Focusing on fear won’t create
a safer fire service
By Dave LeBlanc
Originally published 24 July 2017.
“Feeding courage starves fear”, is a quote from a presentation done by Mark Divine, a former Navy Seal and founder of Seal Fit. In a video clip, Divine talks about mental focus and how if we continually operate from an attitude of fear we will continually focus on the negative and what we can’t do. However if we focus on what we can do, and operate with an attitude of courage, we naturally become more capable, less tentative. It is important to remember that courage is not the absence of fear; it is the strength to do what needs to be done in spite of fear.
If we look at the Fire Service today, it is easy to see where Mark Devine’s philosophy is accurate. Never before has the fire service had access to information, technology, and research. And never before has there been a focus on firefighter health and safety and the need for change.
Unfortunately with this need for change, there is often a mission shift where some lose sight of our primary mission of saving lives in view of placing the safety and well being of firefighters first. This is usually the point where these articles are met with vehement disagreement and the calls of “reckless” and “cowboy” are heard. This is also often where this author’s education is challenged with accusations of “all opinion”, no substance. Well everyone is entitled to their opinion.
You can’t pick up a magazine (if anyone actually does that anymore), open a link on Facebook or attend a class today where there isn’t some discussion about firefighter safety. Everything is killing us; cancer, flowpath, searching, station alerting, VES and basically everything involved with being a firefighter. At the same time we are teaching our new firefighters that they come first and everyone goes home. I have written about EGH before and personally know the firefighter that adapted the phrase to the fire service. He is a FOOL and it was said at a FOOLS convention, and the last thing he had in mind was abandoning our mission so we can save our own skins.
The book “Neptune’s Inferno: The U.S. Navy at Guadalcanal” shows how the fear of an outcome can shape an organizations willingness to take risk and how that fear almost cost the United States the war in the Pacific. Commanders were so afraid of losing aircraft carriers that they failed to use them effectively and that the threat of Japanese submarines prevented those same commanders from effectively using destroyers and cruisers. It wasn’t until the command of these ships and the theater was given to those considered “fighting men” that the tide shifted and the Navy was able to prevail.
Risk versus Reward
It’s the basis of the whole discussion, and the problem is the benchmark has become far too high on both sides of the equation. The only risk that is acceptable is one that involves almost zero danger to firefighters and the only reward acceptable for risk is saving a life. Is that an extreme statement? Probably, but that is the path we are on. Line of Duty Deaths are often used as reasons for why we shouldn’t engage in certain tactics, like roof operations, VES, and interior fire attack. Yet a careful look at the number, such as the research done by Bill Carey, will show that is not how firefighters are dying today. We are slowly turning what was once a noble calling into a bastion of fear and risk aversion. How can we honestly expect to produce firefighters that are committed to saving our citizens when from day one we are bombarding them with nothing but fear? Fear of dying in fires, fear of dying from cancer, fear of taking a risk.
Are all these things worthy of consideration? Absolutely, but instead of focusing on the negative, why not focus on the tactics and behaviors that will allow our firefighters to perform their jobs? As Mark Divine says, “That which you focus on grows. Where awareness goes energy flows.” So if we are constantly focusing on the bad things that can happen, the injuries or death, then our firefighters will naturally be timid, because most people don’t want to die. But if we teach our firefighters to do the job, do it effectively and to incorporate safe habits into their basic skills, while focusing on the positive. We emboldened them. We create courageous firefighters that are able to make decisions, not be tentative and that will act appropriately when faced with dangerous circumstances.
Let’s face it, life is dangerous. People make decisions everyday that impact their longevity. The fire service is simply a microcosm of life. Are we exposed to more hazards than the average citizen? I guess it depends on which average citizen you are comparing us to. And while firefighting is “inherently dangerous” and “risky”, the frequency of which we are exposed to those dangers and that risk varies greatly depending on where you work.
It is unfortunate that in a day and age where we have more access to information, research, different techniques and people; that there is a shift away from our most basic mission. Some will argue there is no shift, that we are just creating smarter firefighters. In some cases that may be true, but in other cases we are creating firefighters with a mindset based on fear. Social media allows for firefighters of all levels of experience to communicate, but it removes some traditional filters that would allow firefighters to have that information presented in context. Young firefighters who may not have the experience to completely apply the information they are reading in a practical manner for their own use or for their department.
Our focus, in training and educating our firefighters should always focus on what can be accomplished. Our training should create firefighters with a positive mindset, who are confident in their abilities and what they can accomplish. We accomplish that by teaching them what they can do, giving them the tools to adapt to a rapidly changing environment, and by focusing their thought and efforts on the mission of saving lives and property. Safety cannot be a stand-alone topic. You don’t make anyone safer by uttering the word.
Safety must be incorporated into all aspects of training so that it is woven into every firefighter’s basic mindset. Focusing on fear won’t create a safer fire service; it will create a fire service faced with the dilemma of no longer being able to keep its promise to the citizens that expect it to keep them safe.
Photographs courtesy of Unsplash.
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