By Timothy E. Sendelbach
Published Wednesday, August 22, 2012
| From the September 2012 Issue of FireRescue
It’s a scenario that repeats itself in nearly every firehouse throughout the country: Well after midnight, the crew is sleeping off the effects of an indulgent dinner, when the house alarm rings for a medical call. Gasps of “Damn it, Bella” echo throughout the dorm room as the crew recognizes the address of one of their well-known callers. Ms. Bella is, once again, short of breath and needs a shot of O2.
As the crew arrives, they’re met with the all-too-familiar site of a rickety old house littered with 50 years of priceless processions stacked wall-to-wall among debris and ashtrays. Shoulder-wide trails lead from room to room, granting Ms. Bella immediate access to her two constants in life: her O2 supply and her lifelong vice—cigarettes.
The crew makes their way down the narrow path toward Ms. Bella’s bedroom, following a trail of green tubing that leads directly to her bedside. Sitting upright with an exaggerated gasp and a hoarse voice, Ms. Bella informs the enthusiastic crew that she’s run out of oxygen and needs urgent medical attention.
Like a team of Nordstrom’s associates armed with the tools of para-medicine, the crew rips open a fresh nasal cannula and relieves their distressed neighbor with a hit of oxygen—two liters no less. A quick call to the local medical supply company to arrange for an immediate replacement of her empty O2 supply, and Ms. Bella is back on her feet, tromping down the trails of her homey confines in search of a cigarette (despite the crew’s repeated warnings) to relieve the stress of this evening’s event.
As I look back on incidents like this, I find myself asking the obvious: Why is it that people like Ms. Bella do what they do? Ms. Bella knows very well that smoking is compromising her health and putting her at risk. I know she knows this, because we’ve told her 100 times. She knows that living in the confines of a cluttered home increases her risk of becoming a fire victim. Yet Ms. Bella finds a way to look beyond the obvious and justify her risky habits.
After a recent safety presentation I gave, a longtime fire chief asked me if I was open for some constructive criticism. “Your message is good, but you’ve got to go deeper than that,” the chief said. “The problem facing the fire service is something called ‘cognitive dissonance.’ In short, we know what the problem is, but we rationalize or explain away the conflicting thoughts to justify our actions.”
As I packed up my computer to leave, I started thinking about what the chief said, and I had to agree. We know that not wearing a seatbelt is dangerous and puts us at risk. We know that driving fast, not wearing our SCBA while conducting overhaul/roof operations, wearing dirty turnout gear or operating offensively at a defensive fire puts us at risk, but somehow, some way, we find a way to mentally—and sometimes verbally—justify our actions and the risks these actions impose.
Oddly enough, we’re quick to express our frustration and point out the obvious faults of folks like Ms. Bella, but if we look in the mirror, the disturbing truth reflects right back at us: We’re rationalizing, explaining away our own mental conflicts (facts, statistics and countless close calls or fatalities) as well.
For the past year, there’s been a lively debate in the fire service—borne out in magazines, online articles and conference presentations—regarding the use of what’s perceived to be “less aggressive” tactics (i.e., transitional attack—hitting it from the outside first). Many have claimed that we’re not performing our sworn duties by deploying these “less aggressive,” non-traditional tactics.
Research and data have disproven many tactical myths and firehouse “fish stories.” Yet despite the overwhelming evidence, some still stand opposed to the change and choose to stick with tactics that were once regarded as correct, tactics that in some cases may put us at greater risk if wrongly deployed on the modern fireground (e.g., horizontal ventilation of a fuel-enriched fire).
The message is pretty simple: The next time you attend a training session or read about a new tactic, take a moment to consider Ms. Bella and the fact that on a daily basis she is able to rationalize in her mind something that will eventually prove fatal despite the overwhelming evidence she sees and experiences every day.
The concept of cognitive dissonance is a reality for the fire service. We as firefighters and fire officers need to do our best to overcome the mental conflicts we face by demonstrating that with change, new opportunities are born—opportunities that have the strong likelihood of enhancing our safety and effectiveness while allowing us to achieve our “sworn duty” at a higher level.
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