Several months ago I was listening to a local fire radio emergency response frequency. A fire department had just been dispatched to what at first sounded like a routine call. The responding Assistant Fire Chief was on the air, sounding very professional. As he approached the scene, he discovered that he had a very serious emergency on his hands. The tone of his voice changed, to the point where within a couple of minutes, he was literally screaming on the radio. You have all probably heard the expression, “Panic is contagious.” This was a classic example. The voices on the radios of some of the incoming units started showing emotion in their radio transmissions. The Assistant Chief immediately called for mutual aid and then had even more trouble communicating with his own units due to the radio interference. I guess he thought by screaming loudly, he would over-ride the interference. It did not work. A lot of, “Please repeat your message” soon took place.
Several minutes later I arrived on the scene and observed what can only be described as chaos. Eventually some junior officers and a former Chief started to bring some organization to the incident, and the Incident Commander started become calmer as the emergency started to wind down. I did not say anything to the Chief, but I did suggest that he get a copy of the tape of the radio transmissions and that maybe they should critique the call.
A couple of weeks later, this individual stopped in to see me; and he stated that while the department did not have a formal critique, he discussed the incident with his officers. He also told me that he had listened to the tape. He then asked me if I suggested he get a copy of the tape due to the way he sounded on the radio. I just smiled at him; I did not say “yes” or “no.” However, I asked him to observe some footage of a video and audio of the pilot of a commercial airliner that crashed in Sioux City, Iowa several years ago. This pilot epitomizes coolness under fire. He knew they were going to crash and that it was highly likely he would die, along with all of his passengers and crew. Yet, in the final minutes of his approach to the airport, his voice sounded like he was taking part in a training exercise. When an air traffic controller told him a specific runway was cleared for his landing, he actually joked saying, “Specific runway? We are just hoping to make the airport!” The pilot and his team did bring the plane down. He survived with injuries, and about half of the people on board survived. The fact that he did not panic and stayed cool, I am sure, contributed to their survival.
I have been listening to this specific Assistant Chief since then, and I have been proud of his performance. On a couple of occasions he started to lose it but got control of himself, established command, and did a good job managing the incident.
I knew a Chief once who was highly trained and really knew his stuff. Unfortunately, every time he saw heavy smoke or flames, all of his knowledge would go out the window; and he would start screaming. By the time he reached his late 50’s, he finally started to calm down; but for those serving under him, major incidents were quite an ordeal.
Not everyone has the inner fortitude or emotional makeup to function calmly in extremely stressful situations. Not everyone has the ability to make sound decisions under extremely stressful conditions. Not everyone has all the necessary attributes to be a competent Fire Chief. If you serve with someone who does, consider your organization fortunate, and learn as much from him or her as possible!