“Courage is resistance to fear, mastery of fear—not absence of fear.” – Mark Twain
The above quote is one of meaning to those in our profession, as it is to all who put themselves in harm’s way for the sake of others. We call ourselves “the bravest”, evoking the image of courageous lads riding steam engines to extinguish blazes, as our predecessors once did. We plaster our “fearlessness” on our cars, helmets, and t-shirts. We advertise it to the world. Was this the case with those men over 100 years ago? Did they call themselves “brave”, or did their actions cause the public to bestow that title upon them? Were they more concerned with simply “doing the job”, rather than getting the glory? I’d like to believe so, but can we say the same for ourselves today?
For the most part, yes. There is still a large group of the fire service working for the right reasons. Those who remember that WE are here for THEM, the civilians, the public whom we SERVE. Those who remember that THEY are expecting us to rescue them. THEY are expecting us to put out the fire. THEY expect us to GO INSIDE. THEY expect us to be ready. Those with the right mindset ARE ready, but the right mindset does not require one to be fearless. In fact, the “fearless” mindset is as foolish as the “no entry” mindset.
It is time to correct the tired, old “We fight what you fear” cliché. The proper saying should be, “We fight what you fear, but we fear it, too.” Yes, firefighters FEAR fire, and why shouldn’t we? It is a fearsome element. Fire kills, has killed, and will continue to kill…and THAT is exactly why we must master OUR fear and continue to ENTER BUILDINGS for interior attack and search. As long as there is a chance of a life hazard, we owe it to the citizens, whom we SERVE, to make the interior attack and search. That is our JOB. Any random citizen can stand in the front yard and spray water through a window, Statter911.com provides a plethora of videos demonstrating this. The “green line jockeys” have even begun to gather “helmet-cam” style point-of-view footage. Imagine if your municipality began distributing 1 3/4″ lines to strategic hydrant locations in your response area. Teams of citizens could replace many “yard attack” departments. However, those average citizens likely will not go inside. That is the benefit that a good department brings to the table. We don’t just put the fire out and save the foundation. We come in to look for you, even if we don’t have a report of an occupant. We go in to put the fire out, and stop the damage before things burn to the ground. Obviously, there is some risk management to be considered and, at times, a defensive operation is required, but I don’t believe it should go nearly as far as some would like. But, back to the fear.
As I stated, we FEAR fire. If you’ve never felt a little twinge of fear as you make the push towards the fire room, then you: A) have never made an interior attack, B)are clinically insane, or C) just didn’t recognize it AS fear. You see, though firefighters and civilians both fear fire, there is a difference between the nature of our fears.
Normal, sane civilians fear fire in the most natural way. Fear through panic. They see fire or smoke, recognize the threat to their life, and react instinctively. Their brains shut down into the most primitive state. Their sole function becomes staying alive. Most flee for safety. This is good. It means less work for us, and most importantly…survivors, if they manage to escape the structure. If they don’t escape, we know that they will be near windows, behind doorways, or headed down hallways towards egress points. Others will simply hide, their brains conflicted to the point of freezing. This is also useful, as it gives us an idea of where a victim might hide. Under beds, in closets, in bathtubs. Knowing how possible victims might react can be invaluable to us, and there are many resources where you can read more on this subject. The fear-through-panic mindset is most evident in multiple occupant situations. We rarely hear of family members finding each other BEFORE exiting the structure. Part of this is because WE teach them to exit first. The other reasoning behind this may be that, in a fury of self-preservation, they completely forget about the other residents. They focus on getting out, and only upon exiting do they remember, as their brains restart, that there were others inside. Perhaps this is why we see more incidents where occupants re-entered to make a rescue, rather than finding the other victim in the first place. Or, perhaps they simply follow the escape plan and hope that everyone else does the same. Maybe it is a bit of both.
Firefighters, on the other hand, cannot afford to panic. We are trained early on to face our fear, master it, and use it to master the fire. We have a fear through respect. We know the destructive power of fire. We’ve seen it since the academy. Because of this knowledge, we train harder. We learn the behavior of fire and we study the effects of applying water to it. We learn how to defeat it, and to find those who cannot. We train on it…over, and over, and over…while we weed out those who will not. We master our fear…and master our ability to defeat its cause. This is why we feel excited when we conquer the beast, because we have, in turn, conquered our fear. It isn’t that we aren’t scared of the beast, it’s that we recognize and respect what will happen if we don’t overcome our fear and do our job. We know what will happen if we don’t make the search efficiently. We realize the outcome of not aggressively extinguishing the blaze.
We are not aggressive out of fearlessness and insanity. We simply realize that we serve a purpose greater than “saving the foundation”. We owe it to the public to perform to our full potential. It is what THEY expect…and what WE should deliver.
– Lt. Lemon