HELPING VICTIMS AFTER THE FIRE
When was the first (or last) time a professional truly impressed you — someone who changed your attitude about the people who did that kind of work? Was it the physician who said, “Look, I can put you into the hospital for a few days and perform all these tests, but it won’t do you any good. What you’ve got is ‘xyz.’ Here are some free medication samples. Take one after every meal, and stay in bed for a couple of days. I’ll call you tomorrow to see how you’re doing”—and he called?
How about the officer who stopped you and said, “Look, I’ve got a son just about your age, and he’s very special to me. 1 could give you a ticket for speeding, but I think I’d rather just ask you to please slow down. Your parents would he very saddened if anything ever happened to you. You’re pretty special to them.”?
Two people who have made a lasting impression on me are a nurse and an Army lieutenant. The nurse taught me when I was five years old that if l didn’t tense up when 1 got an injection, the needle would hardly hurt. She was right. The Fort Dix lieutenant received one of my first salutes—far from militarily correct. Rather titan ream me a new bodily orifice (which was the job description of a second lieutenant in those days), he called me back and calmly explained the correct way to salute. He showed an interest and practiced salutes with me right there in the street until l got it right. I’p until that point, 1 never knew that lieutenants could talk below 12S decibels. He was .AfricanAmerican, and the whole transaction UX)k no more than 15 seconds. I spent two years in the Army, and he’s the only officer I can remember years later. Hopefully, he’s a general now.
MAKING AN IMPRESSION
Whoever and wherever you are, you’ve had similar experiences. It may have been a teacher, a repairman, a “Dutch uncle,” or someone you worked with. In a few short minutes, their words or deeds, or both, turned you around. Take a minute to analyze what impressed you most about them.
- They showed a sincere interest in you and your problem.
- They calmly explained themselves, their point, or a solution to something you found difficult or overwhelming.
- They displayed concern through their expressions and vocabulary.
- They made sure that you understood the point they were try ing to make.
Now think about the last fire you fought. Think about the people who were there, the victims. You know the ones. They had that gaze in their eyes, that look of disbelief. Everything they owned, all that they had worked for. their universe, had just gone up in smoke. They were standing in the street with everything they had left: their lives and the clothes on their backs. Their money, their identification, their irreplaceable personal effects, and their toothbrushes were all destroyed. That look in their eyes translated into troubling thoughts: What do I do now’? Where do 1 go? How do I begin?
Some would argue that a total fire loss is a more significant loss than the death of a loved one. Even when the death is sudden and unexpected, there is an existing support system of family and friends to help with some of the hurdles, a professional or two (physician, funeral director, attorney) to handle the administrative minutiae, a comforting and familiar environment, a rite and ritual to follow during those first horrible days, and a gradual return to reality over the period of time called bereavement.
Fire is always sudden and unexpected. As a result of the fire, victims are frequently uprooted from their support system (family, friends, and neighbors). They are placed in temporary shelter, away from the familiar creature comforts of home. They have absolutely no idea of what to do next; there’s no gradual return to reality. For weeks they will have to pick through the soggy ruins, trying to salvage what few personal effects remain. Most of their paperw ork existence (birth and marriage certificates, Social Security records, tax records, diplomas and transcripts, insurance records, receipts, and deeds)^ have been destroyed. For months they will be forced to stare at the charred skeleton* that once w’as their home as the damage is slowly repaired.
Neither employers nor unions guarantee a leave for fire, as they do for bereavement. You’re expected to be on the job the next day. No one seems to understand that all of your clothes are smokeand^ water-damaged, you don’t have a driver’s license anymore, and your children are crying for a box of their favorite breakfast cereal. The most comforting statement a fire victim hears is, “You’re lucky you got out alive.” The statement is true enough but of little solace.
During this process, what do you thinkthe fire victims’ impression is of the fire department? Sure, they’re grateful to you for coming; but. let’s face it, it isn’t as if.they had a choice. We are the only game in town. Even if they saw’ your bravery’ action, they can’t help remembering the crashing glass, the axes, and the water. Ask yourself honestly, if you weren’t “on th job,” could you discern necessary’ from unnecessary damage? Probably not. But you arc “on the job,” so ask yourself. If you had a fire, would you know what to do in those next few critical days? ‘ITie bet is you don’t. No one does.
Overall, it’s an area in which the fire service is deficient. We’re anxious to turn the building back over to the owner/ occupants; we may warn them of any major hazards and remind them to have the major systems (electrical, plumbing, heating) checked by a professional; and then we walk away. Post-fire assistance generally is not provided by the fire department, but it is something we can provide to better serve the public we’re sworn to help. Best of all, most of the work is already done for us.
ITtere’s a great document called “After the Fire, Returning to Normal,” published by the U.S. Fire Administration. (For up to five free copies, write to Federal Emergency Management Agency, l !.S. Fire Administration. P.O. Box 70274, Washington. DC 20024.) It was developed with the assistance of the I lolly wood (FI.) Fire Department. Since it’s a government document, you can copy or modify it to suit your needs It’s just the item to help us bridge that service gap. It’s only 14 pages, but there are sections covering insurance, living expenses, property valuation and inventory, replacement of documents, what to do in case of injury, and some tips on salvage. For a particular locale, you could add portions to include climate considerations, local resources, government addresses and telephone numbers, and checklists of “things to do.”
TALKING TO VICTIMS
Having had the opportunity to engagefire victims in conversation, 1 am continually struck by two phenomena: Fire victims are always emotionally ovcrwhelmt-d (whether they display it or not), and they are usually critical (or worried or questioning) of what they perceive to be the destructiveness of fire de-partment operations, particularly during overhaul. To them, the fire is out, the worst is over. “So why are you still sawing and chopping and breaking? Haven’t we had enough damage? Can’t you keep the damage down?” Overhaul to them is pouring rock salt into wide open wounds.
How many of us ever engage fire victims in conversation? Probably few’; we’ve got too many other things to do. Meanwhile, the victims are forming a totally inaccurate opinion about the tire department. It takes only a few minutes to explain. Take the opportunity.
With the need for second-by-second strategic decisions over and with sector and safety officer(s) positions established, perhaps it is time for the incident commander (or liaison or public information officer) to talk with the victims about what they should think about doing next, the social or victim relief services available, the documents they should secure before leaving the premises, and what the fire department will do to protect the premises before leaving. Tell them that they will need a copy of the fire report for insurance companies and where, when, and how they can get it. A handout such as “After the Fire, Returning to Normal” with a supplemental sheet of important information stapled to the inside cover would be a tremendous help to them.
It is also an opportunity for you to describe the overhaul process, why it is necessary, and what the department is doing to salvage the remaining property. Take the time to explain the salvageprocess in de-tail: spreading salvage covers; covering windows, roof, and doors; venting residual smoke; shutting off utilities; and removing wate-r and de-bris. The few minutes it takes will go a long way in helping a fire victim understand what the* fire department eloes and why. If you think about it, every professional doe*s it. It’s a no-cost opportunity for increased under-, standing and service delivery.
Every organization from General Motors to the mom-and-pop groce*ry store realize*s the importance of listening to the customer; governme-nts do, too. While, we’re usually not in a business relationship with our “customers,” it wouldn’t hurt us to open our ears once in a while, listen to what fire victims are saying. Patiently correct any misunderstandings they may have. Find out about the one or two things your department can do tdl assist them. Send for the lxxklet, and make copies to put in your glovebox or on your clipboard. Even though you’re a captain or a chief, you could answer a couple of “why” questions once in a while.
Psychologists may describe this assistance as “transitioning from traumatic stress,” graduate business school professors, as “total quality management.” Firefighters sometimes don’t use those kinds’ of words; maybe we should. It might be interesting to see just how much we can help people after the flames have beens extinguished.