Thursday, October 17, 2013

Teaching an Old Dog...

As a line officer and incident commander, I often try to view our ongoing operations from our customers’ point of view.  After all, it is probably one of the worst moments of their lives, and any little thing we can do to help make these moments seem brighter will help their adjustment and recovery from their misfortune.  The other evening, I was speaking with a friend and was reminded of an incident where I tried to do just that.  

It was a reported kitchen fire in a little one-block deep cul-de-sac just a few blocks from the station.  I happened to arrive first and assume command of the incident.  The fire was a fairly insignificant, stove top job with a little cabinet scarring, but nothing a PW couldn’t take down.  The first in engine stretched a line to the front door, but it was never charged.  The light gray wisp of smoke out the front door and window prompted the crews to grab a fan while others isolated energy to the cook top and checked for any extension.  

The foot traffic of responders up and down the driveway toward the front steps kicked up a big, fancy black strap with small, but expensive-looking electronic device on it and figured it was something important that the tenants dropped during their hasty evacuation.  I picked it up so our jakes in boots wouldn’t stomp it up and wreck it.  I was all about property conservation from fire, but particularly from firemen!  My pride picked up even more when I discovered another one along the other side of the driveway, so I snatched that one as well. 

It only took about 5 minutes to secure the building, during which time I was systematically dismissing units from the call.  When only the first engine remained and was packing up the hose bed, I decided it was time to speak with the homeowners.  A quick peek inside the kitchen gave me a good idea of the damage, as well as the origin.  I learned long ago that the first thing people ask is, “how bad is it?”  I wanted to be able to prepare them mentally before they saw for themselves.  I asked the police officer (who arrived on the scene ahead of me and was now parked in by the apparatus) where the homeowners had gone, and he pointed me across the street to the neighbor’s porch. 

I made eye contact with them and turned to start walking their way to gather information for my report.  So many things began to race through my mind in the next few seconds.  This incident seemed like a typical household accident or moment of forgetfulness that invited the fire gods to come pay them a visit.  However, the look of fear on their faces immediately concerned me.  Were they thinking they would be arrested?  Should they be arrested?  Am I missing something?  These folks were petrified with a fear whose source I still did not know.  Perhaps I should have reassured them sooner.  I usually make contact with a distressed homeowner as soon as I am able, but this event was literally over in minutes, and this was my first opportunity to check in with them.  Were they mad at me for ignoring them?  Did we do something wrong?
I stopped in the driveway briefly to answer a quick question from one of the fellas, but then began my stride down the driveway toward the neighbor’s porch.  The homeowners held up their hand as if to tell me to stop, and that they didn’t want to speak with me.  What was their problem?  They have no idea how nice a guy I am.  Just shut up and let me come talk about your fire so we can go home and resume watching Monday Night Football.  Besides, I am the fire chief and if I want to come speak …        BZZZZZACK-        HOLYMOTHEROFGODWHATDAHELLWASTHAT!   
As the homeowners cringed and covered their eyes in horror, I was struck.  I saw a blurry white flash, and yelped out some unintelligible expletive with any air I had in my lungs.  I felt the hairs in my nose curl up, and I am pretty sure I peed myself a little inside my bunker pants.  The pain was instant and unbearable and I vibrated violently as I staggered into the street.
As my head cleared, I realized that those homeowners didn’t fear me… they feared FOR me!  As it turned out, I was the only one among us who was ignorant to the existence of their invisible fence.  I had completely forgotten that I was still clutching not one, but two shock collars.  They had been lying dangerously in the driveway because the responsible pet owners knew enough to take them off their dogs before walking them across the street to get away from the fire.  Apparently, the jolt required to train Great Danes is rather significant.  Twice that jolt was certainly enough to train a dumb fire chief.

As you may imagine, our conversation began with a mixture of humility and apology.  Once my fist relaxed enough to release my grip on these buggers, I dropped them in the street and never touched them again.  I couldn’t hold my pen worth a damn, and I could barely remember what street we were on.  I wasn’t about to rely on my memory, so I was not even asking them the standard report informational questions.  I simply invited them back into their house for a review of what we had done for them, and explained that I would call them in the morning to gather their pertinent info. 

I have run some challenging calls during my career, but this one was RUFF!