Stay in Your Lane

Bobby Halton
editor’s opinion ❘ By BOBBY HALTON
Bobby Halton

“We secure our friends not by accepting favors but by doing them.” The Greek general, philosopher, and statesman Pericles said these words around 400 BC. As firefighters, we know this intuitively, although we always enjoy ancient wisdom backing us up because we know it is the only type of wisdom that matters. The words Pericles used were intentional, deliberate, and meaningful. Security is the first of all human needs. Without security, we are in a state of chaos and uncertainty: We have no rudder, no anchor, no direction, no foundation—security is first and foremost.

“Favors” is another very deliberate word. A favor is freely given; a favor expects no reciprocity, no quid pro quo. A favor is a gift; a favor is reserved for those to whom we have affection, to those we favor. To favor someone is to show approval. Favors are kindness; favors are gifts that show preference. To help our brothers and sisters, to truly support them, we do favors for them.

Most of us have had the experience of hearing someone say, “Wow, I didn’t see that coming.” All of us have been on the fireground when where we thought the fire was going turned out to be wrong. After the fact, we have all chimed in, offering some opinion or another as to why those calling the shots should have seen it coming.

As firefighters, we don’t tend to convict our fellow firefighters of malfeasance by intention; we generally say they were poorly trained or they weren’t paying attention. But our critiques are clouded in hindsight. The fact is that as individuals, our experiences and worldviews are so complex and nuanced that as we make decisions, the experience of unforeseen consequences happens all the time.

Currently, we are seeing an explosion of new companies and programs designed to meet the heretofore unaddressed social, emotional, and physical needs of the fire service. Many of these new programs are phenomenal; many of these new companies are amazing and doing fantastic work to help firefighters deal with these wickedly complex problems. And others are simply folks, albeit with the best of intentions, venturing, as the kids would say, “out of their lane.”

Where it gets scary for us as an industry is when folks—again, albeit with the best of intentions—venture out of their lane and become pseudo-psychiatrists or weekend cancer specialists. Then, we are unfortunately in a place where unintended consequences can have devastating effects.

Pattern recognition, Gary Klein has taught us, is how we make most of our decisions. This is simply how the human mind works. We match patterns to experience and, based on that evidence, we make decisions. The problem is that not every pattern, not every model, tells us the entire story. A great mathematician once commented that a model only tells you what’s true for the model, not what’s not true.

The same thing can happen when we are dealing with wickedly complex issues such as behavioral health, cancer, emotional issues, and other social and physiological problem. Doctors, therapists, clinicians, and highly skilled and highly trained professionals can look at patterns and evidence and misread the signs. It does not mean that they are incompetent or lazy. It does not mean that they are poorly trained or that they had any bad intent. It is simply that the world and people, in particular, are highly complex and extremely difficult to measure, assess, and diagnose.

The lesson here for folks like you and me, firefighters, who are not clinicians, psychiatrists, or doctors, is to stay in our lane. It is perfectly acceptable for us to form peer support groups—AA groups, Al-Anon, and cancer support groups—within our systems. These established organizations and groups have guidelines, rules that can help us to stay in our lane.

Pericles was right. “We secure our friends not by accepting favors but by doing them.” No group of people on the face of the planet has ever been better friends to their friends. But we must, as firefighters, understand that our intentions and our motives are not shields from mistakes, that our love and our kindness are our greatest tools when we are faced with trying to help one of our own struggling with a cancer, an addiction, or a mental health issue.

Let us never turn down a request to move a couch; let us never turn down a fellow firefighter looking for a place to sleep, a shoulder to cry on, or someone to share a cup of coffee with. When asked for a favor, we should always reply that we are grateful to be able to do a favor. We should secure our friends emotionally, physically, and spiritually—not by expecting them to do favors for us but by doing favors for them.

Let’s stay in our lane. We are not psychiatrists, we are not oncologists, we are not clinicians. Let’s leave the psychology and the psychiatry and the medicine to those who have dedicated their lives to it. When asked for advice or treatment regarding mental health or cancer, the first favor we should always extend is the phone number or a ride to an established therapist, hospital, or institution devoted to the care and treatment of those conditions.

Our lane is our strong shoulders, our strong backs, and our unbreakable bond of loyalty and fidelity. Our lane is warm bad coffee, a safe environment, and the ability to listen without judgment. Our lane is the lane of endless forgiveness, endless love, and endless compassion. The American firefighter is now and always will be the greatest example of undying compassion and the willingness to do favors for friends, for family, and for country.

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