It is imperative that you bring your mind to the fight.
For those that follow this blog and Backstep Firefighter, you are aware of our catch phrase. “Expect Fire”. This phrase, inspired by the words of Andy Fredericks, was developed by Bill Carey and really points to what we perceive to be the core values and mission of this site and our writings. Many of you have read or heard the quote by Andy, “the garbage man doesn’t get excited when he comes around the corner and sees a pile of garbage.” And that is what “Expect Fire” means, or does it?
Certainly a part of the message is simply that you should expect to go to a fire on each run. You should be dressed for it and not surprised when the automatic false alarm turns out to be two rooms on the second floor. But it really means a lot more. In this article I hope to shed some light on that for you.
I am currently reading “On Combat” by Lt Col David Grossman. I think that many fail to understand the common link between the warrior mentality and our profession. Certainly we are not engaged in violence, and we don’t have to decide to use violence to protect the innocent. But we are here to protect the sheep and in that respect we are ‘sheepdogs’ as Grossman describes the warriors.
This line of thinking and understanding is new to me. Actually it isn’t new, but I never understood the reasons why I was so strongly committed to doing the right thing, and being that thin red line between harm and the average citizen. Certainly there are those that understood it better than me. Folks like Chris Brennan, of the Fire Service Warrior and Ric, The Glass Guy, Jorge who have taken this concept and put it into their training models and lifestyles. I will leave the rest of the warrior mentality to them and Colonel Grossman, folks that understand it and explain it far better than I can. Instead I want to focus on “Expect Fire.”
When we talk about “Expect Fire”, there is a component about not loosing you mind when confronted with a situation you are trained to deal with. Not allowing yourself to get caught by surprise when a b.s run turns sideways and you get more than you bargained for. But it really is so much more than that. I this is where I hope to share what I have read and learned through Colonel Grossman with you.
Much of what I have written about has either been inspired by real life events, or things that I have read. A good deal of my articles are just the written down form of conversations I have had with various brothers about the problems and issues we face.
There seems to be a trend to water down the fire service to make it more palatable, or easy, for those that are not committed to do what it takes to get the job done. Technology is often used to replace the things that training used to teach. Concepts and ideas are developed to justify us falling away from our core mission. And what mission is that you ask? Just so we are all on the same page, 'The Protection of Life and Property'.
Before the lynch mob runs to the gallows, this article is not about advocating that firemen charge headlong into fully involved buildings on the slim chance that someone may be inside. I have always written about smart firefighting; fighting the fire you face your way, with your manpower and resources. It doesn’t matter what FDNY or Boise or Buford (Wyoming – population 1) would do. You have to plan and then fight the fire 'your way'.
But before we ever get to that point, there are some basic things you must accept. The job involves risk. It should be calculated and measured against the results, but there is a chance you could get hurt or killed. If that isn’t what you signed up for, then maybe a career change is in order.
Colonel Grossman talks about how law enforcement officers must be mentally prepared to take a life. Dealing with it ahead of time and deciding it is OK, makes it much easier for them to react when and if they are put in that position. We as firefighters must also prepare mentally. We must acknowledge that we may have to put ourselves in a position of extreme danger. We must acknowledge that we could become injured or worse while doing so.
Why? You ask. Why must we do this? Well to quote Louis Pasteur, “chance favors only the prepared mind.” If we know going in that we may have to put it all on the line, then we will be better able to function when we have to. We will be better able to remain calm, stay focused and perform as we have to.
How you react, when you are in the worst scenario possible, is predicated on how prepared you are physically and mentally. Let’s look at the data from Colonel Grossman and Bruce Siddle. (Click on image to enlarge)
We are all taught that skip breathing is essential is we become trapped, it will help us preserve our air supply. What else does it do? It lowers our heart rate. It allows us to overcome the stress induced increase that renders us impotent. In turn that allows us to think more clearly, to regain some of our fine motor control and to possible come up with another way to get out. But skip breathing is what we do in the moment, our mental preparation ahead of time can have a similar effect, and possibly prevent us from getting there in trouble in the first place.
EDIT: After some discussion I realized that while my purpose for mentioning skip breathing is applicable, that there are other methods which are now preferred as Skip Breathing actually can cause in increase in Carbon Dioxide which in turn will cause you to breath heavier.
There is far too much of Colonel Grossman’s work for me to cover in one article, and my focus is really on the mental preparation and “Expect Fire”. But so much of this is interconnected and it really has taken me reading ‘On Combat’ to understand so much of what we do, and what we should do.
Another big component of mentally preparing yourself is thinking about, and deciding what you will do when you are faced with a difficult situation and fail. The fire victims that you could not get to, a fatal car accident or god forbid a Line of Duty Death. The time to figure out how you are going to feel and react isn’t after it happens. You may not like it, but avoiding thinking about it isn’t going to prevent it from happening. Preparing yourself mentally ahead of time may be the one thing that prevents you from dealing with PTSD afterwards. Accepting that bad things can and will happen, and deciding how you will deal with it is a critical part of “Expect Fire”. Another benefit is that in the moment, you won’t be paralyzed by the fear that your nightmare has just become reality. You will be prepared and have thought about the outcome, and therefore be better able to do the job that has to be done, in hopes of changing the outcome.
No matter what we do, we cannot change the fact the fires are going to happen and that the citizens that pay for us to protect them, expect us to do something about it. So often the annual LODD total is waved in our faces as a reason to change our mission, to alter what we do to keep us safer. The fire service I signed up for is one that is committed to saving lives and protecting property, while my views about this are not fatalistic, I do accept the fact that I may get injured in the course of doing my job. I also accept the fact that I may not come home to my family.
Acceptance, however, does not mean that I have surrendered myself to this outcome. Acceptance means that I do everything I can to make sure I am as prepared as I have to be to prevent this from happening. In other words, acceptance equals motivation. And motivation is written as – “EXPECT FIRE."
Photo couresy of Wayne Barrall/FITHP.net
Dave LeBlanc is a Captain with the Harwich, Massachusetts Fire Department. Dave entered the Fire Service in 1986 as a Call Firefighter with the Dennis Fire Department. He worked full time during the summers in Dennis, while attending the University of New Haven in West Haven, Connecticut. In addition to his regular duties, Dave also manages the Department’s Radio system, is responsible for conducting Fire Investigations, and assists in maintaining the computers systems.
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