I really try to drive home the idea during drills that if your gut tells you something isn't right, it probably isn't. Our brains have a way of collecting data and storing it for later recall — just do a search on "recognition primed decision" on the Internet. Essentially, this recall often manifests itself in your gut, which is sometimes smarter than your head.
Most people will tell you that I'm a pretty optimistic individual. So, for the most part, my head thinks things will go well, regardless of what my gut may be telling me. I believe in people and organizations and their collective ability to make positive change for both themselves and others. But even with this optimistic attitude, I also tell firefighters during training that when everything seems to be going well on an incident, that's when something is just waiting to knock you down, figuratively and sometimes literally.
Up until very recently I could have told you that I live a pretty charmed life. Great family, great job, great firehouse and many other blessings. Everything just going very well indeed; I should have known the sucker punch was coming. At the end of July, my eight-year-old son started to show some signs of growing a little too quickly so my wife took him to our pediatrician. Within a few days they informed us of the brain tumor growing within our child.
While we await word from several hospitals, we remain hopeful of a very positive outcome for our son and quite frankly ourselves. But, needless to say, this burgeoning crisis has created a lot of opportunity for reevaluation of priorities and introspection. What we do and how we do it will never be the same.
After a short amount of time, I contacted our chiefs and fellow officers to let them know that I wasn't sure about my ability to participate as an officer. I was unsure as to how much my son's treatment would require and how many doctors we'd be seeing and where they were located. As usual they told me not to worry about anything and take care of my family, and not to forget that my second family — the fire department — was there to help.
Firehouse escape I did discover that the firehouse provided some escape and whenever my son is asleep for the evening I continue to go on calls. However, I quickly realized that I couldn't put myself in a position where I would leave my wife alone to deal with my son's health crisis or have her have to deal with both his care and my own. I informed my chiefs that I wasn't in a position to give them everything I had given them in the past, particularly with regard to interior attack.
Certainly dangers exist around the fire service — as they do at varying levels of all activities — but we do have some control.
About a week after I made this comment to my chiefs, which they understood and were clearly supportive of, I found myself asking a few questions: Were the things I've now decided I can't do any less dangerous than before my son's illness? Was I more willing before this news to allow my wife to face the financial, emotional and family stress of life without me, than I was now?
The reality is that our time in the fire service is fraught with danger. As the recent reports from the United States Fire Administration point out, that danger doesn't just occur in a burning building. And, if what we do does have physical and emotional consequences, does that mean we must simply accept what comes and not worry about its impact on our loved ones and community?
The reality, I now realize, is that what my fire department does now and what I do in that department as a line officer didn't change with my son's diagnoses. What has changed is how I look at my ability to control those dangers. I cannot recall a time in my life when I felt less in control then I have over the last several weeks. I believe this lack of control in my son's wellbeing transmitted itself to my perceived control on the fireground. Upon further reflection, I realize I have greater control than I ever gave myself credit for.
Certainly dangers exist around the fire service — as they do at varying levels of all activities — but we do have some control. As a line officer there is much I can do and in no particular order they include reading, drilling, helping our members learn more to support the team, exercising, eating right, preplanning, learning-practicing-evaluating SOPs and I'm sure even more. These activities take a great deal of the unknown out of the situations we face.
I believe that my son will be well again. I believe my family will be stronger for the experience. I believe I will be a better person and officer from all of this. But I also believe that neither I, nor anyone else, look to become injured or killed; yet we don't all look to do all we can to ensure this doesn't happen. I know I will and must do more to increase my control over the unknown.
Tom LaBelle serves as an assistant chief with the Wynantskill (N.Y.) Fire Department where he is responsible for training. He has been employed by the New York State Association of Fire Chiefs since 1995. Prior to joining NYSAFC, Asst. Chief LaBelle served as the legislative director for the New York State Assembly's Sub Committee on Fire Protection Services. He provides support for career and volunteer departments from the nations largest to smallest. He currently sits as a voting member on the NFPA 1720 committee. He is a certified fire instructor and fire officer. Chief LaBelle can be reached via email at Tom.Labelle@FireRescue1.com.
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