Firefighters make a big difference doing small things

Those little acts of kindness are both easy to do and easy to overlook, but make a huge difference to those having their worst day

A news story was circulating recently on the Internet about a Cal Fire crew working on the massive wildfires in Northern California. The crew was assigned to protect homes in the wildland-urban interface but found that some of the homes had been overcome by fire prior to their arrival.

They did their best, but homes were lost.

The news story was about what this crew did after the fire. Unable to save a particular home, they left a note in the mailbox that read: "Sorry about your home. It was already on fire when we showed up. We moved your trucks to the other side of the road. Thanks for leaving the keys."

The family that found this note had lost almost everything in the fire. Yet the note had a huge impact on them. "I cried. That was the first time I cried," said the homeowner. "It was really special that they cared enough to do that."

One earring
How long did it take for this crew to write that note — two minutes, five minutes? Making this gesture to the family was an easy thing to do. Yet not doing it would have been just as easy in the larger scheme of things.

It is hard to overemphasize the power of small actions when people are in crisis. I remember an apartment complex fire we responded to years ago. One of the units was a complete loss.

There was nothing but charred debris and ashes left, and the resident had no insurance. She was beyond devastated — she appeared completely traumatized at the scene.

During overhaul, I was combing through the debris and happened to uncover a single earring. It did not look particularly valuable and I did not find its mate.

But when I presented it to that woman at the scene, you'd have thought I had handed her a million dollars. It was the only thing recovered from her lost home.

6 tips
There are so many opportunities for firefighters to make a difference through small action. Anyone can do it, but company officers can set the expectation that such actions be looked for and taken. They can look for opportunities to make a small difference in any encounter with the public, and they can empower their crew members to do the same.

There are so many ways to reach out to people who are having the worst day of their lives.

  • Ask for their names, and tell them yours.
  • Take care of their possessions as if they were your own.
  • Be kind to their children.
  • Look after their pets.
  • Express sincere condolences about their loss.
  • Don't act like you're having fun in front of people who have just lost everything.

Perhaps most importantly, provide them with resources to start on the path to recovery from their loss. During larger incidents, those resources may be already on scene — the Red Cross, local support and welfare groups. Such resources may not be activated for smaller incidents — a room-and-contents fire, the traumatic injury of one family member or the death of an elderly parent.

Senior services
Know what services are available in your community for emergencies of all types and magnitudes. And don't just know who to call in name only, but do some research on these resources before you need them.

Give the organizations a call, or better yet, go meet with representatives in person. Make it a training opportunity. Ask what kinds of support they are able to provide and how those services can be activated. Then share the information you gather with others on the department.

We did this with the local office of Senior Services when I was a fire officer. This office had existed for years, yet the fire department had never engaged directly with those who worked there. When we finally did, the information we gained was invaluable.

Not only were we more effective in responding to calls with elderly residents, but we also had a place where we could refer individuals for additional aid beyond what we could offer. This partnership in care allowed people to get the help they most needed, and also lessened their use of the 911 system. Everyone came out a winner.

Phone a friend
At the very least, firefighters can ask, "Is there someone I can call for you?" The presence of a family member, a neighbor, or a friend in a time of crisis can make all the difference in the world to someone.

But when someone has suffered a traumatic event or loss, they are sometimes paralyzed and not thinking of what should be done next. The fire crew can ask the question and make the contacts for that person when they need it most.

Fire crews have an opportunity to make a big difference — saving lives and property on a good day. But it's not just the big saves that count. On the worst day of someone's life, sometimes it is the smallest things that matter most.

Just ask that homeowner from California — he carries that note with him in his wallet all the time now.

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