By: Mark vonAppen
The automatic fire alarm is the bane of most firefighters existence, oh how we lament "smells and bells" calls. These hum-drum events often occur in the middle of the night when we are at our cross-eyed, complacent, bed-headed-worst. As common as the drone of the oft-ignored car alarm, we sleep-walk through these mundane calls missing cues to things that are out of the routine, until we get caught with our pants down.
My first and last encounter with playing catch-up at an auto-alarm-that-wasn't was a seminal moment in my career. A single incident forever changed my perspective on the fire service, the immediacy of the fire scene, its ability to punish inattention, and its lack of forgiveness. I chose to pay attention from that day onward and pledged to never again let my brothers down as the next man up.
The clout aside my naive head occurred as a probationary firefighter nearing the end of what seemed to be a long start to a career that had only just begun. Like most males in their mid-twenties, I was invincible and knew everything.
Dinner time was approaching as my engine company was kicked out on an auto-alarm in a commercial building. I half-heartedly dressed out and with my suspenders down at my knees, hood stuffed in my pocket, and with my coat open, to the alarm we went.
In standard auto-alarm fashion, we arrived to a building that presented us with no outward signs of peril, no smoke, flames, or screaming civilians hanging from windows in desperate need of rescue. We - the heroes dressed in black - dismounted the pumper and shuffled unenthusiastically to the Knox Box, retrieved the keys and set about restoring the squawking alarm system with baseball caps protecting our heads, coats still unclasped, our warden was limp complacency.
(Sigh) What a bunch of malarkey.
I followed my captain's lead as we performed the perfunctory bottom to top building check after the pesky alarm would not restore at the first attempt. We began our search of the basement and were met by smoke pushing from the seams of the tightly sealed entry door. We scrambled to the engine, fumbling for our gear as the chauffeur hastily hooked the connections. Three alarms and six hours later, we packed up our last stick of hose and went back to quarters, humbled by our new perspective on urgency, tempo, and automatic fire alarms.
Have a plan, script your plays.
The Boy Scout motto is, "Be prepared," it became my motto after this fire. I vowed to wear all of my gear on every fire response, even if my captain didn't, and consistently ask myself, "What if?" I became a jackhammer who constantly mulled over every conceivable contingency, every outcome, good or bad. I vowed to never show up ill-prepared and get caught with my pants down again.
In this case, nobody got hurt and the building wasn't totally destroyed, but the incident was a disaster from the start. I was reminded of Regis Towers in Memphis, TN, where firefighters and civilians died in a tragic case of complacency. Learning from the past matters, every error chain set in motion from this day forward has already befallen someone, somewhere, at some time. It is our ability to recognize the error sequence and change our plan, how we imagine the future, that separates the success from failure. We must know that there is no ultimate plan for, or guarantee of success.
Planning for, and overcoming failure creates the type of critical thinking skills that allow us to stay ahead of the ever-changing fireground.
It was my "aw-shucks, at-least-nobody-got-hurt" inability to grasp the scope and breadth of incidents that was most concerning to me, my resistance to the knowing the truth that accidents on the fire ground do not discriminate. It was something I knew I had to change in myself. Near misses and deaths can occur in every borough and township in any corner of the world. Laziness is the secret ingredient in failure, it is usually kept secret by the one who fails and lives to keep the truth shrouded.
The notion that we are somehow at our best when under the gun, able to fly-by-the-seat-of-our-pants, is a fantasy that can lead to poor preparation and a false sense of security. We all admire those who say, "I'll figure it out when I get there. I thrive under pressure." But it usually isn't true, we are not at our best when we are subjected to strain, anxiety, and fear. It is the work we do prior to an event that prepares us for success and allows us to function when subjected to external stressors. It is exhausting to constantly prepare, but it is the only route to choose if we wish to excel at our craft.
We have to prepare mentally and physically, so that when the pressure of a situation knocks everything out of us, and all we are left with are the raw bones of the fundamentals, we are prepared to fight and win. The "to succeed you must fail" principle was handed down to me from my father. I watched it all my life growing up on the sidelines and the classrooms that my football-coach-father prowled from one side of this country to the other. It is a simple concept that I have adopted in training the people that I work with. It has its roots in capturing people's attention and ensuring they grasp the magnitude of their responsibilities to the team, the family, and community. It is all about turning failure into learning opportunities.
How do you deal with set-backs?
- Expect mistakes - Plan for success, but know with certainty that you will fail, spectacularly at times, and have a plan to move on. Ask yourself, "What do I do if this works? What do I do if it doesn't?" And so on.
- Don't dwell in the past - You can't change it; why worry over it? Moving on with a solid action plan for improvement shows strength of character. It is the fool who pines for his yesterdays, a fool who gets left behind.
- Own your mistakes - Stand up and say, "I did this (insert blunder here), learn from my mistake." If you did something and it didn't work out as planned, share your misadventures to save others the misstep.
- Allow time to lick your wounds - Feeling miserable after a poor performance is normal. You just got your ass kicked, allow yourself some time to recover (not too much though).
- Get back in the game fast - You can't lose your nerve (think Maverick in Top Gun). Get back up and get in the fight. Things always appear to be the worst right when you're closest to success.
- Focus on the future - Plan on ways to improve and implement the plan of what you learned as soon as possible.
Consistent effort is a constant challenge. When you get back up after a significant failure, you find an inner confidence that stems from owning up to your mistake and taking steps to ensure that you don't commit the same error again. Planning for, and overcoming missteps creates the type of critical thinking skills that allow us to stay ahead of the ever-changing fireground. Our job is no different than any high-stakes endeavor where the competition is vicious and unyielding. Our character is defined by the ability to learn when we stumble and from adjustments made after less than spectacular performance.
It's all about how we rebound.