Dispatches: April 2019
By Jennifer Grigg
By Jennifer Grigg
We all know that the fire service attracts a certain type of person. Chances are, you are one. Outgoing, hands-on, action-oriented. A classic Type A personality. The go-getters.
According to Simply Psychology, people with a Type A personality are typically competitive, self-critical, have high work involvement, are extroverts, feel a constant sense of urgency, are concerned with time management, and organized. Sound familiar?
Extrovert is the word I’d like to focus on.
As a self-professed introvert, it’s something that I do not consider myself to be. I’ve long had a somewhat disadvantaged view of my personality and how it fit into the firefighting world most of my two decades in the fire service. I’ve often felt like a square peg trying to fit into a round hole, or even worse, I felt at times that I didn’t really fit in.
I’m one of those rare types that likes to learn all about the theory first, then see a skill demonstrated, and lastly, try it out.
Most other firefighters I know hate PowerPoint and basically can’t wait to try out a new tool or a new skill, to get their hands dirty.
I absorb the reasoning through reading and grasp the “why” through explanation. In my introverted brain, I like to know how and why things work the way they do, or why we’re doing the things we’re doing the way we’re doing them. For me, knowing the behind-the-scenes stuff provides a frame of reference, or a foundation for which to build upon, that I wouldn’t otherwise have.
I used to think this put me at a disadvantage because (I thought) it took me longer to acquire proficiency at certain skills. I thought it made me less effective than my extroverted “put me in coach,” Type A counterparts.
Much of this is simply a matter of perspective.
Thankfully, a few years ago, my good friend and Mississauga Fire Captain Shelli Varela shared a story with me that made a huge difference in the way that I see myself. She was told by her platoon chief early in her career that he didn’t need a toolbox full of the same tools. He needs people that are good at different things.
It took me years to really get this, and perhaps the ultimate glimpse of my quintessential potential as an introverted firefighter was made aware to me when I read Susan Cain’s book, Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking.
“Introverts seem to think more carefully than extroverts,” as the psychologist Gerald Matthews describes in his work. “Extroverts are more likely to take a quick-and-dirty approach to problem-solving, trading accuracy for speed. Introverts think before they act, digest information thoroughly, stay on task longer, give up less easily.
Introverts and extroverts also direct their attention differently. If you leave them alone to their own devices, the introverts tend to sit around wondering about things, imagining things, recalling events from their past, and making plans for the future. The extroverts are more likely to focus on what’s happening around them. It’s as if extroverts are seeing ‘what is,’ while their introverted peers are asking ‘what if?’”
The extrovert’s ability to make quick decisions and act on them is fundamental in the firefighting world, but that skill set isn’t limited to extroverts. Just like the introvert’s natural inclination to take a step back, watch and analyze isn’t excluded from the extrovert’s toolbox.
Extroverts also tend to perform tasks better under time, social pressure, or involving multi-tasking, as well as handling information overload, such as the initial moments of a major call.
The introvert’s reflectiveness uses up a lot of cognitive capacity. According to Joseph Newman, on any given task, if we have 100 per cent cognitive ability, an introvert may only have 75 per cent on task and 25 per cent off task, whereas an extrovert may have 90 per cent on task. This is because most tasks are goal-directed and extroverts appear to allocate most of the cognitive capacity to the goal at hand, whereas introverts use up capacity by monitoring how the task is going. This I can attest to.
Neither introverted nor extroverted personality traits are concrete and both can call upon a range of modes as the situation calls for, but recognizing natural strengths can be a game-changer. Ambiverts, whose personalities have a balance of extrovert and introvert features, would seem to have the best of both worlds.
If you’re the introvert in your department, just remember, your chief doesn’t need a toolbox full of hammers.
Jennifer Grigg has been a volunteer with the Township of Georgian Bay Fire Department in Ontario since 1997. Contact Jennifer at firstname.lastname@example.org.