Nine Dangerous Mindsets – Part 3: The Specialist

Welcome to the third segment of the nine dangerous mindsets series. This article takes a look at the Specialist, also known as the ‘expert‘ and sometimes less affectionately referred to as the ‘know it all.’ Having smart people around is a good thing. In fact, one of the  qualities of good leadership is the desire to surround oneself with smart people. However, specialists can have an adverse impact on situational awareness at an incident scene. Let’s look at the specialist.

First, here’s a review of the nine mindsets this series will be covering.

Dangerous Mindsets

The potentially dangerous mindsets I will be writing about in this series include:

  1. The starter (a.k.a., the new member)
  2. The subordinate (a.k.a., the loyal follower)
  3. The specialist (a.k.a., the expert or ‘know-it-all’)
  4. The superior (a.k.a., the BOSS!)
  5. The stubborn (a.k.a., the defiant)
  6. The silent (a.k.a., the shy one)
  7. The superman/Superwoman (a.k.a., the unstoppable)
  8. The slacker (a.k.a., the complacent)
  9. The synergist (a.k.a., the like-minded)

The Specialist

I define a specialist as a person who devotes him or herself to acquiring and using a narrowly defined knowledge or skill set. This person often knows more about their field of specialty than others who may possess general knowledge on a wide array of topics. Think of the field of medicine. The general practitioner (GP) has knowledge on a wide range of medical topics while the neurosurgeon possesses deep knowledge in a narrow field of medicine.

Generally speaking, emergency services providers tend to lean more toward being generalists than specialists. This is because the nature of their work is more in line with the general practitioner in a medical office. The GP sees a wide array of patient issues every day and never really knows what’s going to walk through the door at any moment. The same can be said for emergency services providers. We must possess knowledge and skills to address many kinds of issues as we never know what the next call will bring.

However, among us, as in the medical field, we do have specialists. We have technical rescue specialists, haz-mat specialists, hostage negotiation specialists, tactical team specialists, farm rescue specialists, and water rescue specialists, just to name a few. These individuals have obtained special training and acquired special knowledge that allows them to perform unique skills the general emergency services providers cannot (or at least not as well). They truly are Specialists and they can be a tremendous asset to an emergency response.

The Faux Specialist

Faux Specialists are fakes – ones who proclaim themselves to be specialists yet do not possess the knowledge or training or experience to perform effectively at the specialist level. Perhaps they’ve had a class or two on the specialty topic. While possessing some knowledge that exceeds their peers, they lack the experience to truly make them an expert. Early in my career I saw this phenomenon in what, at the time, were termed Smoke Divers. Individuals would go away to a school where they trained extensively in burn buildings and then come home as a credentialed Smoke Diver. Some of these Smoke Divers had little experience fighting real structure fires. It’s the equivalent of an expert neurosurgeon having only practiced on cadavers.

Every specialist has to acquire knowledge and training somewhere and an advanced structural firefighting program is certainly a good way to get started – emphasis on started. Where the problem can arise is when the newly trained expert, lacking sufficient practice in real-world scenarios, professes to know the best way to accomplish a task. A Faux’s expertise is usually coupled with a healthy dose of ego and an inflated level of self-importance. Those who have not been trained to the same level as the faux expert may feel intimidated by their knowledge, especially when they are good at professing how much they know.

I once knew of a department who had a self-proclaimed haz-mat expert. His alleged expertise came from being a member of a haz-mat team that, in truth, saw little action. But he made sure everyone knew how smart he was when it came to haz-mat. And, as expected, at an incident scene, his judgment was never questioned.

So long as the expert is truly an expert, this may work out to be a good plan. But if the expert is a Faux Specialist, it can have catastrophic consequences. This is especially true if others operating at an emergency scene let their guard down and defer to the faux expert. Situational awareness can be lost quickly.

The Specialist Lens

The true specialist (possessing expert knowledge, expert training and the experience to back it up) can be a tremendous asset. However, as is the case with many specialists, a true expert can be very knowledgeable in a very narrow subject matter area. Thus, a true expert can look at things with a slant toward their area of expertise. This can impact situational awareness because an expert may overlook clues and cues that are unrelated to their expertise.

I saw this in real life when I worked in a hospital emergency room where I routinely watched trauma teams work on accident victims. Each trauma specialist had their area of focus – thoracic, orthopedic, pulmonary, neurology, etc. Each of these doctors’ focus was on their area of expertise.

For example, The patient’s blown right pupil, indicating a brain injury was not the concern of the thoracic surgeon who was focused on the rigid abdomen. Thankfully, the specialists had a team leader, an incident commander of sorts, who maintained a big-picture view (i.e., big-picture situational awareness) of the patient and made sure the team treated the patient holistically.

Specialist Problems

As you may infer from the previous discussion, there can be several dangerous outcomes from deferring to the knowledge of specialists. First, a specialist may not have all the acquired knowledge, training and experience to truly be a specialist. When coupled with an inflated ego, this can be dangerous because the specialist can lead the incident in a direction toward a bad outcome.

Unfortunately, no one at the scene may be in a position to refute the knowledge claims of the self-proclaimed expert and incident situational awareness may spiral downward quickly.

Additionally, a true specialist can become so focused on their area of expertise that other important clues and cues may be missed. It reminds me of a saying I use often in my leadership development classes: If your only tool is a hammer, every problem looks like a nail. The myopic view of a specialist can lead to decisions that are based on a limited field of vision. The narrow focus of an expert and their specialty knowledge can cause their situational awareness to narrow. The expert can also draw others into their narrow field by exaggerating the importance of certain things happening at the incident.

Chief Gasaway’s Advice

Clearly, emergency service organizations can benefit from having specialists. However, it is important to be sure the expert is, truly, an expert. This means they possess expert knowledge, expert training and expert experience. Lacking any of these three components may lead to dangerous outcomes if too much credence is given to the advice dispensed by a faux expert.

All members should be trained to a basic level in all specialty areas. This prepares all members with a general understanding of what is going on and what needs to be done. This is important in the development of situational awareness. It is sage advice to avoid a situation where the specialist is the only one who knows what is going on. In the medical profession, GPs need to have a basic knowledge of a wide array of medicine in order to understand the clues and cues they are assessing. Same for emergency service providers.

In many organizations, specialist teams are not dispatched immediately to specialty incidents. They are called out after the first wave of generalists are dispatched. This means the incident must operate for a period of time without the benefit of specialist knowledge. It can be very beneficial for the specialists to teach the non-specialists a basic level of knowledge of the important clues and cues, ensuring a strong situational awareness of what can harm response teams so no one gets in a tough situation before the Specialist arrives.

Action Items

1. Discuss the knowledge, training and experience required to be considered an expert in various emergency services specialty fields (e.g., haz-mat, tech rescue, tactical teams, etc.).

2. Discuss some steps you can take to ensure faux specialists do not adversely impact the situational awareness of team members.

3. Discuss how your organizational specialists can help advance the baseline knowledge of all responders.

4. Identify areas where your organization may be lacking specialists and discuss a plan for how you will manage specialty incidents.

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If you are interested in taking your understanding of situational awareness and high-risk decision making to a higher level, check out the Situational Awareness Matters Online Academy.
CLICK HERE for details, enrollment options and pricing.

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Share your comments on this article in the “Leave a Reply” box below. If you want to send me incident pictures, videos or have an idea you’d like me to research and write about, contact me. I really enjoy getting feedback and supportive messages from fellow first responders. It gives me the energy to work harder for you.

Thanks,

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