In this article we will be exploring the psychological aspects of interior firefighting; what gives some guys the courage to keep going forward when every sense in your body is telling you to get out. I will address what to do when you are being assaulted by the heat, loud noises, explosions, implosions, fear of the unknown, darkness, claustrophobia, fear for your own well being and safety, and all the things that run through your mind as you advance an interior attack hose line. How do some guys find the courage to go forward, and why do others bail out?
Psychologists have said that human beings are only born with two fears: the fear of falling, and the fear of loud noises. All other fears are believed to be learned behaviors. We have all seen a young baby sleeping and watched it jump or move its body as if catching itself from a fall. That's an innate fear and instinct. Firefighters come in all shapes and sizes, from all walks of life and courage really isn't talked about much anymore. I remember when I worked at the D.C. fire department in the 80's the evaluation form actually had a spot on it for courage and any signs of cowardice. You definitely didn't want to show any signs of cowardice, even if you were scared to death.
Fear. All firefighters experience it, the good ones don't talk about it, but we all have it. The ones who don't have any sense of fear or danger are fools and should be avoided. They are the true kamikaze pilots; they are the ones that will get you killed. A good firefighter knows that fear is a tool which helps us to survive by heightening our awareness, sensitivity levels, increases our heart rate, and gives you adrenaline. The fight or flight response actually helps us focus on getting the job done.
Let's say we are going into a smoke filled building, not knowing where the fire is, may or may not have people trapped, I never relied on those reports, because it seemed more often or not, the reports were wrong. A good firefighter will control his fears in this situation, as Mark Twain said, "Courage is not the absence of fear, it is the management of fear". I guess that's what we are doing; we are managing fear, just as we manage risk when we engage in interior attack firefighting.
The thing I always did was to hook up with good people in my department. You've got them around you, they are generally the ones that are going to go in and put the fire out. Be careful of the ones that run their mouths a lot; they are usually the first to disappear on you. The screamers, we always used to make fun of the screamers, the ones that start running their mouths non-stop as we pulled up, that's a tool they use to confront their fear, but it makes them look silly in the process. I always liked working with the quiet, professional guys. They did what had to be done or were constantly sizing up in their heads the next move that had to be made.
Think of interior firefighting like a chess game. You have to be thinking two or three steps ahead, but you also want to have a 'Plan B' and 'C', because the fire is sure to offer you all the complications that you need. And your Plan B is not always going to be the best way to go. Fires are dynamic environments, conditions are constantly changing, and therefore you have to be constantly making changes in your technique and style inside that building.
Going back to the people you are working with, people like the engine officer we discussed in the last article make all the difference in the world while you are pushing that line in. When you have an engine officer with you looking at the big picture, assessing the situation, thinking about what has been done and what needs to be done next, all of these things make a huge difference. Without a doubt, the best way to make your environment safe is to put the fire out. By putting the fire out, you are bringing the event under your control. If you are not putting it out, it will expand, involving other parts of the building and getting into things that could cause a bigger problem.
So if you've been inside a burning building and you've experienced a condition in which you think you are going to melt down inside your boots, and you thought you were the only one scared, rest assured, the ones around you are thinking the same thing. It's the sign of true courage when you are able to manage that fear, go forward and put the fire out, and enjoy your rewards of the lives, property and other things you save. Remember, it's what we give back to our community that makes this business as noble as it is.