Taking ownership: 'If it's not your emergency, then whose is it?'

An argument to take ownership of emergencies, with a "go-now/go-later" mentality


By Philip Clark

The fire service is full of clichés used to remind us that we must maintain composure on scene, and not get overly involved in the emotional aspect of the job. Such phrases are necessary to help us compartmentalize the job away from the rest of our lives. They help us to maintain a distance between our heart and our brain and help us to make better decisions from a tactical position instead of an emotional one.

One of the most frequently used phrases is, “This is not your emergency.” This is usually said in response to someone being overly excited about “getting in there.”

Firefighters are trained to size-up a structure to make a go/no-go decision as to whether to enter a burning building. (Photo/John Odegard)
Firefighters are trained to size-up a structure to make a go/no-go decision as to whether to enter a burning building. (Photo/John Odegard)

While I agree that professionalism and composure are important aspects to producing a favorable outcome, I disagree with the underlying tone of this message. If it’s not your emergency, then whose is it? This emergency became your emergency the minute you responded to the call for help.

A car repair comparison

Imagine that your car breaks down. You know how to do some repairs, like changing the oil or the breaks, but this is a bigger problem, so you take your car to your local mechanic.

The mechanic looks at the condition of car and tells you, “I’ll do my best.” You enter into a contract with the mechanic, whether written or understood through precedence, to repair your car to the best of their ability. The mechanic is, after all, the local expert on fixing these types of problems.

However, when the car is returned to you, a new reality sets in. Even though you paid to get the car fixed, and even though the mechanic promised you that he would do everything possible to fix your car, the mechanic ultimately decided that the damage was too serious to even attempt to even attempt to fix. The mechanic then tells you in an unemotional response that you that there was nothing that could be done to save the car, and you’ll have to find a new one. Your anger at the mechanic’s lack of concern about your transportation emergency is met with a response that they did the best they could, but this is not "their emergency."

This is similar to what we tell the public when we say that a fire isn’t our emergency. They have called us because they can no longer fix the problem, and they are asking for us to come take over and fix the problem.

When we respond to the call for help, we are entering a contract with the public. They are expecting us to make it our emergency. We, as firefighters, have promised them that we will do exactly that. We must be willing not only to take on their emergency as our own, but also to give that emergency as much determination and dedication as we would if it were our own house on fire.

Current mindset: Go/no-go decision-making

Now, I should clarify: I am not saying that we should through all caution to the wind and charge into every house fire with a “never give up, never surrender” mentality. Instead, I am saying that what we need to do is become such masters of our craft that we are able to quickly and accurately assess a situation, make a determination about the risks verses benefits of making a strong and coordinated interior attack, mitigate every possible risk we can and, finally, after all of those steps have been completed, come to a conclusion that if there is any possibility of a victim being alive inside the structure, make an intelligent and aggressive attack on the fire. Ideally, this decision-making process will happen within the first few seconds of arriving on the scene.

So, the question becomes: How can we make such an important and critical decision in such a short amount of time? The answer comes back to the original point. Make it YOUR emergency.

'Owning' the emergency

There is a scene in the movie “Back to the Future Part II” when Old Biff is sitting in the driver’s seat of Young Biff’s car. Young Biff doesn’t know that Old Biff is, in fact, him – from the future. Old Biff starts the car, causing Young Biff to exclaim, “Nobody can start this car but me!” The reason that Old Biff can start the car is that it is HIS car. When he found himself in the driver’s seat, he knew how to start the car because he had been there before. He knew what to do because he had previous experience in the matter. It was HIS car. We should take the same approach when we arrive on the scene of an emergency. This scene isn’t one that looks like ours, it is ours.

It would be easy enough to pull up to a well involved fire and say, “well, there’s no going in there.” But what if it was your house? What if it was your heirlooms and photo albums burning? Worse yet, what if it was your mother, your grandmother, your sibling or your child? Instead, we should be pulling up on scene like Biff Tannen, knowing that no one can start this car but us. No one can handle this emergency but us. Why? Because it is our emergency. So, if we can acknowledge that it is our emergency, are we then willing to put in the time and effort to handle our emergency the way it should be handled?

Retired U.S. Navy SEAL and author Jocko Willink once said, "When a team takes ownership of its problems, the problem gets solved. It is true on the battlefield, it is true in business, and it is true in life." While Willink is speaking of taking ownership of problems, such as mistakes and shortcomings, I believe the principle can easily be applied to this topic as well. If the team – that is, the crew that arrives to the emergency – takes ownership of it and claims it as their own, the emergency is more likely to be contained effectively. Conversely, if the team arrives and writes off the emergency as "not their emergency," then they are less likely to give it their all.

A new mindset: Go-now/go-later decision-making

Firefighting is a dangerous and inherently risky job. I understand that I signed up to do a dangerous job, and I am going to give my all to the job. It has been said of sizing-up a structure that a go/no-go decision must be made before we enter a burning building. The idea is that we weigh the risk of entering against the likelihood that our crews could get hurt. I agree with this concept, but I disagree with its delivery.

I feel that this idea would be better defined as a go-now/go-later question. Should we pull a cross-lay off the truck, make entry, and hit the seat of the fire, or should we start with the deck gun through a window or an exterior transitional attack to reset the fire and then make entry? When there is a possibility of a victim trapped inside, I believe no-go should be the very last resort. When there is a known victim inside, no-go shouldn’t even be in our vocabulary.

We know how to solve the problem

Remember this the next time you hear someone say, "It’s not our emergency." The truth is that it may not have started out as our emergency, but once the bells go off and the apparatus rolls out, it is no longer their emergency; it is ours. We have signed up to make it our emergency. The public expects us to make it our emergency. We are the only ones who know how to solve their problem. We are the only ones who know how to start Biff’s car, because we own it. It is our car. It is our emergency.

Editor's Note: Do you agree with Philip Clark? Let us know how you see community emergencies in the comments below or at editor@firerescue1.com.

About the author
Philip Clark began his fire service career in 2002 as a volunteer and has worked for several volunteer and combination departments since that time. He currently resides in Dallas, North Carolina, where he serves as captain over training for the Town of Dallas Fire Department. He is also a full-time paramedic for the Mecklenburg EMS Agency (MEDIC) in Charlotte.

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