Now do not call up your mother and tell her I was picking on you, but I've got some bad news. You're not special. You might be a good person, citizen, firefighter or EMT, but that doesn't make you special and let me tell you what I mean.
Any of you who read this column with some frequency know a few things about me by now. One of those things is that I'm a Cub Scout leader with my son's Scout Den. There is a fair amount of prep work necessary for a good meeting. It can be frustrating and annoying, but ultimately a lot of fun and very fulfilling. In fact it's a lot like being an officer in a fire department.
One of the items we were recently covered with the boys was drug and alcohol abuse. At this meeting we finished up with a story that we were told came from Native American folklore. Now I don't know if that's true, but it got the boys' attention and will hopefully get yours as well.
There was a young boy in a small village at the base of a mountain in the Adirondack Mountains. Everyone in the village always told the boy how smart and brave he was and that he would grow up to be a great leader. He was told this his whole life, by all he met, and he began to believe it was true.
Each year in the village, the young men in the fall of their 15th year would travel to the high peaks, all on their own. When they came down they were considered men by the village elders. Our young boy was only 13 years old and he saw all the 15-year-olds coming back and he thought that since he was so special, he shouldn't have to wait.
So, he told his mother he was going up all by himself. She and all the others said it was OK. He was special, and he would be fine. But they also told him that the winter was coming, and he should bring a blanket to stay warm. So he grabbed a blanket and some food, and headed up to the mountaintops.
As he got above the treeline, high in the mountains, there was snow on the ground. When he got to the peak of the first mountain, he found a rattlesnake was coiled at the top. The snake was near death from the cold. The snake spoke to the boy and asked the boy to wrap him in a blanket, and bring him down off the mountain.
The boy said, "No," of course. He told the snake that he had been warned about the dangers of rattlesnakes. But the snake reminded the boy that everyone said the boy was special, and he assured the boy that he would never bite such a special person. Well, the boy wrapped the snake up, and carried him down the mountain.
As the boy laid the snake down in a field, the snake coiled and bit the boy. The boy looked at the snake in shock as it slithered away. The boy cried in horror that the snake had promised him that he was special. The snake simply replied, "I'm a snake, it's what I do."
We explained to the boys that when it came to drugs and alcohol, no matter how special they were, it just didn't matter.
I began to think about how often we think of ourselves as special, different or outside the realm of those who get injured. How often do we hear or say, "It won't happen here," or "We don't need to train like the big departments," or "We don't get fires like that."
All of these excuses are simply ignorant to the reality of fire and the dangers we can and will encounter at some point in our time in the fire service. We're not special. The fire won't care if you volunteer or get paid. It won't care if you're a parent. It won't care if you're about to get married. It certainly won't care if you haven't had enough time to train, read up, drill and prepare. The fire will move, it will undermine the structural integrity of the building, and it will bite you — that's what it does.
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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