Emotions – What Can We Do About Them?

The answer to the question is that we can recognize our emotional state and we can work with it, but we can't just wish it away.  Our emotional state is subject to our reaction, both psychological and physiological.  What we can do, however, is recognize when these instances occur and address them in advance of a repeat performance.

Capt. Tom at EMS12Lead.com was reading yesterday and tweeted a link to an old blog he once started called The Scene Size-Up Blog. I'm sure you have all heard someone arriving on a scene and transmitting their size-up, and you can tell their emotions are getting the better of them.  One of the ways he suggested for overcoming this adrenal state (the "fight or flight" syndrome we know from earlier) during that period was to practice stress-tempered communication skills.  The trick is to "identify the expected performance, simulate the stressful stimulus, and repeat the desired behavior over and over again until it becomes second-nature".  This is exactly how we should be taking an approach to training as well.

Jeff Johnson wrote an article in Firehouse last summer that discussed recognition-primed decision making.  Again, this is a means of educating ourselves in how to perform effectively on an incident using experience gained through the job or through training, but it is entirely useful to use such training to also help control your emotional state, by reminding yourself of previous similar events and how they played out, and using the lessons learned from those events to direct a positive outcome on the situation at hand.

This can go even farther in understanding that you may be surrounded by others who have been in similar circumstances, or have technical experience that permits a better perspective on the issues.  Like when I was speaking about crew resource management before, this is a perfect situation where if someone on the team has been through the event before, they may understand it for what it is and be able to suggest a better way of handling things.

None of this, however, addresses the adrenaline surge that some of our colleagues achieve that cause them to drive recklessly, to charge into untenable situations, or to make poor decisions by "shooting from the hip".  In my observation, a certain amount of that goes away as a responder becomes more mature, spends more time dealing with the same situations, or becomes cognizant of the feelings but knows how to curb them.  There are those who it seems though, never outgrow it.

As a chief officer, when I see this kind of behavior, knowing how it can affect the entire mission, I get on it early and reinforce what I expect from those individuals and how I believe they should be acting.  When I was a company officer, I certainly didn't permit some of the things I know that others did and all it took was one incident, then others were saying, "You knew so-and-so was trouble behind the wheel; why didn't you say something?" or "You knew he was unsafe but you let him do it anyway, why?"

Our responsibility as leaders requires that if we see someone who is not conducting themselves professionally, regardless of whether it is an emotional reaction or plain old immaturity, that we take action to stop it.  That goes for station operations as well as emergency operations, and yet I am constantly disappointed by reading certain events in the news where someone was doing something stupid, and officers were around, but of course, "didn't realize what was going on".  No, I would bet that in many cases, they knew what was going on and chose to ignore it.  Putting your head in the sand will not make the problem go away.

I have worked with many individuals over the course of my career who have had a range of reactions to bad situations.  I have seen people react to situations in a manner that clearly showed emotion was in charge and not logic.  In most of those events, if you are allowing that to occur, you lose.  A classic example was the Metro-Dade Fire Officer debacle that came out in March 2013.  This officer could very well have been right, but it was clear that emotion was in charge and not logic.  I don't know what happened before this event to get the officer so upset.  But watching the video alone, it doesn't seem like the fire officer was making a good decision to engage this guy.  I'm not going to say people haven't pissed me off before, but looking back on it now, and watching this video, I realize how bad it really could have been, and I am glad it wasn't me in that MDFR officer's shoes.  The intelligent thing to do would be to step away from the problem for a second and recognize that your rage is not what is needed here, but a clear head is.

Emotion is great for when your child is graduating high school, or your favorite team wins, or you got something you have always wanted.  But when the stakes are high and getting it wrong could mean catastrophic outcomes, we must keep our head in the game, pay attention to what is going on, and make the right choices.  We can help ourselves in those moments by practicing similar events under stress, by educating ourselves on recognizing events and making good choices, and we can step away from the problem mentally, before we get hurt.

When I say there is no place for emotion on the fireground, I meant it. Save the drama for after shift change.

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