Training with Anthony Avillo

Wishing everyone at the ISFSI and beyond a healthy and happy New Year. 

This month I want to talk about the cycle of competence and how it relates to everything we do in the fire service. I learned about the cycle of competence when I was taking Tai Kwon Do. My master instructor or Sa Bum Nim, Jay Lally, would talk about the importance of the cycle of competence and how activities in the arena of battle had to become second nature. The person who had to think about what he needed to do was always a few seconds behind the person that knew what to do without thinking. I always was able to see the correlation between the martial arts and fire service skills.

Instructor Lally talked about the four stages in the cycle of competence. These stages, going from least to most desirable are:

  • Unconscious Incompetence
  • Conscious Incompetence
  • Conscious Competence
  • Unconscious Competence

The ultimate goal in any skill is to become unconsciously competent, meaning that the skill is so ingrained that it becomes habit, and you don't have to think about it to effectively perform it.  However, this is not where we start. In most skills we start in the arena of the unconscious incompetent. This means that you don't even know that you don't know something. For new firefighters at a Fire Academy, there are a lot of things that unconscious incompetence applies to such as mastering knot skills, forcible entry techniques, recognizing smoke and fire conditions, and making decisions based on risk assessment. 

When we are first introduced to some of these concepts, we don't even know that we don't know about them or that they even exist. This is one of the mistakes made by many instructors as they take for granted that new firefighters and civilians out in the field understand what it is that we do. Most people outside of the fire service are unconsciously incompetent of what it is that we do. That being said, once a firefighter is introduced to something new and realizes he doesn't know anything about it, he becomes consciously incompetent.


Knot skills are one of those areas where conquering the four stages of competence will be required to be an effective operator on the fireground.  Once unconscious competence is reached, the key is to continue with the training so that that level of competence does not slip.  Knots are one of those areas where those levels can slip over time.  

New information given to fire recruits almost always immediately falls into the consciously incompetent area. Once the level of conscious incompetence is realized, the individual or student must begin to take the journey to learn and master the new skill or body of information.  As the rigors of familiarization, instruction, practice, trial and error, more practice, self-assessment, and even more practice, the student can be said to be consciously competent... hopefully. It is in the consciously competent stage that a student can perform or understand certain aspects of the job but has to think about them in order to recognize them or accomplish them correctly.

The stage of going from conscious incompetence to conscious competence is extremely critical because it is at this stage that mistakes made need to be recognized and corrected.  Uncorrected mistakes may lead to what is called deviation amplification and become bad habit. Deviation amplification refers to the concept that the more you go off course when you are not corrected, the further away from the acceptable norm you will be. It is like raising a roof ladder onto a peaked roof. Once the roof ladder is on the roof, if it is not completely straightened out before pushing it up to the ridge, it will begin to move further away on an angle and become more difficult to straighten as more of the ladder is pushed up the roof. The same thing happens when uncorrected activities become bad habit.   

The transition from conscious incompetence to conscious competence and ultimately to unconscious competence is where the instructor and later the company officer (often the same person) will need to be at their best – recognizing the potential for deviation amplification (bad habit forming) and the prevention of errors that can be much more difficult to correct later or can have detrimental consequences on the fireground if incorrectly performed.


Activities such as RIC and survival training require a total commitment to training and unconscious competence maintenance. Anything less is unacceptable.


The ultimate goal of all learning is to be unconsciously competent. This means that you know the skill or information so well that it becomes part of you. This comes about as a lot of hard work and dedication. Unconscious competence separates the good fire fighter or fire company from the great firefighter or fire company.  The fire companies that are the best trained and operate as a single firefighting machine are the ones that have worked the hardest at becoming the unconsciously competent.  They are the ones that I was always able to depend on as an incident commander, knowing that they were always on their game and up to the task.  Unconscious competence is thing of beauty to witness on the fireground.

Competence breeds confidence and whether you are in the field of battle or on the fireground, the amount of confidence you have in your abilities will be based on the amount of competence you have been able to achieve through hard work and more hard work. It doesn't happen any other way.  The caveat with the highest levels of competence is that hard work is required to maintain these levels.  Again, it is all about being willing to do the work.

  1. Quote of the month: Nobody who ever gave his best regretted it.” – George Halas


Questions, comments, column suggestions, kudos, or criticism – email is

Tune in with me and Chief Jim Duffy from Wallingford, CT to Fire Engineering Blog Talk radio for Fireground Strategies and Other Stuff from the Street.  Our next show is Jan 17.  All our shows are archived as well.


Stay safe out there


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