Manage the crazy – it’s what firefighters do

With training and experience, firefighters have a huge advantage in dealing with strange and difficult situations

Unfortunately, the news story wasn’t really all that new.

An intoxicated woman on a flight from Florida to Tennessee became disruptive, made lewd remarks to other passengers, assaulted flight attendants, and tried to open the emergency door on the plane. Crewmembers were finally able to handcuff her and put her in a vacant seat for the flight’s duration.

But it was the next sentence in the article that caught my attention: “An off-duty firefighter who happened to be on the plane then sat next to her to keep her calm.”

"This natural openness that many people have to firefighters presents a huge opportunity and advantage when dealing with difficult and strange situations," Willing writes. (Photo/FEMA)

Isn’t that just like a firefighter?

It’s not just that firefighters are good people. With few exceptions, they are. And it’s not just that they are ready to help when help is needed. Studies show that most people are willing to help given certain circumstances. The difference, I think, is that firefighters are the first to step up when things really get weird.

It goes with the territory. Firefighters get called to respond for any imaginable reason (and some that are frankly beyond imagination). Get any group of firefighters together for any period of time and talk will inevitably go to the strangest calls they have been on. The guy stuck in a chimney. The woman having an out-of-body experience. The squirrel attack.

And it’s not just that firefighters are willing to step up. Through temperament, training and experience, they are often able to do some real good in those bizarre situations that might confound or intimidate others.

I remember one time my partner and I were called to some vague medical emergency in a squalid apartment where the resident was reportedly very agitated. As we were entering the building, I answered a follow-up radio call from dispatch that told me we should not enter the apartment without police backup, as the resident was unstable and potentially dangerous. But the information came too late – my partner had already made contact with the patient. I went into the apartment to warn him and found the two of them sitting on the couch, talking like old friends.

People inherently trust firefighters. The profession does not carry with it the kind of media and historical baggage that weighs on law enforcement officers. Firefighters are not threatening; they mostly do not carry weapons. They can’t arrest anyone. They drive around in cool trucks. A lot of kids fantasize about being them one day.

This natural openness that many people have to firefighters presents a huge opportunity and advantage when dealing with difficult and strange situations. Bizarre people like firefighters and firefighters are not put off by the bizarre – in fact, they thrive on it. And they quickly learn that they are in a unique position to do some good when things are really spinning out of control. With training and experience, they can act in ways that are not available for others.

So it’s no surprise to me that a firefighter volunteered to sit next to a problem passenger on a plane. I can just imagine the dynamic – the handcuffed, drunk woman and the amiable, calm firefighter chatting about the weather in Nashville.

That’s just what firefighters do. And that is worth celebrating as another challenging year begins.

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