Battalion Notes will be a continuing series that discusses the important issues and fires going on in your Battalion. If you aren’t aware, chiefs do talk between tours, so there are a lot of things to exchange between them as the other takes the throne for the day. Although we usually discuss and consider these things to be boilerplate personnel and staffing issues, or a fire or two that you went to, it can be much more complicated than that. The fire department is a complex system to begin with, anyway, and for the context of this series, things will center on what you can expect (or not) to encounter at the firehouse or on the fireground in more detail, and with empiricism from our chief officer contributors. We’ll explain and discuss the things that myself and others have encountered over the years, faux pas, misfortunes and wins, and what should be expected when a chief officer shows up to work. These posts’ conversations have the ability to continue in the Comments link at the bottom, so please join in and leave some things in there that you would like us to write about in the future. I’ll be getting other nice chiefs to write, as well, and your thoughts are just as important as ours.
Let’s get this going, then:
Calmness is Contagious
This is good topic to start with, as it is one of the best pieces of advice that a revered, senior Battalion Chief (BC) gave me when I was promoted to BC. We all know who the ‘Screamers’ are on the fireground and they come in all ranks and sizes; however, the worst offenders are usually chiefs. Although these are the extreme examples of communication breakdowns and ensuing chaos on the fireground, other examples are more benign (anxious and excited transmissions, et al), but can lead to the same disorder just by how they impact your psyche. Posit: You’re responding as the first arriving chief officer to a private dwelling fire and the dispatcher transmits a “we’re getting numerous calls on this” message. I don’t care how many fires that you may have gone to, your body has just released even more adrenaline and cortisol to manage the increase in stress. This leads to increased heart rate, blood pressure and just plain old energy itself and can reduce your ability to critically think and review the plan for the type of building that you’re going to. How do you manage this? Easy. Breathe deeply (Zen-like) and tell yourself that you got this. I’m serious. It is well-known that simple breathing is perhaps the greatest response to increase in stress. So take that deep breath and consider:
You have been a company officer, you have pulled up to lots of fire and people running towards you; you have experienced the two-minutes of terror of knowing that you’re it until more help arrives; that your rig will have a couple of hoselines coming off of it, soon, and that you need water – now. Conversely, you know that your truck company is in front of the building and is staying there until you take up, and that you have to get the engine company in the building, sort out who is where inside with help from the screaming occupants outside – and how you’re going to get to them. You have probably done all of the above before you made chief, but now you’re the one ultimately responsible to make sure this all goes according to plan when you arrive by organizing it all, quickly. So start there with the fact that it may be like that again when you get there and that you got your stuff together then, so it’s time to do it again – light some incense if you have to…
Now, what happens next is what can unravel all the above, and set a horrible tone (pun intended) for the rest of the incident. If the first due engine or truck officer makes an excited, rapid and anxious transmission – that the dispatcher was actually right that there’s going to be lots of fire for everyone – then it’s your job to bring the incident back down to a standard operating guidelines level. Make a calm transmission that you received the message and take another breath as you pull up – maybe focus on getting your PPE on for a split second more to reboot, then take another look at what you’re in for by looking at the building(s) again.
I’ll use a great perspective made famous by the late Andrew Fredericks, who made the seminal statement about excited people on the fireground, that “a garbage man doesn’t get excited when he turns the corner and sees garbage.” Andy was always right about things and the same holds true for us as responding firefighters. If you have buildings in your area, then they could have fire in them at anytime, even lots of it or more than one of them going at a time, some days. Therefore, always mentally plan to pull up to one throughout your tour and realize that it’s up to you to put it out or grab someone who’s in there. Realize that your department has a plan for it all and think about the first few things that you will need to do, should it be on when you arrive.
Below is a fire that I had a couple of nights ago that the cops called in after a vehicle pursuit led to two houses on fire when we arrived. Looking at the CAD in my buggy, I knew that it was on before we were even called, so did everyone else responding. I’ll speak for myself, but I’m sure everyone was anxious about we would expect to find upon arrival, due to the time of day (2am), but the first arriving engine officer arrived and calmly reported what we had: a car launched into two houses, caught fire and extended to both structures. How do you think this impacted everyone before they got there? Yep, it calmed everyone down and surely brought everyone’s head back to where they were supposed to deploy, based upon their order of arrival. Take a look:
It was a lot to take in, upon arrival, but the troops killed the fire quickly, treated the occupants of the vehicle and everything went according to plan with no firefighter injuries. Imagine how the incident would have gone if the first arriving officer, or worse, me, transmitted a bunch of excited and anxious messages. Losing your calm does nothing but make everyone vapor lock and focus on what could be causing you to lose your mind, not about what they have to do when they arrive. I’m not saying there is always a loss of clear communication in these instances, but there is surely a loss of the messages’ effectiveness. The best thing to do when you have an incident that will be tough to put together, even with the right standard operating guideline for occasion, is to take another deep breath of Zen. This will slow your heart rate just enough for your brain to kick back in and allow you to make calm transmissions to get things under control, your companies deployed and rigs placed where you need them. This will also reduce the excitement in everyone who hears the transmission and you’ll notice it immediately when companies report to the command post in a professional manner, ready to kill, to let you know they’re there. If you’re excited, so will they be, even before they head inside or topside.
The same also goes for your demeanor and body language. Be firm and stand with poise, but realize that command presence is essentially calmness in the face of uncertainty and uncontrolled incidents. Just because a chief officer has a command board with companies’ locations correct, doesn’t mean they’re down to sea-level at the incident or running the incident properly. Command presence is knowing how well everyone is actually doing in their locations, because they feel calm enough to talk to you at an incident without getting screamed at, regarding transmitting progress and actions. Companies will immediately see this going on as they arrive and you’ll soon realize that your calmness is contagious, as things soon get better when everyone is thinking clearly and carrying out the plan – and making calm transmissions back to you. Give it a shot while headed to your next fire, and have the troops practice this, as well. Be the Calm Battalion.