Not Panicking... When You're the Fire Department

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Thursday, October 12, 2017

There is a scene in the movie Roxanne, where the fire chief walks into his small-town Colorado fire department on a summer evening, and a 50-gallon drum is on fire in the station.  He hollers up to the volunteers, who are visible upstairs through the hole in the ceiling for the fire pole.  The volunteers are clearly surprised to see smoke.  

The fire chief, played by Steve Martin, gives this speech:  “I have a dream. It's not a big dream, it's just a little dream.  My dream - and I hope you don't find this too crazy - is that I would like the people of this community to feel that if, God forbid, there were a fire, calling the fire department would actually be a wise thing to do.  You can't have people, if their houses are burning down, saying,  ‘Whatever you do, don't call the fire department!’  That would be bad.”

I tell this story because of something that happened pretty often when I worked as the Fire Intelligence Coordinator at a major fire operations center.  Okay, I might as well just say it:  it’s the busiest interagency fire coordination center in the world, and it covers the southern half of California.  We had two federal agencies and two state agencies working together in the same compound.  Most of the operational folks, myself included, had mutual aid and air traffic radio channels broadcasting constantly on four speakers in our offices.  As such, we all knew pretty much instantaneously when a new major fire was breaking.  Assuming you're not in a meeting or outside, you pick up on indicators such as an unusual number of aircraft ordered on initial attack, a high acreage for an initial report, or a known critical high-volatility location.

Here’s what would happen.  Invariably, one or some of the operational folks (all of whom have since retired or moved on) would start rushing up or down the hall, and advise me or anyone else: “WE’VE GOT A FIRE!!!” 

Next were immediate alerts to the governor's office, and the activation of various protocols.  Phones rang.  Pagers paged.  Spontaneous conference calls occurred.  Activity spun up fast... and I daresay, there was inevitabley a bit of panic.  Not every time.  But enough to be noticeable.

Here’s what my bosses did, and this is important:  they got into the zone.  They got calm, they got focused, and they got efficient.  Because WE’RE THE FIRE DEPARTMENT.  It’s what we DO.

I learned a lot from watching the contrast.  I got into the zone, too, which was super useful when we had major crises such as things we had never had to deal with before.  My first reaction was then to get calm.  To not panic.  Number one:  because this is our job, and we’re supposed to be the ones who show up to help in this sort of scenario.  Number two:  because we’re problem-solvers, disaster-handlers, and way-forward-finders.  Incident management folks in this world say they “bring order to chaos.”  A good starting point for finding a way forward is to not panic.

Check out the “Don’t Panic” focus area for more.

And think about disruptions you’ve experienced, or could experience.  Did anyone not panic in the crowd?  These folks tend to stick out.  What would you do?

We are better able to counter fear when we have tools for navigating disruption.  Not panicking is an excellent place to start.


What are you navigating?  Looking for reinforcements?  Check out private coaching at inclusive pricing rates.  We get stuff done.  We find ways forward.  There is always a way.

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