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from Matt Tobia,
You walk into the firehouse to the sound of raised voices. In a firehouse, that is not terribly uncom- mon, and sometimes blowing off a little steam
can be a good thing, especially in a world filled with
long periods of boredom punctuated by moments of
intense activity. In this case, however, you instantly
assess that this is much more than just a disagreement
over football scores. On entering the kitchen, you are
confronted with a serious situation: a company officer
literally standing between two firefighters who are
about to physically tear each other’s heads off. Mayday!
“What the hell is going on?” you ask in a voice that
unquestionably signals your entrance into the room.
Suddenly, everyone is silent. “Nothing, chief.” Clearly,
this is not nothing. You call the company officer into the
office to get the story. You should already be thinking
about several things: First and foremost, if the tones go
off right now, can this company respond? You should
have a plan in your head to have the company replaced
on a call should they be dispatched in the moments
needed to determine what is going on in the station. You
should be prepared to place the company out of service
or run short, depending on the staffing in the station.
The officer tells you that earlier today the crew was sent
to the local Veterans of Foreign Wars (VFW) post for a
homecoming event for a local military veteran returning
from a war zone. As the service started, a band began to
play the national anthem, and all members of the engine
company stood at attention, shoulder to shoulder, in
front of the wagon—except one member. As the music
started, the member turned his back on the crowd assembled at the event and stood silently, facing the engine.
As soon as the national anthem concluded, the member
turned around and resumed his position with the other
members of the company. This evoked extremely strong
emotions in the rest of the company and in the eyes of
the public. After the event concluded, the officer hustled
the members back onto the engine and returned to the
station, where the barely controlled emotions boiled over.
That’s about the time that you entered the firehouse. To
complicate matters, the member who turned his back …
is a combat veteran of the same war. Ready? Go.
The scenario just described is not fantasy. As an officer,
you must be prepared for the day when you will be
confronted with a personnel issue that is so extreme it
will rival a fireground Mayday. Have you ever been on
the fireground when a Mayday is called? Chaos ensues
as personnel scramble to address a bad situation. In
recent years, the fire service has come to realize that, for
incident commanders to have any chance of successfully
navigating a Mayday, a basic checklist is essential. The
main goal of such checklists is to ensure that some criti-
cal element is not missed.
A Mayday event is dramatically different when viewed
through the prism of a company officer’s eyes vs. a chief
officer’s, and when placed under intense pressure we
revert to functioning in a way we can rely on without
thinking. This happens unconsciously, and we are blind
to it while it is occurring. This exact situation can occur
off the fireground. A classic example of this can be found
when captains are asked to act out of class as the BC.
What is your checklist for dealing with a critical person-
nel issue that confronts you without any warning?
Having a checklist for wicked personnel issues is as
important as having one for the fireground. Before you
can begin to assess the scope and breadth of the issue,
consider the following:
1. Do I need to take the company out of service? If
so, how do I do that, what is my authority, and
how do I ensure service to the public?
2. Do I need to send anyone home? Do I have that
authority? What kind of leave will they be placed
on? Can I compel them to use their own leave
and, if so, what type?
3. Should I allow them to drive themselves? Are
they safe to be alone? Are they at risk for harming
themselves or others?
4. Who can help me navigate this situation? Never
go it alone.
The time to figure out that you are going to face a
personnel Mayday event is not five seconds after it
occurs—by then it is far too late. Holding the title of
“officer” requires a lot more than mashing the foot pedal
on the “Q” and talking on the radio. Instead, mental
war-game this scenario (talk it out with other officers of
the same/higher ranks), and develop a plan to prevent it
from happening without destroying the esprit de corps of
your company and without abridging the first amendment rights of your members. Once you figure this one
out, I have plenty more where this one came from.
Matthew Tobia is an assistant chief with Loudoun County (VA) Fire
and Rescue and is a 29-year veteran of emergency services. He can
be reached at email@example.com.
Mayday! Mayday! Mayday!
Recognizing that not all critical incidents
occur on the fireground