I led off this series explaining that “emotion has no place on the fireground”. We face hazards on every level of emergency response and we must understand how we can control our emotions to function appropriately. We agree that emotion comes from experiencing cognitive appraisal, then our body creates physiological changes. When we feel the body’s physiological response, we choose how to react. There are problems when that occurs outside of finding out the whole story. We may take actions that are inappropriate, or our judgment may be clouded by what we perceive to be a threat to ourselves or others.
A few days ago, I was doing a routine scan of my social media and spotted a post from a fire service leader I have tremendous respect for, Dr. Burt Clark. He shared a video link suggesting the American fire service needs “gene therapy” in order to overcome our cultural beliefs; that the things we have “imprinted in our DNA” as American firefighters is that we have to be “fast”, we must get “close”, that we need to get “wet”, we need to take “risk”, that “injury” is acceptable, and so is “death”. To me, this is where that emotional response seems to overcome our rational perception of the incident that is unfolding.
Dr. Clark explained that while historically, these values were true (or perceived to be true), we have found over time that either through study or experience, or simply understanding our conditions, they are not. Fires burn differently and proper codes and enforcement could make a difference in the “need for speed”. We have the means to reach fire without rolling around in it and even the most recent studies indicate that our conventional wisdom was wrong anyway. We have the means to get water on fires without us being there, through fire protection systems. And risk is relative to a number of factors, much like our belief that injury and death in the line of duty is somehow an indication of valor, when in a number of cases, the injury or death was as the result of preventable, and not very heroic, actions.
This consideration was made evident recently with the letter that the Pennsylvania State Fire Commissioner, Ed Mann, read recently to the Cumberland Valley Volunteer Firemen’s Association. The letter was written by the wife of a man who was critically injured when a responding volunteer firefighter crashed into him with his POV. The firefighter, who had been in a previous accident as well, died as a result of the collision. The wife posed that this young man should not be considered a hero because of the undue risk he took in response, which fortunately did not also kill the other individual, but regardless, has caused a significant amount of pain and recovery. I’m not going to argue the facts of the tragedy, because I don't have them. I do, however, wish to speak about emotion as it relates to our job.
In any number of responder collisions while driving a personally-owned vehicle, speed has been involved. If we can accept that as a given, we can also accept that motorists will often do things outside of what we expect them to. We frequently find that drivers won't pull over to the right when they are supposed to, they stop in front of us, they do things that may not make sense to us. Consequently, we have collisions that harm or kill our own people or civilians.
If we can already assume these things to be pretty constant, it would seem to me obvious that we not increase the risk of harming ourselves or civilians by driving at a rate of speed higher than normal. As much as we would like to, the reality is that we can't control the other motorists. Given this scenario then, why would we choose to endanger others?
What tends to be our problem? We have those who drive emotionally. You can be as right as rain and often, you are, but rationally, your anger is not going to influence the driver ahead of you to do what they are supposed to do. You can hope and pray and even rage over the PA system, but it’s not going to happen. I don’t know if any of this had anything to do with that incident, but let’s be candid here; we see it every day across this nation and yet it still continues. Even career drivers sometimes don’t quite appreciate the effect that of physics on their rigs and let their emotion override rational observation of the facts.
We have to get there fast? We have a duty? We must take risks? Not necessarily. Is it a fire alarm activation? Have we educated the public to get out and stay out and have we pushed for sprinklered buildings? The problem is that society overall expects us to have a certain amount of casualties, we have accepted this as truth, and as was pointed out by Dr. Clark in his video, we reward that behavior. And then we act surprised when we have another responder collision. After all, "we take risk in our jobs", right? But why take a risk that isn't necessary? Why? Because our emotion overwhelms the logical response here.
We have said it thousands of times; it doesn't matter how fast we drive if we get in a wreck on the way. Time may equal brain cells and getting there faster during cardiac arrest may be indicated, but if we don't get there at all, that seals it, doesn't it? If we can't get the equipment and personnel to the job, we can't save lives or property. And in the meanwhile, already scarce resources that were needed for another disaster are being allocated to your own personal incident. Your lack of judgment does directly impact others.
I tell my students all the time: the first pulse that you should check on a medical call is your own. Take a deep breath and focus. You aren't having the medical condition. It isn't your house on fire. You aren't stuck in that confined space. The problem existed before you got there. All good generals start onto the battlefield by assessing the lay of the land and understanding the conditions. They don't just charge down the hill without looking for an advantage first. Considered action is always a better choice than forced reaction.
Come back again tomorrow. We’ll discuss some more about emotions in emergencies.