Firefighters routinely face the unknown, especially when entering a burning building. Whereas Hollywood depicts firemen as cartoonishly brave, running headlong into danger to some noble purpose, professional first responders engage altogether differently. In crisis, they find a different and lower gear. They adhere to precise procedures and protocols for scene assessment, incident prioritization, tactical advance, life safety, property conservation, etc. They are challenged to consider risk in its totality and make a sober assessment of both cost and benefit. Every action has consequences, not all of them good.
Take for example the primary search protocol. The first step for a fire professional is to get as much information as he or she can about a space and its occupants in advance of any entry: rough drawings of interior spaces, suspected whereabouts of souls in need, building materials, and potential threats, etc. Firefighters “read the smoke” and “listen to the building”, talents honed in experience that are, in practice, part fire science, part divination. Alas, it is important to know what one is getting oneself into before he or she takes action.
A crucial consideration in the primary search protocol is team composition. While the lead is usually a more experienced firefighter, circumstances may dictate that two people of equal and potentially lessor experience are assigned the task. These firefighters must necessarily double-down on their training. The team then gathers all necessary equipment and enters as prepared as they can be for any inevitability.
A two-man team will drop down on all fours so as to get below the smoke and mitigate against losing their sense of direction as they venture further into a space. They choose a wall, stay in constant contact with one another, and proceed together, carefully, deliberately, sweeping with their opposite arms. They communicate continuously with each other and the outside world. Their senses impaired, firemen are careful to leave found objects in place and to use furniture and other material items as landmarks in their mental maps. They go only as fast as is safe, and turn back when it is clear they can go no further. While firemen bear the terrible weight of such decisions, they also live to fight another day.
In the coming days and weeks we will begin to reopen our lives. Reopening the economy, our shops and restaurants, warehouses and schools, will prove far more challenging than their closing. It may feel a lot like we are entering a burning building, and not just metaphorically. After all, we have a startlingly incomplete picture of our futures, our senses are emotionally inundated, we must rely on our own imperfect experiences, and lives and our livelihoods depend on it.
Let’s all take a page from the fireman’s playbook. Be cautious. Gear way down. Carefully assess your situation. Assign a team, at home and at work. Take an inventory of your most effective tools. Communicate thoughtfully and continuously. Rely on your past experiences. Hold on to one another. Leverage mental landmarks. Consider all costs and benefits before making decisions. Learn to “read the smoke”; to listen carefully to the signs in your world. Turn back when you must. Live to fight another day.
TOGETHER...we will be okay!
See you when I can,