For the Flow Arts Institute
By Eric “Propfessor” Shibuya, PhD

A discussion arose recently in the fire spinning community over some videos of people burning in non-fire safe clothing. The arguments have taken two main positions:

(1) This is really dangerous and you shouldn’t do it. It hurts the rest of the community if people see stuff like this.
(2) Fire spinning is dangerous no matter what. Yes, these are not fire safe clothes, but if you know what you’re doing, it’s okay.

The heart of position (2) is what I’m calling the “arrogance of competence.” The very idea that our skill overcomes any known deficiencies in safety. It happens often in our community, and it’s dangerous. This hubris translates to others, and can spread the idea that at a certain level of skill, “some” safety precautions can be ignored. This is nonsensical.

The heart of the argument itself, the idea of the arrogance of competence, suggests that with enough skill, no mistakes are made. This misses the point. That’s why “mistakes” are in fact, mistakes. If the argument is that one’s competence is absolute protection from mistakes/accidents, then it follows that the many amazing spinners who have been hurt and even lost their lives to fire mishaps did so because they were incompetent and that you are better than they are. I don’t think I need to go through a list of those we’ve lost in the community, but I’m going to go out on a limb and say, “no, I don’t think you’re as good as some of those we’ve lost.” You can plan to mitigate the impact of mishap (and even then, you might fail), but you can’t plan (or practice) mistakes away completely.

An interesting response has been to accuse those advocating for more safety precautions in this instance (as in, wear fire-safe clothing) of elitism, of “knowing better than the rest of us.” That argument strikes me as paradoxical, as it seems the actual elitist position is a claim that their skill overrides a general, even basic, principle of safety in fire spinning. It’s actually a principle that they themselves acknowledge (you shouldn’t spin in non-fire safe materials), but then claim a level of superiority (YOU shouldn’t, but if you know what you’re doing–like I do–then go ahead). Recognizing a risk but then dismissing it because “I know what I’m doing” is the elitist argument here, not the one advocating that we should ALL practice accepted safety procedures.

Race car drivers are the best in the world, but they still get into cars with roll cages, seatbelts, and wearing all sorts of protective gear. No one says, “Ah, I’m good, I know what I’m doing, take all that stuff out and I can go faster.” Pilots are trained to go through the safety checklist every time, EVERY time before a flight. They don’t just guess. They don’t just go “I’ve been doing this enough times, we’ll just get this plane going.” And they REALLY don’t go “Eh, let’s just skip that one today, okay? I don’t feel like doing it.” Doctors and nurses go through a checklist before and after every surgery, tracking inventory of what goes in to (and out of) a patient, because it’s too easy to think, “I know what I’m doing, there won’t be any mistakes. I won’t forget anything.” Several studies have been conducted about the use of checklists in both surgery and aviation. Checklists produced impressive results in studies in 2007 but replication of those results have been mixed. The general conclusion suggests that it’s not the checklist in and of itself that helps saves lives, it’s their effective implementation. People have to take them seriously and use them properly. In other words, it’s not only knowing about the safety (or oversight) procedures in some abstract form of “I have skills, I know what I’m doing,” you have to implement the procedures.

All of them. Every time.

The Flow Arts Institute has developed a fire safety program on its website. While you should always get trained and practice safety procedures with a more experienced spinner, the web course offers great information and is both a good place to start and a healthy reminder/refresher for more experienced fire spinners.

Safety isn’t an accident. I work for the military, and there’s a tried-and-true saying: “No plan survives first contact.” No matter how much you’ve thought it out, no matter how much you’ve planned for “every” contingency, no matter HOW GOOD YOU ARE, the enemy, and other circumstances, gets a vote. We call it friction. Friction burns, it’s best we pay more attention.