It was about five o’clock on a very cold December morning when I was awakened from my sleep by the sound of the fire horn sounding from the station just down the street. As a volunteer junior fireman (I was in high school at the time), I had my clothes laid out just for this possibility. So, within minutes, I was dressed and running the short half block to the firehouse. I let myself in and opened the bay doors for the engines and then began putting on my turnout gear. The captain of our station arrived and started up the first response engine. Then he yelled, “Get on the tail board. I have already seen the fire and it is coming through the roof of the house. We need to get there now. I will stop by the closest hydrant – you jump off and get us hooked up – I will take care of ensuring the connection to the engine is made – then run to me as quickly as possible because I do not know if the family is out of the home.”
I put my helmet on and got on the tail board as the engine began moving out the door. At the hydrant, I grabbed the hydrant wrench and the two and a half-inch supply line from the bed of the truck and quickly wrapped it around the hydrant. I placed my foot against the hydrant to steadied myself as I held the hose under my arm and yelled, “Go!”. The captain took off as the hose automatically began to come off of the truck bed and landed in the street. I hooked up to the hydrant, turned on the water, grabbed the wrench, and ran to the engine – no easy feat in full turnout gear. When I arrived, a lieutenant from another station was already getting the inch and a half pre-connected line from its bed.
“You two get in there and hit the fire now,” the captain spoke in a loud tone. “The family made it out but these houses are so close together we could lose this block if we don’t knock it down fast. I will send folks in with masks as soon as the next truck gets here.”
(Note: This was many years ago when synthetic materials were not used in home furnishings so the toxic gases that can kill you were not a concern. So, being a “smoke eater” was often considered a badge of honor. Today, we are smarter and firefighters would never give this kind of order.)
I grabbed a large flashlight and the lieutenant and I humped the hose up to the stairs to the attic area. I yelled with all I had, “Water!” and in no time, we were at work knocking down the fire. The combination of the smoke and steam created by our efforts began to be overwhelming. I tapped the lieutenant and told him I was going into the front bedroom to ventilate (open windows to let the smoke out). I turned the flashlight around so I could have a reference point, got down on my hands and knees, and put my right hand on the wall to follow it around to where the windows were. Once I opened the first window, the smoke because blinding. I stayed by the wall and got to the second window and opened it. That was when I realized, I was in trouble.
The light from the flashlight was no longer visible and I could not hear any water. I yelled out but the lieutenant never answered. He had either become overcome by the smoke or just backed out without me. I was pretty sure of the direction of the door so I made a big mistake. I stood up and began moving as fast as I could toward what I thought was the door. Before I knew it, I ran into a bed and went tumbling to the floor. I had hit my head and was now completely disoriented. I could not find my way out and the slowly, the smoke was choking me. This was it – I was sure I was not going to make it out of this situation.
There will be times in your career when you will believe that you are completely in the dark and the panic will make you feel like you just can’t breathe. You may even think that this is it – everything you have worked for is about to come to a horrible end. But I can tell you, you can get through it if you will just keep these important tips in mind.
Stop! Whatever you are doing is not working so before you do anything else, just stop doing anything and gather yourself. Take a deep breath, close your eyes and let your mind go blank, bring your emotions under control – let calm come over you. If I had done this one step in the above scenario, I would not have put my life at risk.
Now, think about where you are in your situation and how you can successfully resolve this conflict. Doing this will automatically cause you to begin the process of outlining the things you need to do to successfully overcome your challenge.
Rely on your experience and training. This was the biggest mistake I made. I knew that the safest way out to the room was to stay low and follow the wall back to where I had come in the door. But I let panic overtake me and tried to take a shortcut. Ignoring my training had put me in peril.
Finally, stay calm. Focus on your progress – celebrate each successful step – keep your goal in mind. Believe me, as a Marine officer, I operated in some hostile environments but I had learned this lesson. So, by staying calm, I was able to logically face difficult situations in a manner that showed my Marines that I was confident of our success thus helping my Marines to feel reassured.
So how is it that I can share this lesson with you?
The lieutenant could not take the smoke anymore. He turned off the nozzle, grabbed the flashlight, and followed the hose out of the building. My captain saw him come out and asked him where I was. When he said he did not know, the captain grabbed the flashlight and lead a team with masks on into the building. They manned the hose and began fighting the fire while the captain went searching for me. He found me lying on the floor no longer able to move. He grabbed me by the back of my turnout coat collar and helped me get out of the building. He took me to the ambulance that was now on the scene and they began to give me oxygen. Once my head was cleared and I was no longer coughing, the captain asked if I was okay. I shook my head and he once again had me by the back of the coat and was leading me toward the building.
“What are you doing?” I screamed as I tried to resist him.
“You and I are going back into that burning building. If I don’t make you do this, you will never conquer your fear and you will no longer be able to enter a burning building with confidence. That will make you dangerous and useless to your fellow firefighters and I can’t have that,” he replied as he continued to drag me into the building. He was right and I continued to fight fires until I joined the Marine Corps and left my little hometown.
If you are going to be an exemplary leader, you must be able to stay calm in the most difficult of situations so that you can inspire your team with confidence.