editor’s opinion ❘ By BOBBY HALTON
We all want to understand and practice how to build good teams, strong crews, and outstanding firefighters. It would be great if all it required were outstanding training, discipline, and structure. But, we all learn early in our careers that it takes more—a lot more—than that. It takes a special something more and, thankfully, that more is not intangible, nor does it defy explanation; but my words are clumsy about such things. I don’t include every firefighter in my limited sphere of understanding. I know a lot of you whom I can’t hold a candle to intellectually. But, nonetheless, if you will indulge an old and uncomplicated crew boss, how is it that the fire service takes people from incredibly different backgrounds and beliefs and unites us in what is unarguably the most altruistic pursuit known to mankind, firefighting?
To wrap our heads around altruism, think of this: Say you are standing by the river with friends and family and your child falls in and is drowning. Do you jump in the river to save him? Most of us say, “Of course,” but why? Well, folks will say it’s your child for goodness sake, your own flesh and blood. The biologist and famous atheist Richard Dawkins would cite our “selfish genes.” See, he taught that we value reproductive fitness. And, if you ask firefighters about reproductive fitness, it’s a sure bet we will all agree to support it!
But, say you are by the same river, and it is someone else’s kid drowning. Do you jump in? Yep, every time, we go in fast, but why? Well, here Dawkins says it is because of reciprocal altruism. That means we jump in with the expectation that if it were us or our kid, someone else would do the same.
So far, it makes total sense, but what if no one else was around and it was your kid? Most of us see that as no problem. Someone else’s kid? Go time again, no question about it. Human life—we are all in on human life. And when it is life for us, young or old, old being someone with no reproductive future, that is of no consideration. We are getting wet.
OK, so far so good; James Q. Wilson would be proud of us. And he would push us further, and this starts getting to building; growing; and being on a team, a crew, or a company—really being on one.
Now, consider the same river, no one is around, and a dog—not even your dog—goes in and is drowning. Because only firefighters read this page, I know you are diving in as fast as if it were your mom. Why? There is no future you in the river; the dog or his offspring will never be able to save you or yours. No one is around, so no medal or photo op is coming. All you are doing is risking your life for a dog, not even your dog. But for a team player like you, it makes perfect sense. You are all with me, swimming like the Olympic swimmer Michael Phelps, after that mutt. On this, we are united.
To understand how we get united on saving literally every life we can and why we unite very quickly, it is important to remember that some professions, some trades, some callings were not sucked into the whole Enlightenment thing in the 1800s and its subsequent iterations with the post-modernists and Marxists. We, those who strive to be firefighting team members, part of this community, still believe moral truths to be “self-evident.” Inside the training, the discipline, the structure, we find out what life’s rules are, the rules of how the game of life is played in our trade. The inexplicable is how we somehow always find the world’s bravest and most compassionate women and men, who embrace and embody those rules as a way of life, a way of being.
Just like Adam. He rolled in on the truck. They had a vague report that “someone could be in there, second floor.” It was brutal on the first floor. Lines were making some progress; but, on an impulse, he made a move for the second floor. Conditions were awful, and he quickly bailed back down to the first floor. But, he was trained well; he was well-disciplined, and he was united on moral truths. Someone needed him to be brave, maybe braver than he knew he could be, so he reports in and makes a second try and begins to search the second floor under horrific conditions, but something told him he had to.
At the same time, a crew tries vent-enter-search at a second-floor window; but, like Adam’s first shot, it is a no-go, but they get a line to another firefighter at the window.
Adam is searching. Things are getting sporty; he can feel his wrists, neck, and the area around his face piece burning. As he is struggling to complete the search, he passes that window, and the firefighter on the ladder gives him a shout; that was all he needed. He makes a couple of quick searches, knowing his crew has his six; they are united. He pushes in a bathroom door, and there she is—alive. He pulls her to the window, and a rescue is made.
Everything he did—the search, his movements—all was learned in drills. His persistence—that was discipline, reporting in and having the ladder in place and knowing he was never alone, never alone. That is all in the rules, all small and some seeming insignificant moral truths. Maybe to some cynical people, everything is relative and nothing moral is self-evident, but not in our lives. We are united in protection of life, all life. It makes us bond in ways only those who have can understand. We love each other, and that, I guess, means we are altruistic also, because we love everyone else, too.
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