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Inciting Bravery - The realities of promoting risk-taking

Part 1 - What are we talking about?

Courage is considered by most to be a vital firefighter trait, and its lack has been cited by some as the cause of a decline in fire service effectiveness. Whether it's a perceived pre-occupation with safety, or a choice of fire control tactics that are considered less valiant, the willingness of our members to display sufficient bravery in the pursuit of protecting life and property has been called into question. Unfortunately, an attribute that is completely subjective and unquantifiable, while at the same time ascribed by the public to virtually every firefighter just for being a member of this revered service, poses significant difficulties when attempting to determine the proper amount to include in a “recipe” for success. That assumes, of course, that its quantity is even subject to adjustment.

My general thoughts on courage in the fire service were best summed up by Chief Edward F. Croker of the FDNY, speaking upon the death of a deputy chief and four firefighters in February of 1908:

          Firemen are going to get killed. When they join the department they face
          that fact. When a man becomes a fireman his greatest act of bravery has
          been accomplished. What he does after that is all in the line of work.
          They were not thinking of getting killed when they went where death lurked.
          They went there to put the fire out, and got killed. Firefighters do not regard
          themselves as heroes because they do what the business requires.

Except for the gender-specific terminology, those sentiments still ring true to me over a hundred years later. I think it fair to generalize that ALL firefighters have the desire to avoid their own injury and death, yet accept that those goals are not always achieved as we "do what the business requires”. It is our continued willingness to serve in spite of the risks that renders us all heroes.

The public, on the other hand, seems to see everything we do as brave, with “running towards danger” being a commonly-uttered, awe-inspired phrase describing our zeal. Chief Croker’s words notwithstanding, I would suggest there are lots of things drawing the average firefighter to a blaze besides courage, to include the associated excitement, honor, and opportunity to utilize (finally) the skills we have been practicing so long and hard, each of which this writer has felt at one time or another. Not that any of those motivations are wrong, but we need to be careful not to buy into the gushing praise of our fans too deeply.

It is also important, I believe, to keep in perspective the unique tools and capabilities available to modern firefighters. The proper use of PPE, SCBA, and H2O allow us to enter, control, and survive environments that would quickly kill any human who lacked our gear and skills. The fact that we, too, could die if there were a significant failure of any of those protections, or a more severe environment than we were capable of managing (structural collapse being merely one example), may be cause for self satisfaction, but many who operate in similarly hazardous environments (e.g., electrical linemen, tree trimmers, commercial divers) also base their lives upon their equipment, procedures, and skill, usually without the associated public esteem. Firefighters, of course, belong to a much smaller category of risk-takers who do so in an attempt to immediately help other people, and without charge, so that our actions might be appreciated as much for their efficiency and charity as for any perceived fearlessness on our part.

Now, lets put some things on the table: I consider myself courageous, as least as much as the next firefighter, and I think most of us share that self-opinion. If that attribute is not in our nature, we can at least muster it sufficiently to do our jobs. I have known excellent firefighters who were afraid of heights, but overcame that fear every time they were required to ascend a ladder; and it’s only natural to feel at least a pang of hesitation before heading into a zero-visibility IDLH. The reality, though, is that no one can accurately measure the amount of fortitude and fearlessness that another person brings to a firefight.

Sure, we can, and do, make judgements based upon our observations of other persons’ actions, but that is an inherently-biased assessment, utilizing, as it must, our opinion as the standard of what should have been the correct approach. This evaluation is often further clouded by our knowledge of the outcome. If a fire is managed differently than we believed we would have chosen, especially if that operation did not end well, the persons involved were obviously negligent in their choice and/or execution of tactics, and lacking in either intelligence or motivation.

Furthermore, the benchmark used to “rate” others’ performance is not only subjective, but constantly changing. For example, firefighting not so long ago did not include the use of SCBA, which were considered to be a hindrance to a quick attack (probably because we often kept them stored in suitcases in the apparatus compartments), or fire-resistive turnout gear, which had not yet been developed (water repellency then being considered a more important attribute), so that even the most “aggressive” firefighters today might be viewed as timid if judged by firefighters of yore. That evolution is occurring even more rapidly now, with the benchmark for what constitutes competent fire control having been significantly challenged in the past few years alone (See MFA 20: The New Standard? at

So, we think it important, are all assumed to have it, and cannot measure it. Why are we talking about it? Oh yeah - many of us believe we need even more. While this is typically phrased as a concern that firefighters are overly-cautious, no one is suggesting we abandon our use of PPE, SCBA, or H2O in pursuit of greater efficiency, so the implication is that we just need to be bolder. Put another way, the idea being promoted by some is that if firefighters were less concerned with their own well being, and more focused on accomplishing our mission of protecting life and property, then they would be more effective.

The next installment of Inciting Bravery will look at what methods are available for increasing our individual and collective levels of heroic instinct. As always, your comments and feedback are encouraged. I will leave you with another quote from Chief Croker, circa 1910, that, I believe, best describes the power of courage in our actions:

          I have no ambition in this world but one, and that is to be a fireman.
          The position may, in the eyes of some, appear to be a lowly one; but
          we who know the work which the fireman has to do believe that his is
          a noble calling. Our proudest moment is to save lives. Under the impulse
          of such thoughts, the nobility of the occupation thrills us and stimulates
          us to deeds of daring, even of supreme sacrifice.

Anything that can motivate us in the face of death deserves our attention.

Next installment: Inciting Bravery Part 2 - Can we even increase it?


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