From the Jumpseat: Constructive Pessimism

Part 18

By Mark Cotter

Tired and lazy are two very different conditions. My department responds to plenty of fire calls--almost 3,000 last year. That may not be "busy" compared to some communities, and most of these are not actual fires, but it's certainly more calls than most of my previous departments responded to. I ran 13 alarms on a recent 24-hour tour, none of which (amazingly) was an automatic fire alarm. It's not unusual for us to go directly from one call to another.

Suffice it to say, we have ample opportunities to perform the basics of the response sequence: note address and nature; don person protective equipment (PPE); climb into seat; connect seatbelt; attach SCBA; check all gear for readiness; wait, watch, and listen. Most times, this sequence is partly reversed (i.e., SCBA and some PPE is removed) en route as additional information is received from units already on scene, either releasing us or downgrading our involvement to nonemergency functions.

Other times, we arrive still in full regalia, yet quickly determine the report of an emergency to be erroneous or exaggerated. It is actually in the minority of situations in which we find ourselves at a scene that is as bad as was reported; rarer still if such a call was initiated by an automatic device. This "alarm roulette" is repeated each time we are dispatched, and it is human nature that most of us eventually begin to weigh the odds of a real incident versus the difficulty in performing all of the preparations required.

From a frequency of occurrence perspective, laziness as a strategy is certainly the easy winner. Most of the time, there will be no repercussions if we skimp on preparation, either because the incident did not require it or the rest of the crew was just as unprepared, so nobody comments. Displaying surprise to onlookers on your arrival will actually fool many of them who already view the incident as shocking, as long as they forget you had received advance knowledge of the situation and controlling such emergencies is supposedly something for which you are trained.

Such bad habits begin to creep up on us. First, we may just mechanically dress in our gear and climb aboard, confident that our officer will tell us what we need to do. Later, neglecting the SCBA becomes a regular habit, with the rationale that we can always don it if we need it. Worse behaviors can develop and involve all members of the crew.

The danger with this type of roulette is not the odds but the severe downside of being wrong: delays, failure, injury, and death. These are all very bad outcomes, yet eminently avoidable with a consistently proper approach. We usually cannot help becoming tired, but laziness is a choice.

Other manifestations of lack of preparation are less visible but no less malignant. Consider the effect of using standard assignments to handle so many "routine" calls that have almost predictable outcomes (such as vehicle fires, fuel spills, and even room-and-contents fires). After developing comprehensive standard operation procedures (SOPs), obtaining the proper equipment, and training regularly, we might finally develop a degree of confidence in the abilities of ourselves and our company. Fires succumb to our aggressive and efficient attack. Victims are extricated smoothly with our expert use of tools. Spilled materials are familiar and well-behaved, readily absorbed and contained. It's easy to become complacent about our need to continue to study and practice.

Then along comes a "simple" small fire that is separated from us by a lock that we have never encountered; a victim is trapped in a new model car that might have airbags at every window but we're unable to tell; or a combination of circumstances occurs that our team has never practiced performing together, such as a need for simultaneous ventilation and extinguishment. The self-assurance that comes from frequent responses to nonincidents and even "routine" working calls, can lull us into overconfidence or even arrogance.

While "lazy" might be a harsh name for such an attitude, "complacency" surely fits. Regardless, both are equally dangerous; avoiding such mental traps requires constant diligence and discipline. Our approach to preparing for calls changes after we have reached a point in our respective fire service careers when confidence has replaced a lot of the nervousness we felt as a rookie. Our hearts might still jump when the tones go off, but they soon slow after the nature of most alarms are announced.

Maintaining calm in our approach to emergency incident mitigation is certainly to be encouraged. Reaching a state of mind in which we can observe, calculate, and respond in carefully measured steps actually requires a high degree of knowledge and concentration, achievable only after years of training and experience. Sometimes, though, we need to tap into our repressed nervousness--that feeling that there might still be something bad out there; that we may have missed something in our analysis of the situation.

As the title of this column implies, my position of choice for an emergency call is the Jumpseat. When filling that role, I feel it is my duty and responsibility to be the best I can in performing whatever duties I may be called upon to accomplish. Automatic fire alarms are by far the largest percentage of our fire-related calls; they frustrate and wear me down as much as they do anybody else who is pulled out of bed because of a system malfunction. (My personal preference is that we cease responding to automatic alarms that are not in structures with life hazards and instead wait for the occupant to actually call if they need us [they can get up out of bed to check if their business is on fire--it's amazing to me how often they won't], but that's a subject for another column.)

Still, I prepare for automatic alarm responses the same as I do for a reported structure fire--full gear, mental preparation--the whole bit. Although my anxiety level has diminished much since my early years, I still indulge in a degree of "worrying" about every call. Asking myself such questions as: if there is a fire, where is the nearest hydrant? How can we force entry? Who might be in the building? What do I do first? What will everybody else do?

Basically, I try to recall or sketch out a mental prefire plan every time we respond to a given address. In the beginning, the information I have to work from was minimal. As I gain more experience with my response area, the pictures gain clarity and definition, but they still need to be drawn up new each time. When we arrive, I am as ready as I can be; when we are released, I am a little better prepared for the next run, there or anywhere.

Maintaining the ability to quickly manage unusual situations requires applying a similar attitude to training. If your crew is truly proficient in certain tasks, make things more complicated. After all, the bad things that occur at emergency scenes often lead to bad outcomes. With training comes the opportunity to continually improve on poor performance until it becomes great performance, so pretend to have bad things happen there first.

Asking "what if...?" about everything we do, whether at training or at critiques of actual calls encourages the entire crew to think beyond today's successes to tomorrow's challenges. I am no fan of instructors who throw unusual or bizarre scenarios at students before they have developed a degree of mastery on the basics. (Trying to learn how to perform a search pattern is no time to face a knot-tying quiz.) More veteran crews are a different story, though, and there are always additional complications that could occur. Mining fire service publications for stories about actual emergency events will provide a constant supply of such material.

Keeping ourselves and our team on our respective toes is not easy, especially when our feet are tired, and we think we can see just fine with our feet flat on the ground, thank you very much. Practicing a calculated approach to preparing for and analyzing all situations and employing creative pessimism anytime overconfidence is suspected is a winning approach to preparation. Such an attitude will serve us well whenever we pull up to a working fire or when the apparently simple suddenly becomes insanely complicated, even when we've already been up all night.

Mark Cotter joined the fire service more than 30 years ago, and is currently a volunteer firefighter/EMT-B with the Salisbury (MD) Fire Department. Previously, he served with departments in New Jersey and Pennsylvania as an EMT-paramedic, emergency services consultant, and fire chief. You can reach him at

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