How to Remember Like a Firefighter

Before firefighters enter a burning building, they’d better know their way around. And guess what amazing technology they use to navigate a smoke-filled, unfamiliar death maze? Yep. Their memories

Firefighters rely on their memories to save lives.

How do I know? From this article: “Memory and Observation for Firefighter Exam Study Guide”. Turns out that firefighters get tested on their short-term memory in the entrance exam. They need to be able to memorize a floor plan before they rush into a burning building.

Since it’s a study guide, the article includes tips for how to memorize – or at least, how to pass the memory questions on the test. The three most helpful tips are:

  • Tell yourself you can remember.

  • Memorize an image by “reading” it.

  • Learn to observe.

Tell Yourself You Can Remember

I’ve seen this idea elsewhere, but it’s fascinating to see positive thinking discussed in an actual study guide for would-be firefighters.

The more you think you can remember, the more mental energy you can direct to the task. But if you’re too busy doubting yourself, you’re draining that energy into a negative sink.

Memorize an Image by “Reading” It

When you’re faced with a floor plan to memorize, the natural instinct is to try to see everything at once. This is impossible, so your eyes start jumping around the picture.

You may take in lots details, but they’re random. How will you ever reconstruct the image? How can you be sure which parts you haven’t seen yet?

Instead, this article suggests “reading” the image – left to right, top to bottom.

Wow. So simple, but it never occurred to me. We’ve read hundreds of thousands of pages in our lives. We think of a page as linear, but it’s actually an extremely complex image. We make it linear by how we look at it. You’re doing this right now, as you read.

Of course, the “reading” approach may not be enough. We don’t automatically memorize articles, do we? Maybe we also need to see the whole picture, and then break the picture into chunks. We probably need to see each detail in multiple contexts, so that we have a better chance of remembering it.

On the other hand, if you practiced the reading approach, it might be enough. You might learn to burn each detail into your mind.

Learn to Observe

You can’t remember what you haven’t first observed, or paid attention to. The article also includes basic exercises on sharpening your observation skills.

Here’s an interesting one: when stuck at a traffic light, look around and start saying out loud what you see.

“On my left is a three-story building with a bank of four windows on the first floor. There are two doorways, one on either side of the bank of windows.”

(Note the firefighter emphasis on possible exits.)

It might sound boring. But noticing details makes the world more interesting, not less. Instead of a dull background to your traffic stop, you start to see the world a little more clearly.

I keep forgetting to try this one when I’m actually driving. Now that I’ve written about it, maybe I’ll remember.

Try the Firefighter Test

So, think you could pass the firefighter memory questions? The last page of this article includes a floor plan to study and sample questions. Try it. You might discover a whole new way to think.