters for guidance about ‘fitting in’;

v     the expectation  that trainee’s are likely to have to prove themselves as firefighters who can be trusted before they are fully accepted at the station;

v     the understanding that firefighting skills can only be learnt ‘on the job’ and that these skills are learnt from experienced firefighters;

v     the importance of being labeled a ‘good firefighter’  and avoid being seen as a ‘panicker’.

v     Stories surrounding the folklore of firefighting;

v     The proud traditions, elite status and spirit de corps of the fire service.





Each fire authority has general statutory duties to make provisions for firefighting purposes and within those provisions are standards of Fire Cover to adhere to (Fire Services Act 1947). These standards deal with Risk Categories, No of pumps of first attendance and also, approximate time limits for attendances in minutes (Risk categories and Definitions 1985). It is the approximate time limits for first attendances, which are most relevant to topography teaching and training. The Fire Authority, governed by the risk categories and definitions have strategically supplied the fire stations and equipment in the relevant area, to give at least minimum cover or more. To explain a little further, each area is made up of certain risks, for example, A, B and C risks mainly apply to cities, towns and surrounding built up areas, where the time limit for the first fire appliance at an incident would be approximately 5 minutes, so therefore a Metropolitan Brigade (Tyne+ Wear) covering a main city and towns would supply suitable cover, dictated by these approximate time constraints. This would also depend on speed of vehicles, traffic congestion and knowledge of the area (Topography) by fire service personnel.   



Relationships impacting the research.

The research will prove that the culture of the fire service as an organization, based on tradition and discipline, with military and hierarchical leadership hasn’t addressed the underlying problem of individuals having different learning styles or needs regarding topography learning. It must be made quite clear that no individual to my knowledge has complained about topography teaching to the fire service management, but after this action research initiative of questionnaires, interviews and workgroups it has been found that alternatives to the present format would be welcomed. It must be pointed out also that the speed of response effects metropolitan brigades more than say shire brigades, where rural areas do not have to have the same response times.



(Category D Risk – includes all areas other than those classed as Remote Rural, not falling within categories A to C. - Remote Rural Risks – Areas may be classified as remote Rural risks if they are isolated from any centres of population and contain few buildings.)


I hope to prove that there is an argument, to offer a more varied approach regarding topography, especially at the beginning of a career with trainees, who require their knowledge and confidence built up step by step. To build on past successes and to have that knowledge and success passed on to their newer peers in a structured, user-friendly, enjoyable and most of all successful manner, which suits the latest trainees individual style of learning.


After analysing the results of my action research, the findings urged me to create a topography package, which would have to have certain properties. Even though new topography training is still at the embryo stage I feel confident, especially with the government and institutional backing that is now in place, to push for recognition. I feel that there is enough scope not only for Tyne and Wear Fire and Rescue service to take Topography training options, seriously, but also the NVQ system, to look at the skills of topography knowledge in their relevant units and elements, and recognise the importance of topography knowledge as a skill.


Data collection.

Data was collected through questionnaire, interview, observation and group discussion. The structure and implementation of interviews was helped by the information offered from “The Handbook of Qualitative Research” (Denzin and Lincoln, op.cit). Certain areas of qualitative research were of particular relevance, these were collaboration, systematic enquiry, tension, reflexivity, self-awareness, valid theories, basic plan, principles of procedure, validity, quality indicators, ethics, data gathering, code of practice, perspective and meaning.


Before the interview stage I required assurance that I had the support of my peers. A selected group were asked specific questions about topography teaching in the form of a questionnaire (see page). I then moved on to face-to-face recorded interviews, the first with an experienced fire appliance driver, to get a specific driver’s point of view. Then secondly with a work group who were, judging by their length of service, a good cross-section of firefighters.

Work Group

v     Trainee (less than one year).

v     2 year (Unqualified firefighter).

v     15 year (Station Officer)

v     25 year (Driver)

v     28 year (Long service firefighter)

The objective was to look for keywords and issues from all interviews and then categorize these into both negative and positive statements (see page), the aim then to eradicate the negative and implement the positive if practical. The interviews were framed in such a way that the settings were meant to be informal and spontaneous, with the role of the interviewer as moderately non-directive, basically blending in with the group, any structured questions were used purposely to gain general topography input. (all interviews were conducted on an operational fire station). 





Results, analysis and conclusions


A selected workgroup ( Red Watch, Fossway, Newcastle East) were given a questionnaire to answer, and the results were

1.      Eight out of ten fire fighters thought the learning atmosphere was negative and two firefighters thought it positive, giving a strong hint of a change required.

2.      Ten out of ten wanted an alternative to the past teaching format.

3.      Nine out of ten thought the memory test of street names was not the best learning technique for topography teaching.

4.      Seven out of ten thought there was too much pressure as a new starter to learn the station area.

5.      Nine out of ten would change the teaching style.

6.      Seven out of ten would change the questions and answers.

7.      Eight out of ten would change the memory test.

8.      Four firefighters added comments, one was a joke and the other three all commented that not enough time was spent on topography.


Change was requested from the workgroup, initially a more positive atmosphere was asked for, followed by a deep need for an alternative to the present teaching style accompanied by new learning techniques which will reduce pressure on the individual.



16th April 2002 – Fossway Fire station Canteen – (Brian -Firefighter 25 years - Driver 20 years).

This was a structured interview with nothing omitted from the tape recording. The questions are the same 8 questions used in a prior questionnaire to establish if a selected watch had similar sentiments towards topography training as the researcher. The reason for the individual interview was to gain a more detailed view of the subject by analysing the answers of a respected and very experienced fire appliance driver

Brian with 20 years experience driving fire appliances to emergencies believes

a new teaching format is required with the individual in mind in other words the teaching style needs to be more flexible in his opinion. Rather than just questions and answers of street names, Brian would prefer a building block approach of taking a section of the area and then driving around it memorizing that section visually at first and then adding more detail as time goes on. Finally Brian believes as a new starter the perfect learning scenario for him would be a piece meal approach, like building a jigsaw. Start off with landmarks and main streets. This is giving the trainee time to learn more detail when need be, but with the added confidence of knowing the basics without the pressure of expected to know more at that stage.


Interpretation of discussion group (SeePages)

(Colin – 2 years service – 29 years old – General characteristics – sensitive – streetwise – working class – electrician – amateur footballer.) A firefighter like Colin with 2 years service is still classed as unqualified but is under a 4 year apprenticeship to become a fully qualified firefighter his actions are still closely monitored but not as much as his first year in the job which is a far more intense and critical period in any firefighters career.

Colin thinks the atmosphere for learning is too pressurized, affecting an individual’s confidence. He goes on to say that learning in a relaxed positive atmosphere would be far more beneficial and consequently when put under a stressed situation like a fire or emergency the novice firefighter will respond with added confidence.

A trainee firefighter knowing which station s/he was being posted to, at the beginning of the 18 week training course would be a benefit according to Colin. He believes that this would give the individual more time to learn the topographical basics of the area such as landmarks and main roads for example. Helping the trainee’s confidence level before s/he starts the first tour of duty on the fire station/watch. In his experience he didn’t find out which station he was being assigned to, until a week before he commenced operational duty giving him no time to learn even the basics of that station area.

Colin backs up his comments about his dislike of learning in a negative pressurized atmosphere by using a football analogy of how some footballers do respond positively to being shouted at, where others respond better with coaxing and encouragement. He also mentions how in his first year as a trainee he was given a diary to record certain laid down actions and events, which includes actual incidents such as fires and emergencies, he stated that this helped him in remembering street names of incidents by simply writing them down in his diary, the action of writing the street names and linking it to the incident appeared to compound the name in his long term memory.

(Paul – Trainee – 9 months – 37 year old – strong minded – opinionated – working class – mechanic – body builder).

Paul stated that if you made mistakes whilst drilling at training school it was common practice for you to be shouted at in a military fashion. He goes on to say that the real pressure comes when as a trainee you arrive at the station on a watch. You are a stranger and also a novice and therefore the whipping boy in his eye’s where no matter what you do you are to blame. Paul felt that giving trainees the information about their station area whilst at training school was of little use in his opinion because trainees had enough to learn in the 18 weeks of the course, as well as taking topography on board. The best way to learn topography say’s Paul is to get out there in the streets and familiarize oneself with the area both physically and mentally. 

(Bill – Long Service Firefighter – 28 years – 46 year old – blunt – honest – working class – student).

Bill comments that in other occupations you wouldn’t have a group of people standing over you watching you make a mistake as it is in the fire service. He would prefer an alternative teaching format for topography and believes in having different choices for individuals and also that topography is a vital part of the firefighters professional nous and is paramount to the function of an operational firefighter. He believes that being told at training school which station you are going to would be of value in learning the basics before the first tour of duty. Bill is very critical of fire service instructors claiming they don’t know how to teach and are not flexible enough for the benefit of the individual and their different learning styles.

Regarding a new topography-teaching training program Bill would like it approached from the driver’s point of view. There should be an order of priority as it applies for the driver turning-out to an emergency, for example: left or right out of the station, name and proceed towards an area within an area, nothing too specific at this time, as the driver approaches, offer which is the best entrance and then finally street name and house number. According to Bill the only street names you need to know parrot fashion, are the streets close by the fire station when you have no time to think and the process has to be automatic. Bill is convinced the new system could be applied to any fire station area and would be a fast track way for a trainee to gain confidence in this area of expertise. The pressure of knowing falls on every firefighter eventually and can’t be ignored, however this individual pressure is not the way forward, in Bill’s view it should be a group effort and treat as an enjoyable game carrying responsibility of course, but where everybody is involved.

(Jim – 1 year – 24 year old – quiet – introvert – working class – welder)

Jim suggested a computer program where each individual could guess street names and build their knowledge up in that way, using a station area without names on the screen, the names could then be added by the trainee as their knowledge increased. 

(Carl – Station officer – 20 years – 40 year old – extrovert – talkative – middle class – government ministry worker).

Carl would like the trainees to learn memory points (landmarks), high risks and main roads whilst attending training school before they even begin their first shift, giving them the basics to build upon. In Carl’s view knowledge of these basics are still good enough to guide a driver to an area or main road.


The analysis of the data collected was based on eradicating the negatives and implementing the positives. The format would be in portfolio form, with a section for an operational diary leading eventually to a computer program. This could be offered to the trainee at training school, 14-18 weeks before operational duty. Remembering landmarks (memory points) and main roads would be the starting point, taking away the pressure of trying to remember every street name in the area. This simpler beginning will help in a relaxed stress free way, building confidence by adding more information piece by piece. The added information will be in the format of electronic mind-mapping utilizing a computer program taken from ‘Tony Buzan’s’ radical mind-mapping, linking and association, known for using the concept of ‘The Whole Brain’.  


The 15-20 streets nearby the station could be memorized as normal because of the time factor involved due to the closeness of the streets to the fire station. The poor teaching style has been eradicated along with the pressure and stress of the situation being more relaxed due to the task being broken down into smaller units and simultaneously prioritising each one so as one task is solved, the next task becomes less difficult, leading the trainee towards positive goals and achievements.



The research began with the question – ‘How come the firefighter knew all the streets but couldn’t direct the fire appliance driver to the turn-out address? I asked this particular question because as a firefighter for over 25 years this problem in my opinion has probably occurred to numerous individuals on numerous occasions. It is certainly something I have experienced, knowing the street names but not being able to direct the driver, we can call it a ‘mental block’ for want of a better term. Knowledge of the station area is an essential and obvious part of a firefighter’s functioning. The past teaching style focusing on street names on linear maps has become somewhat antiquated. The main objective of the action research was to devise a different approach to topography training, striving to research areas of relevance concerning the theories and practicalities of the problem. It required delving into certain subjects and concepts.

Firstly situated learning, which is learning as part of a situated activity, normally apprentices or trainees would learn from the periphery and then when ready participate fully. This is not the case when learning at an operational fire station. As a trainee you have had your basic instruction at training school, you are now expected to pick up your operational know how on the job as it happens, this also applies to topography but the difference being no prior instruction has been given before the first tour of duty. Because topography is a shared task it may be classed as not a priority for a trainee. My argument is sometimes the ‘gaze’ can fall on to the trainee quicker than s/he or anybody else expects. This can be caused through circumstance such as sickness, leave, and temporary promotion, which will all remove experienced firefighters from the station, who are expert in topography leaving the onus on the next in line, a different detached (guest) driver may arrive who isn’t familiar with the station area, there are so many anomalies leaving the trainee exposed to pressures of needing to know, this is where some basic knowledge of topography would be of great use.


Secondly culture and its effect on the individual, how culture can be influenced by past actions (history) and how culture can condition future actions also how it can be manufactured by psychological mechanisms situated in individuals living in groups in other words human thinking, thought and social behaviour. The fire service has a distinct culture, which may well differ strongly from other mainstream organizations; because of this a 14-18 week training course is put in place not only to train people in new basic skills but also to help that individual become conditioned and subservient to the new culture. The culture of the fire service is allowed to permeate, regulate, express and transform the human psyche (Schweder, 1990) during the 14-18 week course, so eventually the new trainee will readily accept the new culture just to ‘fit in’. However as Vygotsky (op.cit) stated, “ historical conditions are constantly changing” so there seems to be no fixed culture, different personalities arrive and change it through thoughts and actions. This can apply to education, where theories and actions have an influence also, and I will be offering a new functional learning system for topography training, which can either be digested and assimilated or rejected.


Thirdly looking at stress as a memory inhibitor as the individual struggle’s to cope with outer and inner demands. (Western, op.cit). From a psychological standpoint, stress entails a person’s perception that demands of the environment (or task) tax or exceed his/her psychosocial resources. My aim is to increase firefighters psychosocial resources concerning topography so they can respond efficiently. Responding to a fire call can cause stress coupled with remembering street names can add even more stress. My aim is to create a teaching package that takes into consideration the ‘turn-out’ procedure and the problems involved concerning the driver of the fire appliance, which is perceived as the most stressful part. To build on success step by step, to find that winning feeling, to create a success pattern, of step-by-step success to arouse enthusiasm and motivation, small success will carry over into larger undertakings.


Fourthly to enhance chances of remembering data, the ‘whole brain’ concept will be adopted, using mind maps and visual links, the personalities of individuals are important regarding teaching styles, they should have a choice of memorizing techniques to suit their personality and preferred learning style. To create a user-friendly topography-teaching package, I had to become friendly with the prospective users and research their requirements. I wanted to find the most appropriate way to gather qualitative data, not only to support my thoughts on the matter, but also to assist in structuring a quality package for the user. I was a beginner researcher who needed to understand what action research was all about. According to John Elliot (1991) it was about improving practice rather than producing knowledge and hopefully leading to my own personal development and improving the institution in which I work, (McNiff et al 1996) and basing committed action with systematic enquiry, collating information derived from questionnaires, interviews and group-work of fellow firefighters, where values have been examined, argued and tried in action. I was aware of not being too damning of my own organization, as the topography problem had a lot to do with the tradition and culture of the fire service and not something planned or deliberate. This interpretation only came through constant research and reflection forming a cycle, as the action research grew, formed and changed. The quality indicators of fire service culture, personal stress and memorizing techniques helped in forming the basis of the program. I wanted to make my perspective quite clear giving a pre-understanding of the initial position and then my interpretation of events showing the undesired effect of stressed firefighters, stumbling in their efforts to master the topography problem. My assumptions of the problem were supported by selected interpretation of theories on culture, stress, personality, positive thinking and memory techniques; this helped in supporting the reasoning behind my research and the action research itself, caused my own personal development, better professional practice and improvements in the organization. The selected questionnaire and interviews of an experienced firefighter/driver and volunteer workgroup assisted in giving not only the peer support on the subject of topography but as a beginner researcher the extra opinions and points of view required. This helped to give a more unbiased view of the problem.


The analysis of the driver interview indicated that there was a negative learning atmosphere in the past, accompanied with too much pressure on a new starter. A more flexible style was asked for, looking to learn the basic main streets and landmarks first, then building knowledge from that position (See Keywords and Interviews pages).


Due to maybe different levels of experience the workgroup discussion session offered varying opinions on the subject of topography. But none disagreed with the main theme of the investigation, which offered a user-friendly training package. With the individual being central to the program, developing into a positive, relaxed approach to the problem (See Keywords and Discussion Group, page).    


Let’s now look again at the research question: ‘How come I knew the streets but couldn’t direct the driver the fire’ and see where we are now with the same practical situation, but now with the new approach.


A fire crew are turned out to a fire at 21 Smith street, nearest main road Jones road, Newcastle area and it’s Persons Reported (Persons trapped in house). The crew of the first attendance appliance consists of 5 firefighters.

·                    Officer in charge – (Station officer seconded from dayshift duties for 6 months on an operational fire station) – Very little knowledge of the station area.

·                    Driver – ( Detached in from another fire station due to sickness levels) – Very little knowledge of the station area.

·                    Leading Firefighter – (Newly promoted officer from another fire station) – Very little knowledge of the station area.

·                    Two trainee firefighters – (One with less than one month operational experience and the other with one years experience).



Both are expected to know they’re own station areas and the ‘GAZE’ of expectancy turns to them to direct the driver. They had been given the new topography-training package at training school giving them 14-18 weeks preparation to learn the relevant landmarks (memory points) and main roads. One of the trainees informs the driver, right out of the station and asks ‘Do you know the ‘Corner House Pub? – (Visualisation - A large public house distinctive by it’s size and structure) – which is situated on the main road (Jones Road) on the turn-out sheet.

The driver replies yes, and heads for that target, content that s/he is heading in the right direction. Both trainees know the main road (Jones road) from the basic topography-training package, which they have had in their possession since joining training school. However Smith Street is not familiar to either of them but they are confident in directing the driver to Jones road, which leads on to Smith Street, giving time for one of them to locate Smith Street in the a-z map. It shows Smith Street is third on the left of Jones Road. They don their fire kit as the driver approaches the Landmark (The Corner House Pub). They don their breathing apparatus as they direct the driver on to Jones Road and state Smith Street is third on the right, ‘ It is door number 21 we are looking for’. They arrive at the fire address within two and a half minutes, well inside the required attendance time and dismount the fire appliance, happy with their contribution so far and ready to do the job they love. On returning to the fire station they jot down the fire address in their topography portfolio’s in the particular section, linking Smith Street to Jones Road near the Landmark (The Corner House Pub). One of them adds a footnote comment at the bottom of the page ‘ Jimmy slippy on Smithy Street’, remembering how Jim had tripped over the hose-reel accidentally when rushing to get into the burning house and how they laughed afterwards at his mishap. They will never forget the fire at 21 Smith Street where ‘Jimmy slippy on Smithy Street’ (Total Recall).     


The Future

The Mobile Data Project

There is a trial system in place of data transfer and retrieval on fire appliances. Computers in cabs giving directions from fire service control rooms, relaying information to firefighters as they are mobilized to incidents, in the form of visual displays, showing area’s to head for, entrances/approach roads and then more specifics as they near their destination. As always this initiative depends on adequate resources, but the thought of every fire appliance in the UK fire service being equipped with computers, having the ability to direct firefighters to fires is the answer to one researcher’s dreams. 


Word count     









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--------------------------------------------------DATA COLLECTION-------------------------------------------------

----------------------------------------------   --KEYWORDS +ISSUES-----------------------------------------------


NEGATIVE (ERADICATE)                                                                       (IMPLEMENT) POSITIVE

Too much pressure

Negative atmosphere

                                                                                                                            One to One tuition

Memorizing street names

                                                                                                      Memorizing nearby street names

                                                              New starter – learn the basics, main streets, landmarks (memory points) and build step by step.

A better means of learning

Sections of station area

More time given



DISCUSSION GROUP – 17TH APRIL 8-oclock am end of 16 hour nightshift.

An open (semi-structured) recorded discussion about topography issues.


----------------------------------------       KEYWORDS + ISSUES---------------------------------------------------

---------------------------------------------         WORKGROUP--------------------------------------------------------

NEGATIVE (ERADICATE)                                                                       (IMPLEMENT) POSITIVE

                                                                                                                            Confidence builder


Judgmental testing

                                                                                                                Relaxed – Skills – Practice

Trainee – Extra pressure

                                                                                                                                Different choices

                                                                                                                             Computer program

                                                                                                                             18 week head start

                                                                                                       High risks, Memory points and

                                                                                                       main roads and build from there.



                                                                                                                           Effective from day 1

 Instructors don’t know how to teach.


                                                                                                    Adaptable to different personalities


                                                                                                                   Look at the problem from

                                                                                                                   the driver’s point of view.

v     Just out the station doors

v     Area or section

v     Entrance

v     Street

v     House number or name

Use of Diary

Fast track way to confidence

Pressure is spread

Fun Game


Out on the streets




16th April 2002 – Fossway Fire station Canteen – (Brian -Firefighter 25 years - Driver 20 years).

This was a structured interview with nothing omitted from the tape recording. The questions are the same 8 questions used in a prior questionnaire to establish if a selected watch had similar sentiments towards topography training as the researcher. The reason for the individual interview was to gain a more detailed view of the subject by analyzing the answers of a respected and very experienced fire appliance driver

1) Learning Atmosphere

Brian: (Answer) There has been a negative learning atmosphere in the past whilst learning topography. There’s been too much pressure on the individual to know the streets.

2) Alternative teaching format.

Brian:  Answer) An alternative teaching format would be better, one to one tuition would be better also.

3) Memorizing street names as the best learning technique.

Brian:  Answer) Memorizing street names, streets nearby that’s the way it’s been going for years and years, and that system, that method wasn’t, wasn’t beneficial. I think it’s all right for the streets nearby the fire station where you have got to know them parrot fashion because of the time constraints involved.

4) Do you think there is too much pressure on a new starter to know the area?

Brian: Answer) Very much so…..Em they have so much to learn anyway, without the added burden of topography, you should really be learning the basics, mainly the main streets and building on that.

5) Change the teaching style. 

Brian: Answer) Yes I would change it,….because as it’s been proved, I don’t think the way its been taught has benefited the individual. It’s only because people have been here for so many years that they have built up those street names, by that I mean, if they had been taught another way a better way, they wouldn’t have taken them so long.

6) Questions and Answers

Brian: Answer) I wouldn’t change the question and answer system, that is beneficial it actually makes you realize how much you have actually learnt but the style, the way and the means of learning, that’s what needs to be changed.

7) Would you change the memory test.

Brian: Answer) The way I would approach it is, I would actually get a section of the station area, drive around that area in the fire engine, so that everyone has an idea of the area and bit by bit build up a bigger picture.

8) If you were a new starter what would be the best learning scenario?

Brian: Answer) If I was a new starter the best learning method, a) learn your main roads and streets, b) landmarks there is always landmarks, you all know where the landmarks are, giving you time if you don’t know the exact street to look it up in the A-Z map, and the most important more time given for topography, the more the better. 


DISCUSSION GROUP – 17TH APRIL 8-oclock am end of 16 hour nightshift.

An open (semi-structured) recorded discussion about topography issues.

Instead of giving names to each member of the discussion group I have decided to give time-in and age as the indicator between each individual contributing. This also helps in understanding their different responses to each question or issue.


What do you think about the learning atmosphere?


2 years) I don’t think anybody learns when put under pressure, if your pressured your confidence is dented.


Trainee) At the brigade training school if you fuck up they shout at you.


28 years) If you’re a fucking mechanic you don’t fix a fucking engine, have 10 people standing over you watching you.


2 years) The first time should be very relaxed, you pick up the skills and practice. Then when you go to a stressful situation you can come up trumps.


Trainee) Where the pressure then comes is when you are in a watch situation, when you don’t know anybody from anybody and you are normally the whipping boy.


28 years) I think I would like an alternative to the past teaching format. Some of us would like different choices.


1 year) What about coming up with a program for the computer right, where you have got the whole station area on the screen, with no names on the streets and you guess what the street name is.


28 years) I think you should be told at training school where you are being posted, so you can say, I’m going to so and so I’ve got to know the area. That’s paramount to my job.

2 year) I finished training on the Thursday and didn’t find out where I was going until the following Tuesday.


Stn O 20 years) All I’m saying is you could have a format in place, so you know memory points, main roads, high risks, so then you can build it from there. So even when you are coming to work for your first day, you’ve already got the building blocks in place, then you just need to add to it. It means at least at first you can guide the fire appliance to an area you already know, because it will have the area or main road on the turn-out sheet.


28 years) One of the other problems is fire service instructors haven’t been taught how to teach, they don’t know how to teach. They have been taught how to shout and ball, and they know the hierarchal system, and they know yes sir, no sir. They have got to know how to adapt to different people, namely the individual.


2 years) – (Football analogy) – Certain players react to shout and balling and other players react to encouragement like you know, where is the same with us, it’s the same in the fire service, in the past and I know in the military and everything, they have done it that way. So they adopted that in the fire service, which I mean it was good, but maybe they would get a better reaction if they did it that way. Because it might take someone 2 months to learn something that another person could learn in 2 weeks 


28 years) As long as you know as well eh, the entrances, you have got to look at it from the drivers point of view. He’s your chauffeur and he’s taking you there. You have got to tell him which way to go out the station, or which way he’s going when your out and about, which way’s ahead, what area it is, that is Byker Wall for example, what the area is and which is the best entrance to get in, and then, then you tell him which street it is and left right blah, blah, blah, and then be honest, somebody could have looked it up in the A to Z book by then.


28 years) The only time you need to know the street names are when they are close by the station when you haven’t got time to think, and then you only need to know about 15 to 20 names. Other streets you can pick up just by going to

jobs- (Fires).


2 years) When I first came with the diary, every job I was going to, it was such and such, and you would say ah well something happened there and I remember that place by what happened


What about knowing which station area you were assigned to at the training school? Would that be an advantage?

Trainee) You turn around and you have a group of 20 people on a course and you went to any of them 20 people, certain people are going to go I couldn’t give a fuck, and then just get on with the course anyway.


28 years) It’s up to the individual whether they take advantage of that extra information or not.

28 years) The new system of topography training can be used at any station area. It would be a fast track way of getting your confidence level up again as an individual, because eventually the gaze will fall on you, the onus of where is the street will fall on you and it will be quicker than most individuals will think. That’s when you go “ah shit”, because I’m the boy now, which isn’t right, it should be spread across people, but that’s what happens in the real world. It should be treat as a game, it should just be a fun game, something that you can enjoy.


Trainee) The best way in the world is to get out there on them streets, because you can sit at the computer all day, but you turn out now, you turn right, you know where the landmarks are.






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